While developer Night Light plans to bring its creepy puzzler Whispering Willows to all manner of platforms down the road, it has already arrived on the OUYA. So, can the atmospheric trip through an old creepy mansion give other console owners a reason to be jealous? Let’s find out.
My early moments with Whispering Willows were so choppy I had to quit out and play a different game just to make sure my controller hadn’t been damaged. As Elena Elkhorn, I routinely walked past ladders and open doors, struggling the find the sweet spot to perform simple tasks. After confirming it wasn’t my controller I dove back in and was eventually able to manage the controls, though their weakness goes beyond just responsiveness.
Walking (slowly) is mandatory, and any attempt to run (with the exception of those rare moments when you’re not in a facility of some kind) will be met with a disapproving shake of the head from Elena. And while I can see why not being able to move quickly heightens the tension, there are sizeable chunks of the game where nothing is really happening — at which point it feels like the inability to run is as much of a strategic device to stretch the short run time as a cinematic choice.
Switching between your physical and spiritual forms works well, and it generally feels smoother to move around in the ethereal world where you’ll automatically shrink down when necessary. It’s also nice that the game allows you to immediately return to your body regardless of how far you’ve drifted as opposed to forcing you to backtrack.
The highpoint of Whispering Willows is its hand-drawn graphics. There’s some odd variation within that, however, with some ghosts and apparitions looking legitimately menacing and others having an almost cartoonish appearance. Willows Mansion is suitably creepy, incorporating many of the usual items you see in such settings — suits of armor, mysterious blood stains, on-site burial grounds. Things don’t animate particularly well, but it doesn’t really hurt the game.
There’s a pretty good soundtrack in place, too, which helps establish an eerie tone. It stays tucked neatly in the background at times, building for maximum effect. It’s a solid effort.
Elena’s father, John, is missing, and it’s up to you to find him. Your search leads you tumbling down into the catacombs below Willows Mansion, where the ghost of the shaman Flying Hawk finds you and lets you in on a little secret: Elena’s pendant allows her to transfer her consciousness between the real and spirit worlds. That ability serves as the central gameplay mechanic as Elena searches the mansion and its surrounding areas to locate her father.
Whispering Willows is, above all, a puzzler. Most of them rely on switching into spirit form to possess an object to unblock a door or flip a switch to allow further access. It’s a decent enough idea, but the setup doesn’t deviate much throughout and none of the puzzles are particularly tough. Talk to a ghost, go where they tell you, find an object that allows advancement elsewhere and move on.
A better story or creepier scenarios would’ve helped, but the scariest apparition is wasted early on, and the unraveling of the atrocities committed at Willows Mansion feels tame. Nothing ever surprised me in any meaningful sense; if anything, the game is too quick to forgive the characters’ transgressions and have Elena shrug them off with a “glad your spirit can rest.” At least one of those souls you’ll encounter understands he’s beyond redemption, but the rest seem to receive (and accept) it quite freely.
Notes can be collected as you move through the world, and while they contain some interesting ideas and do help to flesh out the story, none of it leads back to what’s happening on screen. Beyond those, however, there’s almost no reason to explore — a handful of secret rooms offer little (there’s a cute nod to Super Mario Bros.) — and it ends up resulting in a short (2-3 hours) and oft times tepid journey through the haunted mansion.
If you’re looking for something new to push to your OUYA, Whispering Willows could fit the bill. It has a disturbing esthetic and enough motivation to see it through to the end. Unfortunately, though, both the story and gameplay feel a bit underdeveloped.