Review: Whispering Willows (OUYA)

Whispering Willows: Official GBAtemp Review

OUYA 4,314 views 5 likes 4 comments
Reviewed by Another World, posted Jun 23, 2014, last updated Jun 30, 2015
Whispering Willows is a highly anticipated horror-puzzle adventure game for the OUYA. Drawing from a point-n-click, retrogaming background, I approached this review open-mindedly after researching the project's Indie roots. The OUYA, a generally multiplayer centric console, has seemingly few immersive single-player experiences. Certainly, nothing weaving the realms of creepy horror and puzzle-exploration into an artistically driven adventure game. Some of the questions I asked myself during this review process related to the design elements, pacing, puzzle placement, game mechanics, sound and graphic experiences, the successfulness of design implementation, and cost vs. overall experience.
Jun 23, 2014
  • Release Date (NA): May 27, 2014
  • Publisher: Night Light Interactive
  • Developer: Night Light Interactive
  • Genres: Horror-puzzle
  • Also For: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
A young girl, Elena Elkhorn, has embarked on an adventure to discover the whereabouts of her missing father. Utilizing the Shamanic powers of a magical amulet, she must master the astral projection of her spirit and communicate with the dead in an effort to discover clues, while solving the puzzling secrets of Willows Mansion.
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The Story...

Wortham Willows is remembered as a good man, an entrepreneur, who helped establish an entire town. He was a widower, a father, and a respected Mayor. At least, this is the history taught in schools, and the only one young Elena Elkhorn was aware of. Few know the true history of Wortham Willows and the Willows Mansion, a deeply troubling and insufferable prison of negative energy. Its extravagant grounds stained from horrors which run so deep, that they are literally buried in its very foundation.

John Elkhorn has come to the Willows Mansion seeking a groundskeeper position, one he finds undesirable but manageable as it provides a much needed income. He [Elkhorn] is a direct decedent of the Kwantako Natives, a tribe of local inhabitants who disappeared from these lands. His bloodline ties back to the Kwantako Shamin, a powerful figure in tune with the subtle energies of these lands, those said to be the gateway between the living and the dead. The pull John feels towards the spiritual world will inevitably strengthen his need to commune through nature, a journey he will continue to explore even at the risk of his own soul.

After the disappearance of her father, Elena Elkhorn seeks out his last known location at the Willows Mansion. Guided by her curiosity, she yearns to understand the mysteries of this land, its people, and the history of its surrounding town. Utilizing the Shamanic powers of a magical amulet, she learns to project her spiritual form in an effort to commune with lost souls. It is through these interactions that she hopes to solve the puzzles of the Willows Mansion and discover the whereabouts of her missing father.

Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Sleeping     Whispering Willows OUYA Groundskeeper Goes Missing     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Outside Guest House

Let's Explore...

Whispering Willows is officially described as a horror-puzzle game with an emotionally-intriguing spiritually-driven story. At its very core, the game is a point-and-click adventure, intertwined with puzzles built around exploration and backtracking. Unlike retro point-and-click adventure games, traditionally mouse driven, Whispering Willows has been carefully constructed to make use of the OUYA controller. The developers have mapped interactions to a single button, which includes such things as picking up or moving important puzzle elements. For a game tied to such strong retro-roots, the amount of interactive objects has been greatly toned down. There is no need to "click" on every visible object in the hopes of discovering hidden clues, buried treasure, mysterious objects, or cleverly written text. While this greatly increases the playability of the game, it does, at times, make it feel stagnant and uneventful. It also greatly shortens an already short game by providing less to discover, explore, or interact with. The analog nub has been chosen as the input control for the main character movements, a surprisingly simple decision that works for the benefit of the game. Movements with the OUYA brand controller analog nub feel smooth and transition from climbing, to walking, to interactive element with ease. Progression through the various puzzle elements will require spiritual interaction. At the press of a button, Elena can leave her body and smoothly glide around the game world in her beautifully drawn astral form. It is during these sequences that clues may reveal themselves and real-world objects can be taken over and manipulated. At times she may venture far from her physical form, thankfully no backtracking is ever required, as a simply press of the “spirit button” will instantly return Elena's spirit to her body. The controls do present one issue that can make timed puzzles difficult to solve. The developers have coded the controls in such a way that two buttons inputs can not be interpreted at the same time. For example, in order to project Elena's spirit you must first stop holding a directional movement; once the analog nub is centered it then becomes possible for button inputs to register. This control scheme can make some obstacles frustratingly difficult to conquer and only work to extend the game through unnecessary repetitive trial and error.

Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Looking     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Crazy Looking Stove     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Spirit Powers

The key elements for each puzzle have been deceptively hidden in plane sight. Objects which can be interacted with in ghost-form will reveal themselves through a pulsating glow. Puzzles are fun to solve due to their creative placement and continue to feel fresh throughout the entire game. However, the pulsating glow quickly becomes a hint system for which there is no cure. At times you may wonder what to do next, and instead of exploring and trying everything imaginable, you only need to enter spirit mode and have the pulsating glow guide your way. The obviousness of this gaming mechanic makes the game feel easier than it should, and as if it were set in a perpetual tutorial mode.

The game unfolds across variety of areas including a catacomb, a garden, and more than one decrepit building interior. While each separate area feels unique as a whole, their internal parts retain an identical similarity. Picture an abandoned house that has been so well drawn by the art team, that as a whole it feels similarly spooky, creepy, and haunted. While you are trying to explore this environment of rooms and passages for objects and story elements, you will inevitable get lost among areas that lack an overall feeling of individualism. Each room does contain its own unique objects, furniture, environmental factors, etc, yet their similar color pallets, lighting choices, and drawing styles quickly blend together. Eventually, this carefully woven art style begins to hurt the flow of the game, as it can cause some needless backtracking until one begins to memorize the layout of each section. Perhaps the inclusion of a map, which reveals itself dynamically, would alleviate the feeling of familiarity. Once the environments are thoroughly explored, however, this blending of styles begins to take a backseat to memorization. It is at this point that the game becomes much more enjoyable. For this reason alone it is recommended to take notes, draw maps, or memorize visual cues before exiting each room. Getting lost never once made the game feel more fun, especially at the slow real-world walking pace the main character is limited too.

Whispering Willows OUYA Inventory     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Outside     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Conservatory

As you begin to explore, it quickly becomes apparent that this game has been designed so that everything enhances its horror theme. This includes the set design, imagery, Easter eggs (of which there are a few – view a painting in ghost form, for example), sound, and most importantly the pacing. Ghosts hover at a slow and steady bob, always just inches out of reach. Water trickles down as if only the remnants of an ominous storm remain, teasing your ears with its soft echoes. Story elements happen quickly and can be interacted with in haste, allowing the feeling of exploration to never fade. Character movements are slow and steady, calmly walking around a haunted local or a dark forgotten passage. Each of these elements, and more, make it obvious just how well planned this game was. Night Light Interactive has taken their time in crafting an adventure that feels proportionate to its theme. The intentional pacing in each section makes the game unfold in a way that will have you understanding that this is exactly how this type of game should be played. This is why it is unfortunate that the player must always be reminded of game mechanics, such as how to climb stairs or what button to press to interact with objects. Continually prompting the player with such basic game mechanics once again makes it feel like the entire adventure is stuck in tutorial mode. While these reminders never hurt the pacing of the game, they do affect its tone, as they present a truth that this is in fact not a ghostly adventure in an extremely scary mansion, but simply a video game.

Story, Art, and Sound...

The story is told through pieces of writing left behind by a handful of key characters. Each bit of found writing tells the story from their unique perspective. As you learn about the perspective of one event from a single piece of writing, later you will find out more information as told from a different perspective. It is this carefully crafted story structure that really helps Whispering Willows shine. Not only has a well scripted story been presented, the way in which it is told makes it all the more interesting to read.

