Whispering Willows is a supernatural puzzle-adventure game that sucks players in with its beautiful hand-drawn style and mystery, but doesn’t bring anything too new to the genre.
Whispering Willows was an easy game to overlook when it arrived on PS4 and Vita this summer, shortly after E3 2015. The indie title was originally developed for the Ouya in summer 2014 and eventually received PC and iOS releases last year, as well. Now, the charming, quiet puzzle-adventure game makes its way to PlayStation machines this year and attempts a resurrection with the new audience.
The supernatural adventure story definitely lives in the realm of horror, but don’t expect many jump scares (play Batman if you want those). The game is all about mood and doesn’t waste any time on jump scares or frightening effects. Players take on the role of a young girl searching for her missing father in Whispering Willows. As players wander the grounds of a haunted manor, they are armed with only their intelligence and the girl’s magic amulet that allows her to project her spirit into the astral realm.
The gameplay of Whispering Willows is very simple. Players walk around the haunted grounds searching for clues about the location of Elena’s father. When Elena comes up against a door that can’t be opened, it is up to the player to use her special ability to find a way through. This usually involves becoming a spirit and talking to a ghost to get a hint about how to get through whatever the barrier might be. The puzzles are fairly simple for the most part; a ghost will mention something is buried, so the player needs to go find a shovel (spoilers: it’s probably in a toolshed) and return to dig something up.
The straightforward puzzles are entertaining enough, but don’t really reinvent the puzzle adventure formula at all. Players are faced with either a literal or figurative door and then must go find a literal or figurative key over and over again. The game’s puzzles are entertaining, but don’t offer the same kind of innovation offered by a platformer like Ori and the Blind Forest. If fetch quests don’t sound like a good time, then this might not be the game for you.
Although the mechanics don’t evolve much throughout the game, there is still plenty to keep players engaged. The game’s greatest strength is definitely its art style. The hand-drawn style gives an additional personal touch to the game’s narrative and does a fantastic job creating a spooky feel, for more moody scenes, or a cute aesthetic during happy moments. The one downside to the game’s style is the transition to the cutscenes. The same aesthetic is used for the narrative cutscenes, but they end up looking more like awkward motion comics than a professional cutscene. The weirdness of these moments kills some of the immersion in the world and removes gamers from the otherwise natural experience of collecting information by reading diaries or engaging in conversations with ghosts.
The sound design in Whispering Willows is top notch, which is a must for any horror game. Much like the action in the game, the sound is also effective mostly because of its subtlety. The creaks in the floor, gusts of wind, and rustling leaves are enough to convey the creepiness of the haunted manor without beating players over the head with spooky music and ghost noises. There is a score to the game, but it does stand in way, or in place of, natural effects.
Because there is so little action in the game, and only a few scary ghosts to avoid, the plot really needs to stand on its own. Most of the game is spent reading about the history of the haunted manor and the people who lived on the grounds before it was built. So if a land conservation and human rights story isn’t your cup of tea, then Whispering Willows may not be the best way to kill a few hours. The story is actually very interesting and emotional, despite being a bit familiar to anyone who isn’t brand new to the genre.
With a ten dollar price tag for PlayStation Plus members, don’t expect to get a ton of mileage out of Whispering Willows. Unless you get stuck looking for a way to cut through some vines or get lost in a maze of hedges, the horror puzzle game shouldn’t take more than five hours to complete. Moreover, there isn’t a ton of motivation to replay or revisit the game upon completion. The initial storytelling experience is well worth the ten dollars though, so we still give it a thumbs up.
Whispering Willows is now available for PS4 and Vita. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.