Through the eyes of protagonist Elena Elkhorn, Whispering Willows always looks for humanity even in the terrible ghosts of America. In the wake of Her Story’s insidious clichés, this sensitivity is refreshing, though limited due to developer Night Light Interactive’s inconsistent technical execution and ho-hum finale.
As Elena, you search for your lost father across the gloomy Willows Estate using phantom powers. In spirit form, you can move through narrow spaces, possess objects to open paths, and speak to long-dead characters. Whispering Willows’s obstacles/puzzles don’t require much thought to overcome (2005’s Geist had more imaginative possession tricks), so they mainly provide a change of pace as you find different specters and scattered diary entries, which reveal a fractured American history lesson similar to 2014’s Betrayed. Through this collecting of perspectives, you learn that Willows, the man credited with the creation of a town, murdered many of Elena’s ancestors, all members of a fictional Native American tribe called Kwantako. This discovery of unmitigated hatred toward cultural difference results in Elena’s pivotal question, “If this is where we all come from, how can we hope to do any better?” This point genuinely reflects the complex cynicism of countless Americans and complements the conflicted musings of Elena’s father, whose journal suggests doubt about the best way to pass down an almost destroyed ethnic heritage.
Yet the heroine of Whispering Willows displays an interesting tendency to identify the good in the most detestable human beings in her appreciation of Willows’ romantic side and taste in art. This gray area is mirrored by the prettiness of Night Light Interactive’s horror settings (the way Willows Mansion towers over Elena rejects any supposed aesthetic limitations of the 2D side-scroller). If only the developer’s care could have graced the poorly drawn cutscenes that lack the vitality of those in 1988’s Ninja Gaiden. These sequences don’t communicate the emotional sincerity needed to fulfill the potential of a story that humanizes its white-man villain while calling attention to the contemporary impact of his racism. Whispering Willows completely loses its way with a final banal emphasis of the father-daughter bond. This ending, like the last act’s predictable build-up, trades complicated national identity for neat sentimentality.