Whispering Willows

Game review by
Chad Sapieha, Common Sense Media
Whispering Willows Game Poster Image
Horror adventure with strong heroine but lackluster puzzles.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this game.

Positive Messages

Explores Native American culture, spirituality, including living in harmony with the land, other cultures. Having courage in face of scary events, being true to family, taking responsibility for your mistakes.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Main character is a brave young girl looking for her dad, reconnecting with her ancestral culture. She solves problems with her wits, never violence.

Ease of Play

Pretty easy, though lack of a map can make exploration tricky. Some trial-and-error sections may prove frustrating. 

Violence

Cartoonish still images show people being killed, including a person stabbed with a knife. Pale ghosts shown being stuck in moment of their death, knives sticking out, guts exposed. Blood coats some surfaces, including a table in a "torture room." Notes describe terrible acts, including murder of a young girl.

Sex

Mention of a brothel, female dancers at a saloon.

Language

Mild, infrequent use of "hell," "damn."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Two characters drink what appears to be whiskey. Players explore a wine cellar, move bottles to solve a puzzle. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Whispering Willows is a downloadable adventure game with a horror theme. It revolves around a brave and intelligent young girl of Native American heritage exploring a haunted mansion and learning about crimes committed more than a century ago against several of her ancestors. Players engage in no violence themselves but learn about past atrocities through old notes and evidence scattered around the house and estate. Some violent acts are depicted through still images and ghosts still bearing the injuries from which they died, including knives embedded in torsos and bellies ripped open. The impact of these horrific images is lessened by the game's generally cartoon-like presentation, which keeps things from getting too grisly.

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What's it about?

WHISPERING WILLOWS follows the adventure of a young Native American girl named Elena Elkhorn who goes on a quest to discover what happened to her father, John, the missing caretaker of an empty old mansion. The game plays out on a series of side-scrolling levels filled with doors that allow players to access different layers of the mansion and the buildings on the grounds surrounding it. Action consists mostly of exploration and collecting information from notes found around the environment, with a few simple puzzles thrown in. Elena has a pendant that gives her the power to take on spirit form and interact with troubled ghosts. She often learns about the circumstances that led to their deaths and sometimes helps them finally find peace by running small errands, all while gathering clues about what happened to her dad. There isn't any fighting, though Elena must sometimes avoid ghostly creepy-crawlies while working her way through each of the game's four short chapters.

Is it any good?

Whispering Willows' strength lies in its narrative. The story of Elena, who learns of terrible atrocities committed against her people in the distant past, is compelling. The game's writers realistically explore the evil that even well-meaning people are capable of, condemning their actions but never suggesting they're beyond understanding or even forgiveness. There's a slight disconnect between the horror of the events described in notes and the game's cartoonish presentation, but it helps keep the overall vibe from becoming too dark or grisly -- which is appreciated, given the youth and innocence of its heroine.

Sadly, the puzzles and exploration fail to match the power of the story. Working through and around the multilayered, two-dimensional world can be confusing and even frustrating -- especially a garden maze that forces players to memorize which similar-looking holes in the hedge they've entered and which ones they haven't. Transforming into Elena's spirit form to squeeze through cracks too big for her body doesn't really liven things up. The puzzles, meanwhile, are too simple to offer much satisfaction. Some require players to find an item and bring it to a specific place, and others involve  the basic manipulation of objects, often to make them match something else in the room. They're just not very original. There's definitely a tale worth telling here, but it might have been better communicated through the medium of books or film. Or maybe a better game.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about violence in media. Is there a difference between witnessing a violent act in a game and being the one who perpetrates it? 

  • Discuss your ancestors. How far back can you trace your family's roots? From what countries, continents, or tribes did your family originally come? Do you feel a connection with those places and people?

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