Martin Carr reviews Whispering Willows…
I am a fan of haunted mansions. Whether exploring a dilapidated annexe or traversing creaky stairwells, there is much to be said for anything which provides that type of locale. Whispering Willows may not have the heavy artillery, and perpetual moaning of the undead outside like Resident Evil. Yet there is an eerie sense of unease which pervades the whole game.
A 2D platformer with journal entries, hidden rooms and levers to pull on, Willows changes things up through the application of a unique twist. An ability to astral project. Rather than say the LEGO series, where you had to play different characters to achieve certain aims. Willows uses an out-of-body experience to access different parts of Wortham Willows.
Not only is this element stunningly created through graphics depicting Elena as a cardboard cut-out, but cut scenes which appear stilted actually lend themselves to the ambience as a result. Beyond her ability to possess levers, open doors and move furniture, via the amulet, Elena can also talk to spirits.
As an expansion of this astral ability it serves the game well. However unlike other platformers or franchises which use journal entries, you need to read everything. In previous incarnations these letters, notes and dialogue segments were merely background, but in Willows they are inherent to plot. Miss a note, ignore a letter and things become more difficult than they need be.
Propelled through Willows in search of Elena’s father you have numerous conversations with relatives. It remains important to remember where they are, who they are and most importantly where they fit in. Although this game takes little more than five hours to complete, it should never be about the time things take.
What Elena and Willows provide is a uniquely crafted platform puzzle solver in the traditional style. Combining lighting and sound effects guaranteed to make you look twice before heading upstairs. However compared to some fare this is tame stuff. More like a two-dimensional Grimm fairy tale, Willows has an old-fashioned feel, which has little to do with content and more with aesthetics. Bewitching in a gently nightmarish fashion. More face at the window and lurking horror under the bed, than anything more gratuitous. Willows draws in with nostalgia and keeps your interest through originality and a lightness of touch. What remains with you after playing is the care and characterisation which developers clearly poured into this pint-sized gothic creation.
If others were to take a leaf from the Whispering Willows book, computer games would be less visceral and more psychological. Not every game needs to induce a heart attack and make you live in fear of visiting the toilet.