Whispering Willows OUYA Notes     Whispering Willows OUYA Tool Shed Ghost     Whispering Willows OUYA Wortham Willows Fleur La Rue

The glowing of Elena’s amulet signals that a ghost is near by, and tells the player that it is time to project her into the spiritual plane. During these sequences, smaller story elements are told through the direct conversations with spirits. It is these ghostly conversations that allow the abandoned grounds to feel more alive. There is a great deal of history to soak in as you talk to different apparitions. Some tales may tie in to the larger story, while others simply provide clues for solving puzzles. Yet each conversation feels uniquely haunting from its individual perspective. Characters themselves are well described through dialogue that maintains a feeling of fulfillment. The turmoil of emotions from each character comes across through their uniquely written voice. Thankfully, there are occasional bits of humor littered among the serious tales of wrong-doing. The extremely well written style of Whispering Willows greatly enhances the games package through polished script that is both enjoyable to read and pleasantly emotionally-taxing.

Whispering Willows OUYA Garden Spirit     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena and Ghost     Whispering Willows OUYA Ghost Dog

A game which discusses the horrors of death should be presented in as beautifully a way as possible. It needs to handle uncomfortable story elements with grace, so as to keep the player engaged in such subject matters. Such a game also needs to walk a fine line of creepiness and abandonment. Whispering Willows accomplishes all of these things and more. The cutscenes feel as if pulled straight from a computer-drawn comic book. They purposefully build suspense while completing important elements of the story. The in-game graphics are much more detailed, and feel like an interactive anime. From moving blades of grass and falling leaves, to details such as filled bookcases and set dinner tables, the graphical imagery is splendidly beautiful. The world of Whispering Willows is lit one room at a time, and light is drawn to enhance each area. It helps to set the mood and establish the feeling of abandonment, while painting a vividly rich history for the Willows Mansion. The only real fault of the artwork is that of being so well created. Its well crafted environments blend so perfectly that the subtleness of individualism is lost between each area of the same environment. In regards to art style, this is an absolutely amazing accomplishment. However, the simple exploration of gameplay can be frustratingly lost between environments which maintain such a similarity.

Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Shamanic Ghos Spirit Powers     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Shamanic Ghost Spirit Powers Sky     Whispering Willows OUYA Elena Shamanic Ghost Spirit Puzzle Solving

The game utilizes a small collection of musical notes to produce a profound composition of mood setting sounds. An oddly placed piano note, the sound of deadly critters moving in the dark, or the scraping of furniture legs upon an old wooden floor all enhance the horror theme. As the individual sounds come together to set a greater mood, they never overwhelm or feel forced. There is just enough here to enhance the game without needlessly overpowering it.

Final Thoughts...

Whispering Willows is a wonderfully designed single-player video game for a console which seems to remain rather multiplayer centric. Its art style will quickly engage your senses and provide enjoyment for your eyes. The carefully constructed story will have you searching for every last scrap of parchment, while you begin to crave the facts behind the Willows Mansion. The game’s pacing unfolds smoothly, providing just enough to keep you involved without feeling overwhelmed. The similar environments can hurt the game during an initial playthrough, as the blending of style and structure make navigation troublesome. The completed adventure will take just around 4 hours, with little to nothing left over for a second playthrough. These two important facts may leave some questioning the initial price tag. If you are a fan of this style of point-and-click games then this game will appeal to you. With few such games available on the OUYA, this is definitely one worth trying.

Verdict
Pros
+ Beautiful
+ Extremely well written
+ Excellent pacing
+ Spooky sound and music
+ Fun puzzle elements
+ Creative use of “spirits”
+ Feels like an interactive Anime or a living Comic Book
+ Developers are continually listening to fans and making final adjustments
Cons
- Short game time
- Low multiple replay value
- Lack of a map
- Tutorial like experiences (navigation prompts, obvious puzzle elements)
- Navigational confusion (similar artwork)
9 Presentation
7 Gameplay
5 Lasting Appeal
7
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
This game is truly beautiful and extremely well crafted. The navigational issues are minor as memorization or physical map making can overcome them. However, the inclusion of an in-game map would work towards this score and not against it. Puzzle elements and on-screen prompts make some aspects feel as if they are stuck in tutorial mode. The level of difficulty is not overly challenging and the short length of the game felt somewhat disappointing. Overall, this game is a treat to play and one experience worth having on the OUYA.
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