In an era where 2D sidescrollers and exploration games are potentially saturating the market, whether they be games such as Shovel Knight with Ducktales like elements, or even the Boulder Dash esque Steamworld Dig, it will take something different and intriguing to stand out amongst these successful titles. So does Whispering Willows do such a thing, or will it fade away into its own shadows?
The game is based around a young girl named Elena, who is on a mission to find her missing father in the dark corridors of Willows Mansion. Not long before the select screen and opening sequence does the game’s USP (that’s Unique Selling Point for those into abbreviations) come into play. Elena can detach her spirit to become a second character to move around the Mansion. This is achieved through her father’s Amulet, which transcends into the spiritual plain and allows Elena’s spirit not only to explore areas of the Mansion previously not possible but also to communicate with other members of the spiritual world not normally visible to mere mortals.
Is this as unique a gameplay element as the team behind Whispering Willows would like to think? Well strip away the “Casper on the SNES” ghost in a mansion element, and the ability to single-player control two characters to complete puzzles within confined maps has been done very well in recent years. Games such as “Ilomilo” and “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” have used this style of play very well previously. So Willows needed to really play on the spiritual and atmospheric elements to help make this stand out years after other titles had already played with this gameplay mechanic.
The way it achieves this is by literally detaching the two characters and giving them two different perspectives of the same puzzle. These perspectives alter for you as the player also, giving you visual cues of different routes, items that can be possessed and of course characters that the living would not be able to interact with. The amulet does let your living form become aware that characters are nearby by making it glow (and your controller’s HD Rumble in more intense pulses the closer to an NPC of the deceased kind you become). You can then detach yourself from the real world, speak to those who have been around the dead for some time and seen things that may help you progress. The HD Rumble at the time of reviewing was pretty intense and distracting, however we have been told by the game’s developers that this will have been adjusted by the time you get to play this game. You will also be able to switch it off entirely and just use visual clues such as her glowing amulet in order to know someone is nearby to speak to.
The visuals of the game and its overall ambient soundtrack work very well, it looks crisp both in handheld as well as docked modes. Also, the default control scheme layout worked very seamlessly and caused me no issues. The place this game was disappointing was its difficulty level. Working my way through chapters in the game’s narrative were flying by, as my ability to solve puzzles and find keys Zelda style (or Chip’s Challenge style depending on your gaming background) was not a hard thing to achieve. This therefore never gave me a sense of reward or achievement. I would have personally liked to see more of an uphill battle as the game progressed, along with some much bigger narrative twists too.
For me, Whispering Willows starts well and has a lot of potential in the world of indie style games. However, it just overall felt too easy and was never particularly challenging. If this slowly increased in difficulty as the game’s chapters progressed, I would have maybe felt more of a reward from the amount of time given to this game. However, instead, you simply float along like Elena’s spirit, hoping that the repetitive nature of exploring the mansion doesn’t eventually become annoying. Not that a game that confines you in a particular space has to be unenjoyable (look at Arkham Asylum as a good example of keeping a smaller area interesting), but the narrative and puzzle difficulties have to back such a notion up. And sadly I don’t feel Whispering Willows achieves this in an effective manner.
Perhaps if a sequel or “spiritual successor” (I’m here all week peeps) was to be made where the gameplay elements from Willows were built upon and evolved, then we could look forward to something very special. Whispering Willows in the meantime sadly, doesn’t quite get the wow behind it, that it could have. I look forward to seeing what comes of this franchise now the foundations are built.
Beard Score: 7/10
Release Date: 27/09/18
Publisher Akupara Games
Developer: Night Light Interactive
Platform: Nintendo Switch