Both intentionally, and unintentionally, Night Light Interactive’s Whispering Willows presents a curious puzzle. On one side, we have an intriguing adventure that is as compelling as it is harrowing. Short but sweet, it is an atypically earnest and introspective yarn that deserves your attention. Flip the coin, though, and players might find a one-note corridor crawler crippled by some arduous systemic flaws. Sadly, this is a bare-bones port that will frustrate as many people as it will enthral. Whether the game is truly worth your time ultimately depends upon just how much patience you can muster.
For the most part, Night Light Interactive’s offerings prove welcome on the PlayStation Store. We are made privy to the paranormal misgivings of an adolescent heroine, Elena. Haunted by grief, Elena sets out to uncover the mystery surrounding her father’s abrupt disappearance and, in the process, weave her broken family back together. Her search takes her to the late Wortham Willows’ expansive estate. The now dilapidated property and its former owner are rooted firmly in the history of our heroine’s small, Middle-American town.
Elena promptly stumbles upon the ability to separate spirit and body, and this is where things get interesting. As she embroils herself with the forgotten souls of these once opulent grounds, our protagonist finds herself chasing after the relics and people of the past who helped make the Willows estate what it is today. This is a simple premise with wicked potential; one that Night Light have truly capitalised on.
Enter Whispering Willows’ crowning glory: a delicate tale of mistake and regret, populated by authentically human characters. Though simple, the writing does an effective job of articulating some intriguingly grandiose themes. The studio look toward squaring the facts of history with popular American mythology, and what begins as a search for truth quickly turns into a meditation upon the nature of evil. This is refreshing to say the least, as these are big issues that are rarely broached in the interactive space. The team’s excavation of history and morality is tense and absorbing; its peaks sometimes assuming near-literary heights. While heady, this subject matter rarely feels overbearing. These musings upon the soul are background decoration that you may consume at your leisure. A few hearty laughs here and there go a long way toward softening Whispering Willow’s darker tones.
An impactful story is held up by a solid aesthetic. A sparse score is juxtaposed nicely with an even sparser world, while a choice colour pallet brings ghoulish life to a variety of abandoned haunts. Carefully drawn settings persistently etch out a powerful sense of atmosphere. Sharp lines and diffuse tones will put your display to good use; Vita fans will be pleased to hear that the experience proves just as good on the road. It’s a shame, then, that – despite cross-buy support – there is no cross-save support to speak of. The two versions are treated as separate entities, meaning that you won’t be able to juggle your saves between them.
Though the game is indeed pretty, it is not memorably so. Bedrooms, kitchens and catacombs are all fitted with stock upholstery that makes it hard for anyone of them to stand out. Walk outside and you’ll find that the majority of back drops are constituted by muddy silhouettes.
On the topic of bad news, once Whispering Willows is done, it’s done. There’s no real reason to come back for a second run through. All collectible notes will be found organically as you progress through the story, so there’s nothing but a couple of Easter eggs to pry your attention away from the main event. Likewise, fans of the game’s previous releases will find nothing new here. Prior owners will do best to save some cash by simply returning to their old PC or Ouya (God help them) copies.
In motion, Whispering Willows is likewise a mixed bag. Thoughtful animations go a long way toward humanising our terrified protagonist; her father’s coat looms well over her wrists in a way that constantly reminds us of why we are here. Even better, play runs silky smooth; not once did I encounter any technical issues. This feels like somewhat of a miracle, because it quickly becomes apparent that Whispering Willows’ development process was one sorely lacking in resources. Animations are noticeably minimalist; you’ll go through the entire game without committing to more than five or six different motions.
Whispering Willows plays like a side-scrolling puzzler in the fashion of old. You must locate items and solve puzzles embedded within the environment to help vagrant ghosts solve their unfinished business. Expect to spend the majority of your time scouring familiar scenery in search of necessary items and oft-times vague solutions to puzzles. Whispering Willows is not rewriting any rules, but what it is doing is giving you an age-old excuse to explore. Save for one simple, recurring mechanic, you won’t be doing anything particularly new here. Disappointingly, Night Light haven’t truly utilized their game’s ethereal hooks for anything beyond story beats.
Solving a particularly pesky problem will prompt tides of sweet catharsis to wash over your puzzled brain. From ambiguity and ellipses frequently comes a comforting sense of self-satisfaction, but frustration and confusion are more often than not on their heels. Like it or not, this is how Whispering Willows plays from start to finish: it refuses to hold your hand. You will feel hopelessly lost more than once. Whether you’re into that is completely up to you.
What’s not so subjective, though, is a series of unfortunate design choices. The Willows Estate is mediated to us via a collection of planes, comprised of corridors, stairs and rooms. The problem is that access to every one of these planes requires a dubiously dubbed “saving” screen. Granted, this is only for a short time, but Willows’ Estate is a tangle of diffuse and often tiny planes. Multiply these few seconds by the hundreds of planes that need crossing to complete Whispering Willows’ initial four-hour campaign and you will suddenly find yourself having stared at these black “saving” screens for an inordinate amount of time. You’ll quickly begin to wonder if you’re actually just staring at a loading screen. Black voids of nothing take exploration – what should be Whispering Willows’ bread and butter – and turn it into a tiresome chore. Every length Night Light have gone to craft a compelling, absorbing world becomes persistently contradicted by a tangled mass of black, illusion-cracking screens.
For all its strengths, Whispering Willows comes as tough to recommend to a whole lot of people. Though this may well be a truly earnest tale articulated through chords of innocence, it is one persistently hampered by an unfortunate navigation system and complete lack of replay value. Make no mistake: this is a one-note experience with a $10 price tag (for PS Plus members, that is). Whether that’s a bad thing depends on how far you’re willing to go to enjoy a great story and a few pieces of gratifying game play.
A Whisper Rather Than a Shout
Night Life's compelling premise is hindered by a poorly designed navigation system and a total lack of replayability.