Whispering Willows: A Beautifully Crafted Disappointment

Introduction

Whispering Willows started showing up in my Steam recommendations last summer, when Steam learned that I favor mystery games and games with an interesting art style. Whispering Willows checks both boxes, so it only makes sense that it wound up in my radar.

I started playing the game last week, after purchasing it for next to nothing during a flash sale. (Side note: I may do a whole side post on Steam sales one of these days, since it’s an interesting business decision on the company’s part.) It’s short, and I figured it would be a good little indie game to write about here on the blog.

I wasn’t wrong when I assumed Whispering Willows would be an interesting game to review, but I’m not going to talk about the reasons I expected. I thought I would be raving about the art and the mysterious story, as well as the interesting core game mechanic. Instead, it got me thinking about disappointment.

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promotional image from Steam

Unmet Expectations, but Charming Story

Don’t take what I’m about to say the wrong way — overall Whispering Willows is a fine game, especially at its low price point. I brought expectations along that were flat out wrong, and that colored my whole gameplay experience.

I expected some sort of murder-mystery/whodunit kind of scenario, and it’s not that at all. I’m not sure where that assumption started, but don’t make the same mistake. Instead, it’s an exploration game. You play as Elena, a girl with shamanistic powers that’s trying to find her dad. He has gone missing within an old mansion that is widely believed to be haunted, and it’s Elena’s job to explore the grounds in order to bring him home.

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image from Steam store page

I actually really enjoyed the storyline. It was a refreshing change of pace to play as a young woman trying to save her father, instead of the stereotypical young man trying to save his lover. I liked the exploration of familial love over romantic/passionate love, and it was also a nice change of pace to explore that love from the viewpoint of the child, rather than that of the parent. I’ve played games where it’s the parent’s mission to save the child — and this makes sense, since the child is usually very young — but I connected much more with this reversal. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to be a mother, but I do know what it’s like to have a father you care for very much.

Beautiful, Atmospheric Environment

On top of the lovely nontraditional plotline, the game is beautiful. I’m a sucker for stylistic games, and Whispering Willows artistic bent leaves nothing to be desired. The flat, graphic novel style works well for a game centered around a rather young protagonist and accentuates the retro feel that the side-scrolling movement creates.

And Elena’s character design? Perfect. She’s a knobbly-kneed, kind of scrawny, totally relatable tween. She’s cute, but her looks are not emphasized as important. The fact that she wears her father’s oversized coat further deemphasizes her figure, which is a very welcome change from all the media that sexualizes females as soon as they hit puberty. She’s expressive and obviously frightened by her creepy environment, which only serves to make her bravery stand out more. She’s courageous and strong without being invincible. She’s human.

And don’t even get me started on how cool her spirit form is. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

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image from Steam store page

Disappointing Gameplay

So why, after all of these great points, did I fail to finish the game? It’s very short and obviously has some excellent features, so what happened?

It was boring.

The whole game is based on exploration. Elena moves through a giant haunted mansion and its surrounding grounds, picking up notes from previous inhabitants that reveal information about the area’s past and its current ghostly guests. Usually, I love exploring in games and one of my favorite ways to learn about the world is through diary entries — a la Bioshock, which introduced me to the technique.

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image from Steam store page

But rather than uncovering new areas and feeling excited by exploring, I found myself retreading old ground over and over again, which quickly grew old. I was always lost, and when I’d finally find a new area, it was always blocked, because it wasn’t the right new area. And the journal entries were poorly integrated with the overall gameplay experience, so reading them always felt like an interruption, rather than a part of the game. Especially when the notes were found in particularly creepy areas. I would open them up immediately, since I knew I’d forget to come back to them later, making the game’s element of danger moot, since everything halted as the player read.

Recommendation

I’m very torn on whether or not to recommend Whispering Willows. It’s beautiful and well-made with an interesting core story, but it’s just not a very fun game. So I suppose I have to say skip it.

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