If my dad went missing in a haunted mansion, he'd probably stay missing. I love the man, but I lack the kind of ghostly powers that let Elena make her way through the creepy halls. Able to turn herself into a ghost at will, Elena can communicate with the dead of the mansion, finding clues that will help her aid the other ghosts on their passage to the other side while also finding more information on where her father is being held. Focusing more on Elena's story than on combat with dark spirits, Whispering Willows tells an interesting tale of betrayal, hatred, and sadness that had me captivated as I solved the game's many mysteries.

Still, exploring a haunted mansion and the grounds outside of it isn't easy, especially when you start off by falling into the catacombs beneath the place. Whispering Willows begins its sidescrolling action deep under the mansion, in crypts filled with bones and strange artifacts. You won't know that from where you begin, as each room is darkened out before you enter it. This made for some interesting moments of worry as I stood outside a black room, wondering what was inside. You're never given a single clue as to what you'll run into, so each room has this little tense moment before you wander in. That tension dwindles as you play through the game, though, but it was a nice effect in the beginning while I figured out how the game played.


The tension dies down because the game doesn't often put anything in your way that can harm you. Whispering Willows is more focused on narrative and puzzle-solving, with very few enemies to bring about an end to your little quest. Even when dangerous things do show up, they rarely give much of an active chase, mostly patrolling areas or lazily following after you. The enemies are just easy to avoid, so it was hard to stay afraid of them. The sound design and eerie locales do give the game a little creepy atmosphere, but otherwise there's not a lot of tension to it. Also, ghost spiders can only creep me out so much when they're the only enemy for the bulk of the game.

Still, it's in unraveling the story and exploring the pretty, yet decrepit, locations that Whispering Willows gets its hooks in. It's an interesting tale of growing paranoia in the form of the game's villain, one that lead to the deaths of many of the game's ghosts and spirits. You can get the gist of things through the in-game dialogue, and those who want to plumb a little deeper can read the reams of notes in the game that paint a fuller picture of what happened here. I found the notes a little intrusive, being so long and frequent that they broke up the gameplay too much, but the main storyline as told through the game was vague enough to keep me moving forward, yet clear enough that I enjoyed it. The notes themselves are a little dry, though, but if you really want a deeper experience with the game's story, that option's open to you.


Exploring really drew me in. This game doesn't just take place in the mansion, but is spread all over a huge garden and through several other smaller buildings. Exploring all of these areas seems a little daunting at first since the game doesn't have a map, but features many shortcuts and is good at leading the player through dialogue and locked doors. Many of its puzzles can be solved in the area you're in, too, so if you're stuck, the answer is usually close by, removing a lot of needless wandering. Also, Whispering Willows darkens any room you haven't been in, so if you see a doorway ending in a black hallway, chances are good you need to head there and finish exploring to find what you need. I was initially a little put off by the lack of map and the size of the game world, but it's quite linear in how it can be approached, using very little backtracking.

Those rooms look gorgeous in their decay. It could have easily gotten repetitive, but I was stunned by how much variety the game could come up with for all of its rooms. Even going from floor to floor in the mansion, there seems to be an endless amount of different rooms, leaving me to happily explore each new one. Old trophy animals, ancient elevators, rusting observatories, and rotting libraries await, each with tiny little touches and flourishes that make them stand out. Torn wallpaper rolls down the walls, stuffing pours out of old chairs, dust covers dirty furniture, and all kinds of other items decorate the varied rooms. It was fun to see which place would open up next, and the variety gave every room a sense of importance. These rooms all felt like they had a specific purpose in the house and grounds, nothing feeling like it was present to pad the game.


There's more to see than just old walls and furniture, though. Ghosts haunt this place, each showing signs of the horrible way they died. Many of them seemed unclear on how they'd gotten that way, but each open wound and gaping cut in their design told the story better than words could. The art style for these ghosts is more lighthearted than my description might imply, steering away from gruesome realism, but these are still terrible wounds that tell a sad story. The visual narrative of each of these spirits was quite striking without being sickening, a balance that had to be difficult to achieve.

How do you find these spirits? Elena has an amulet that allows her to break her spirit off from her body, letting her explore and speak to the dead. This handy power is what lets you have your chats with the undead, and indicates when a ghost is around with a subtle blue glow. That power is more important to solving puzzles, though, as Elena's ghost form can slip through cracks, possess items, or operate equipment that's out of reach for her cumbersome, fleshy body. This power is also pretty handy while exploring, as you can send the ghost form through any open door or space without worrying about putting your actual body in danger. It acts as a handy scout, although there wasn't really much danger that needed to be seen in advance.


While it leans into point-and-click territory, it doesn't often fall into point and click logic and difficulty. Puzzle answers were typically straightforward, and the ghosts often tell you exactly what they want and how to get it, so anyone paying attention should have little difficulty getting to the end. There's no guesswork with dozens of items, but rather a handful of items that have obvious solutions. Whispering Willows didn't feel all that challenging as a result, but I don't consider that a negative. Finding out the story and taking in the new locations is the main motivation to play, and they game does those things very well. It's a relaxing experience, one where I just enjoyed reading the story while exploring the dusty halls. If you want to get scared of creepy enemies or smash your head against brutal item puzzles that twist your mind, though, this game won't do that for you.

I didn't need it to be hard, though. I was just happy playing through the story of a courageous thirteen year old girl looking for her father. It was compelling and interesting to watch her continue forward despite the darkness in front of her, bringing good to the dead she ran into along the way. It's a journey to be undertaken, and in the shoes of girl who's fighting to be brave when she's terrified out of her mind. Watching her character model cower, even as she pushes deeper into the depths of the mansion, made me like her and identify with her. She felt like a human delving deep into a terrible place she didn't understand, yet she never let any of that get in the way of her compassion. That was the story that kept me playing, and I loved it.


Whispering Willows tells a story that would be right at home in any horror game, filling it with suffering that would fit in with any slasher, but does so with a subtlety and innocence. The horror is there, bubbling below the surface, but it's not the focus of the artwork or gameplay. This game isn't dripping with gore, and the protagonist isn't constantly attacked by ghosts driven out of their minds with pain. Scaring and torturing are not its focus. Whispering Willows is about the courage of a young girl in the face of monstrosities that shouldn't exist and paranormal powers that should be impossible. It tells a good, if simple, tale in a style that makes its points without being violent or bloody. It was a captivating journey through those decaying halls, and one I hope other story-lovers take too.

Whispering Willows is available for $9.99 on Steam and the Humble Store. For more information on it and Night Light Interactive, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.