Whispering Willows Review

Good Android games are complicated affairs. They bring together the challenges of traditional artistic media, and then some. Not only do you need strong writing and an engaging story, you need to include effective visuals (including lighting, characters, backgrounds and special effects), engaging sound design, and above all, excellent game mechanics. While a game may shine in any one of these categories, few excel in all of them. Whispering Willows, LA-based duo Night Light Interactive’s inaugural title, is not one such game. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to enthuse about… it just falls a little short of becoming a truly excellent title.

Whispering Willows is an eerie point-and-click adventure game, where you play as preteen Elena, searching for her father who disappeared in a haunted mansion. I say “eerie” instead of “horror” because the game’s aim isn’t to scare the sh** out of you. Rather, Willows tries to submerge you in a state of muted unease coupled with compulsive curiosity, where you are constantly aware of dangers afoot, but still feel a need to solve the mystery. Aesthetically, the game more than succeeds in maintaining this atmosphere. Aside from the cut-scenes (which unlike the live-action trailer, are just…meh), the hand-drawn visuals are excellent and evocative. A search through a haunted house and gardens is a rather tired trope, but the detailed backgrounds and moody lighting keep things nice and creepy. Visual surprises (such as a portrait that changes from a pleasant woman’s face to a screaming figure with demon arms) keep everything fresh. Further enhancing the eerie vibe is the sound design. The music, though a touch dramatic, is successful, and the creaking, dripping, hissing and gibbering noises sprinkled throughout the various locations are done just right: present enough to keep things eerie, but not too pervasive so as to become annoying. And while the characters you meet are a little cartoonish, they are well-drawn with interesting details. Whispering Willows is clearly a very pretty game, well-deserving of its “Most Immersive” award at the OUYA Create Game Jam.

The story, too, is also nicely done. Yes, it’s a little tired: little girl searching for a vanished father in a crumbling manor, disturbed Native American spirits, evil landowner yadda yadda… but Whispering Willows uses a familiar story to build on themes of the nature of evil and the imperfections in human nature. While character interactions are rather one-dimensional (though I wasn’t expecting a lot more from an indie point-and-click adventure), you can piece together the real story by picking up notes from around the manor and it’s grounds. This well-paced exposition, told from multiple perspectives, is the heart of the story. You can ignore them if you’re not a fan of TLDR content (does anyone actually read all the books in Skyrim or all the lore in Dragon Age, for example?), but you’d be missing out on a terrific story (again award-winning).

Unfortunately, it’s through these expository notes that the main flaw of the game is revealed: the game-play itself. For starters, the notes are randomly placed around the house with no explanation as to why they’re there. Why would the landlord’s journal be scattered everywhere? How are we reading the notes of a long-dead shaman? Where did the local dancer’s diary entries come from? What could have been done in a cool sort of way, i.e discovering information through media that are appropriate for their setting, is instead hand-waved in a “this is a game, here is lore” manner, which removes some of the immersive qualities of the game.

But the larger issue is that the game mechanics just aren’t used to their full potential. Your protagonist has the power to leave her body (“astral projection”) and interact with previously unseen ghosts, possess certain objects or squeeze through small places, but moments where these abilities are used cleverly are disappointingly rare. Usually, it’s a matter of laughably simple “go here, fetch this, move on to the next room” puzzles. This clash between clever challenges and tedious make-work most strongly appears in the final chapter [MILD SPOILER], where a tense moment of dodging demons that can only be seen within puffs of smoke and drips of water is followed by a damp squib of a climax that basically boils down to dialogue that tells you to press a key a few times.

Whispering Willows definitely had a lot of potential. If the game-play were given a little more attention, and the content bulked up a little (I finished the entire game in a little more than three hours), it would have entered the annals of excellent indie games. However, I still have hope for Night Light Interactive. After all, it’s only their first game. Maybe their next title will have corrected the mistakes of the first.