One of the best things about indie games is that your expectations are usually quite low, so it’s easy to be pleasantly surprised. With less pressure to show off flashy trailers to journalists and adhere to standard game mechanics, developers can instead focus on inventive gameplay and putting forward a unique vision. However that’s not to say indie games can’t have great graphics – in fact these can sometimes be the best feature if they’re particularly polished or different from the norm. In the case of Whispering Willows, a side-scrolling adventure game, the beautifully drawn and animated graphics were certainly attention-grabbing and the promise of a clever and scary game definitely appealed to me and in my mind I was already predicting an 8/10 or 9/10 review. However it didn’t quite work out that way.
The brief introduction was an early disappointment, the static artwork not particularly impressive but it was quickly over and with the start of the game the striking visuals returned and I was once optimistic. The hand-drawn graphics really do look exquisite and give the game a great atmosphere and the lighting effects in particular are well done. The animation of Elena the protagonist is also wonderful as she moves around, both physically and in her spirit form. However once we get beyond the pleasing veneer of the graphics and into the game itself things start to do downhill.
The fairly weak plot involves the teenager Elena Elkhorn searching for her missing father who has disappeared from his groundskeeper job at the the mysterious Willows Mansion on the edge of town. Predictably this soon turns into a standard ghost story but I was willing to go with the flow and immerse myself in what promised to be a spooky tale… except for the fact it becomes apparent very quickly that it’s going to be a pretty dull affair. The storyline and language used is so flat it seems to have been written for very young children rather than adults, but given the theme of the game (slaughtered native Americans, murdered children, scary ghosts, torture rooms) it doesn’t seem suitable for kids either.
The story is also riddled with cliches, most obviously demonstrated by the multitude of diary extracts you find littered around the mansion – both from Elena’s father and from various characters who died hundreds of years ago (which for some reason are still lying around). This narrative technique was rightfully ridiculed most recently in the South Park: Stick of Truth game, and it’s inclusion here is particularly galling given the simple language and what dull reading they make. Even more strangely, they don’t always seem to be found in the right order which would get confusing if it wasn’t already so predictable. Already I found myself mentally deducting a couple of marks from my hypothetical review score.
The gameplay mechanics are also incredible basic – aside from wondering around and completing simple tasks there is very little to do. Only the key items can be interacted with at all, although occasionally you’ll encounter a random item you can look at although Elena’s observations rarely go beyond ‘that table is very dusty’. Even the main gameplay innovation – Elena’s astral projection ability – becomes tiresome quickly as it’s only used to talk to ghosts or move through a crack in a wall in order to open a door from the other side. Later on there a few occasions where you can ‘possess’ items of furniture and move them to solve puzzles but by this point I was already pretty bored. Minus another review point.
Admittedly the game doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, I completed it within a few hours and in the process found all the diary extracts and all but one of the secrets. However there’s no incentive for a second playthrough and the limited game length has to be seen as disappointing, especially as most of the game time seems to be taken up with dull ghost conversations and taking items from A to B in order to help them achieve spiritual peace. The fact you’re forced to walk everywhere (you can only run outside) also becomes jarring pretty quickly, I appreciate the sedate pace is useful for maintaining tension when first exploring areas but when you’re constantly back-tracking the lack of a faster speed is just annoying. Even more irritating is the fact if you accidentally do hit the run button when indoors Elena actually stops moving and shrugs – slowing you down even further! More point deductions!
That quick completion speed is also due to the fact the game is far, far too easy. Admittedly it may be aimed at kids, but the whole experience is sign-posted the whole way and the puzzles are pathetically easy – except for a couple of positioning puzzles right at the end which by contrast were very frustrating – not because they were difficult, but because they required such precision. Another odd contrast is the fact you’re very rarely in direct peril, but when you are it’s possible to be killed instantly. This in itself is not really a problem as these situations are easy to survive and you can instantly reload anyway, but it’s another example of odd game design.
I should at this point give some credit to the music and sound effects which are suitably atmospheric. The diary extracts and ghost conversations aren’t voice acted, however this didn’t really detract too much from the experience.
Overall I find myself in the unhappy situation of having to give a low score to a game which initially showed such early promise. However I have to be honest here and admit that I just didn’t enjoy the experience of playing the game, for a whole number of reasons listed above. In fact I was even generously prepared to give a score of 5/10 until the ending of the game, but that in itself was so pithy and unsatisfying (not to mention frustrating as it involved sitting through a whole number of repeated scenes) that I found myself having to take off another mark. As beautiful as the art is, the game underneath is sorely lacking.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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