Whispering Willows Review
In a world where many small, independent developers can make big splashes, it’s important to remember one thing: Even if you have, comparatively speaking, a tiny team and budget, you still have to produce a complete, engaging product. Great ideas only go so far. Concepts, once birthed, must be brought to fruition; interactive nirvana can only be attained if the designers fulfill their original vision. Unfortunately, while the indie boom has allowed us to sample a huge variety of gameplay and styles, it remains true that new teams very often require more seasoning. That’s the case with Night Light Interactive; their Whispering Willows project is quaintly captivating but still feels incomplete. In brief, a missed opportunity.
Sprites are making a triumphant return these days, and they’re not the sprites of the 8-bit days. No, these are often beautifully drawn, wonderfully animated characters that somehow manage to straddle the line between cartoon-y and sophisticated. Here, we get an imaginative, atmospheric display that sets the tone nicely, even if a few of the animations aren’t quite up to snuff. I found a few of the areas to be a tad too dark (even though I know that’s a central theme for such a game) but otherwise, these 2D visuals are really quite pleasant. Gone are the days of comical jaggies and big, blocky dudes and dudettes clumping around the screen; there’s a smoothness to these “old-fashioned” visual presentations that I appreciate.
The sound plays into the subtleness of the graphics due to a haunting, melodic soundtrack and quality effects. It helps to have a decent headset, too, because when playing, you definitely want to feel immersed in this mystical, often ethereal setting. In some ways, though, I think the audio was a missed opportunity to implement more sentiment and emotion. A game like this benefits greatly from a gorgeous score and various ambient effects that cement you in the experience. And although both elements in question are decent in Whispering Willows, it’s clear that the team could’ve used a bit more help in this department. Just a little something extra that perks up our ears as we explore this intriguing set.
A young girl named Elena doesn’t listen to her mother – as children are wont to do – and she runs off to the Willows Mansion. Her father is the groundskeeper there but Elena has had a terrible premonition that something dire will happen. Unsurprisingly, when Elena shows up, it turns out she’s a prophet: The Mansion is in a shambles and ghosts haunt the beleaguered grounds. However, these ghosts aren’t necessarily enemies; one, called the Flying Hawk, teaches Elena how to leave her body behind and float about in her spirit form. Obviously, the player expects to utilize this skill quite often as Elena sets out to discover the mystery behind Willows Mansion’s demise. She also needs to find out what happened to her father. Does he still live?
The game plays like a mostly standard 2D side-scroller, with the added twist of using doors in the background and foreground. These lead to different sections in the current location and I was immediately nostalgic for those doors in the old-school Mario games. Anyway, Elena’s spirit form can overcome certain obstacles, such as floors no human should touch. She can also reach switches her body wouldn’t be able to reach, and she even has the power to manipulate and possess particular objects. Also when in this spirit form, she can commune with other spirits. In speaking to the ghosts hovering about the grounds, she can learn more about her surroundings.
Elena can help sorrowful spirits as well by helping them resolve unfinished business. If you can assist them in this way, they can move past the spirit world (obviously a form of purgatory) and you’ll continue on to unlock more clues. The pacing is good without being excellent and the narrative has plenty of appeal. There’s a lot to learn and the story goes deeper than one might think; it’s not a multi-layered narrative with a lot of twists and turns, but it does offer some glimpses into the past that prove interesting. The sordid history of the Mansion comes to light via hints from other ghosts and from journal pages found scattered throughout the world. You’re not beaten down with disgusting imagery, which I happen to appreciate, but there is a palpable, enduring creepiness.
But things just never really coalesce into a cohesive experience that continues to build. There are quite a few great concepts and ideas but few of them are given a chance to shine, which is common in lower-budget productions. It costs nothing to come up with a fantastic idea but implementing that idea is a very different story. Which is why no single element of the gameplay stands out; why we’re left wondering what might have been if Night Light had simply expanded on the basic theories. Sure, we can explore and solve puzzles and hear a relatively decent story, but there’s just not enough follow-through, if you know what I mean. It needed more time to cook, more time to result in a fleshed-out, rewarding gameplay experience.
There are just so many more things we could’ve done with Elena’s spirit form, for example. And I felt almost insulted at some of the puzzles, as most just had me go somewhere and retrieve something, which rarely requires a lot of brain activity. There aren’t enough puzzles, anyway, and there are times when the narrative tries to be emotional but simply misses the mark. Again, it’s indicative of the project’s roots; i.e., a Kickstarter endeavor originally for OUYA that simply required more time and resources. There are a lot of “imagine if” moments when playing this game, which tells me the concept is more than sound – it’s actually excellent – but there needed to be a heftier, more robust result. This just feels too light, too simple and straightforward, which doesn’t really jive with the core idea.
On the other hand, I am always loath to criticize games that try so very hard. I typically stand up and defend developers who want to try something new, and who wish to deliver an experience that doesn’t rely on violence or other brainless yet titillating content. Night Light Interactive should be commended for thinking outside the box and giving us a game that tries to marry wildly contrasting themes found in IPs like Child of Light and Resident Evil. Imagine the artistically accomplished, charming presentation of the former and work in some survival/horror elements of the latter. Doesn’t that sound like an provocative, captivating idea?
It is. It just didn’t quite hit the necessary benchmarks for execution and the ultimate realization of the main concept. There are quite a few highlights but mixed in are a bunch of low points, and those low points only exist because there is, as I said above, little in the way of follow-through. What I’m hoping is that this development team treats this as a mild success and a learning experience, and perhaps they’ll earn enough from this production to embark on a braver, more involved game. They’ve obviously got a lot of great notions and design plans; they just need to put it all together the next time around. If they can do that, I imagine they’ll end up producing an enlightening, even memorable adventure.
The Good: Artistically inspired. Excellent concept and decent overall design. Interesting narrative and characters. A nice combination of various genre elements. Good ideas abound.
The Bad: Could’ve done more with the music. Pacing can feel off at times. Lackluster puzzles and objectives. Simply didn’t see the good ideas through to the end.
The Ugly: “Only ‘ugly’ in theory, in that a developer didn’t realize a game’s potential.”
7/6/2015 Ben Dutka