Whispering Willows is packed with the makings of a campfire ghost stories. There’s a haunted mansion, a kidnapped father, a worried daughter, secrets around every corner and spirits aplenty. A Kickstarter success and previously launched through Steam and Ouya, folks in the mood for a light, creepy adventure can now head into Willows Mansion on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.
Not every game needs to be a dozen hours long and boast the most complex gameplay. Games like Journey, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Toren come to mind; perfectly lovely experiences that can be completed in a single sitting. This is exactly the kind of game Night Light Interactive’s Whispering Willows turns out to be, ideal for a long evening at home with the lights turned off and the volume turned up.
As stated above, Whispering Willows is a (literal) ghost story, drenched in an uneasy atmosphere that’s punctuated by a delightfully eerie soundtrack and held taut for about four hours of exploration. Growing up on Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark, it's a game that resides pretty firmly in my wheelhouse.
You take on the role of Elena Elkhorn, daughter of the groundskeeper of the spooky Willows Mansion. Elena’s father doesn’t come home from work one evening so, naturally, his daughter decides to go looking for him. Sneaking onto the mansion grounds, Elena soon finds herself lost and alone.
Well, she’s not totally alone, actually, as the mansion is home to quite a few restless spirits. Early on, Elena discovers that the family heirloom she wears around her neck grants the ability to enter the spirit world. As a ghostly version of Elena, you can speak with other specters, learn their stories, interact with certain objects and even access areas that are otherwise closed off.
Willows Mansion is presented in beautifully drawn 2D layouts, with new areas becoming visible as Elena makes her way from room to room. The various maps are similar to what you might get out of a Metroid game, but nowhere near as complex.
That lack of complexity is a thread that runs through the entirety of Whispering Willows, which can be taken as a positive or a negative depending on what type of game you’re in the mood for. The maps can get a little tricky with all of that entering and exiting rooms going on, but I only took a wrong turn once or twice throughout my time with the game. You only ever come across “enemies” a handful of times, but they’re primarily there to heighten the sense of urgency rather than present a challenge. And even if you do fall victim to the things that go bump in the night, Whispering Willows instantly drops you back almost exactly where you left off.
As for the puzzles, even those don’t provide much of a challenge. There’s nothing super original in this department, either: Match keys to their proper doors, navigate a hedge maze, push an object around to access a new area. Nothing here will give your puzzle-solving skills a workout, but at least every puzzle feels like it actually belongs in this world. Also, most of the solutions are one-trick ponies, so none of the puzzle types overstay their welcome.
So if the game isn’t very long and isn’t very difficult, what makes it worth playing? A lot of things, actually; especially if you’re in the mood for those types of stories that kept you up at night way back in the day. That’s how I played Whispering Willows, treating it like one big ghost story that was made up of several smaller tales. I spent the evening in a creepy mansion, explored its creaking corridors, unraveled its secrets and met its ghostly inhabitants. Along the way, I learned about the terrifying history of the mansion and its first resident, as well as the unfortunate events that befell many of his closest companions. Through a collection of well-written journal entries, I got to know a handful of folks who are particularly important to Willows Mansion’s past, eventually leading me to discover what, exactly, happened to Elena’s father.
I sat down to begin my review run of Whispering Willows one evening and completed it in a single sitting. That’s actually not a complaint. It was late at night and I knew I probably only had a couple hours of playtime before I needed to hit the hay. The game held me in place, though, pulling me forward with one clue after another, each puzzle leading me a bit closer to my final destination. I quickly took on a “just one more room” mentality and, four hours later, I found myself watching the credits roll on a light, yet thoroughly entertaining tale. The only thing missing was the crackling camp fire.
This review based on a PlayStation 4 download of the game provided by the publisher.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Vita, Steam, Ouya, iOS, Android, Wii U, Xbox One
Developer: Night Light Interactive
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