Thursday, October 29, 2015

Game Review - Whispering Willows (Xbox One, 2015)

I love adventure games, but they're hard to get right.  The quality of such a game comes down to its storytelling.  Adventure games can focus on developing an exciting universe to explore because that's all they do - the gameplay focuses on learning about the world, so an adventure game thrives or dies on the back of its world building.

Whispering Willows comes so close to presenting a truly enthralling world, with a beautiful art style and a decent hook, but it just misses because the story isn't quite up to snuff and the puzzles aren't very puzzling.  Here's what you can expect:

The Basics
Whispering Willows opens with one of the most rapid-fire cinematics I've ever seen.  Elena, the game's protagonist, wakes from a nightmare showing her father in danger and runs to a dilapidated mansion looking for him.  She quickly learns that her father's amulet, which she was naturally carrying with her, grants a unique power - with it, her spirit can leave her body and explore the nearby area, able to speak with other spirits along the way.

From there, Elena must uncover the history of the mansion and its occupants to find her father and, well, save the day.

The Good
That's probably one of the less enjoyable ways to go...
First off, the game looks fantastic.  The animation and art style are both nearly perfect, giving a great level of detail to the areas you'll explore and the spirits you'll meet.  In fact, one of the coolest features is that you can see how people died by examining their disembodied spirits - mangled bodies and severed limbs tell stories on their own.

The "changing forms" mechanic is also pretty cool, as it gives each area two layers of possible exploration.  It isn't exploited very much, but it was neat to have both options.

The Bad
Unfortunately, the list of the game's misses is quite a bit longer.

The biggest flaw?  Your first playthrough can easily be completed within 3 hours, and that includes a fair amount of wasted time fumbling around while looking for the next piece of a puzzle. On top of that, there is absolutely no replay value (once you've figured everything out, there's nothing left to do), so you're looking at a game worth only a couple hours of entertainment.

To be fair, a short game can still be mindblowingly good (the original Portal comes to mind), but the story doesn't have nearly the depth necessary to pass that threshold.

Yep, those are nasty, zombified arms. I'd imagine it smells pretty bad, too.
Another big problem is that there aren't really any true puzzles.  With three exceptions, every task in the game is essentially a fetch quest - you only need to find the next relevant item (which is always just sitting somewhere) to keep going.  You don't have to dive into the lore to figure out where something is hidden or piece together multiple characters' stories to find the solution to a riddle.  Of the three challenges I'd consider puzzles, two are almost trivial, and the third is frustrating in that it doesn't work quite the way I expected (though it's still very simple).

Basically, the gameplay lacks that integration into world building that makes the greatest adventure games good.

Finally, the story leaves quite a bit to be desired.  It's told almost exclusively through diary pages you find scattered throughout the game.  There's nothing wrong with that particular format, but it's pretty poorly written - probably 80% of the text is written using simple sentences, so it feels very dry and monotonous.  That simplicity in writing also means that none of the characters have different voices, so there's nothing distinguishing about the way various characters speak or write.

Suiting up.
The plot itself is fine, and I had fun trying to figure out what was going on along the way.  I think some of the major points were a little more obvious than the developers intended, but it was still decently interesting.  With better writing, though, it could have been so much better.

One final complaint: the game is riddled with unusually long loading screens.  Given that it's not graphically complex, it is downright shocking that it can take up to 10 seconds to transition from one small area to the next, and there are so many of these transitions that loading screens make up a decent chunk of the 3-hour game time.

The Neutral
Sound quality is really the only thing I haven't mentioned, and it's... fine.  The opening theme is appropriately eerie and evokes a nice supernatural feel, but nothing beyond that really stands out.  It's good enough not to detract from the experience, but it doesn't enhance it, either.

And I don't have much else to say about Whispering Willows.  If you can get the game on a dramatic sale, it might be a decent introduction to adventure games for novices of the genre.  Otherwise, it's probably best to avoid it.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.

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