The Whispered World
The Whispered World is beautiful. Just staggeringly gorgeous. It's a hand-drawn point-and-click adventure that's imbued with so much adoration for artistry that it's impossible not to be impressed. It's stunning and haunting and poetic, and you've probably already looked at the score, you awful person, so I guess I'd better explain myself.
The story goes a little something like this. You're Sadwick. You're a sad clown, forced to work for your family's travelling circus. While your older brother gets to juggle, and your senile grandfather gets to perform some vague attempt at cookery, you have the extreme privelege of being fired out of cannons. It's also your job to scout around the forest for potential custom, and that's how The Whispered World begins.
Did I mention it's beautiful? Just so we're clear: it is. Astonishingly so. Its painterly backgrounds are among the most exquisitely presented landscapes in all of gaming. Animations are rough and ready, but, importantly, so full of character that it's tempting to compare them to the best of animated cinema rather than games. There are shades of Studio Ghibli's films, with Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle particularly springing to mind. It shares themes with such works, as well: it's the story of one person, filled with self-doubt, on an epic quest to find himself and, if possible, save the world in the process.
Filled with a mixture of melancholy and dry wit, The Whispered World is the sort of cynical escapist fantasy we simply don't see enough of in games. There are shades of Braid in its tone, which remains contemplative and deeply introspective for a great bulk of the journey. The script is well-written, and expertly translated from German. The tremendous soundtrack swells and dips at exactly the right moments to tug your mindstate in all sorts of different directions.
More wonderful, though, are the FMV animations that divide the game's four chapters. Rarely have videogame cut-scenes been so magical. The interplay between Sadwick and his pet caterpillar, Spot, is so delightful, so joyous, that I spent half my time watching these scenes with widened eyes and mouth agape. They're also, as a vast portion of The Whispered World is, gloriously imaginative. I am so desperate to effuse wildly about them, but to do so would be to spoil some of my favourite gaming moments in a long time.
Spot's implementation provides a welcome addition to the traditional adventure formula, too. Throughout the game, and via various means, he gains the ability to shape-shift into a variety of different forms, which play a key role in solving a number of puzzles. They tend to be the most interesting challenges of the game, encouraging you to think in a sideways yet still logical manner, and forcing you to constantly adapt your mind to a new concept each time Spot acquires a different shape. It's just a shame that the shape-shifting concept is poorly introduced at the start of the game. The manual puts it in clear enough terms, but it would have been nice to see a light tutorial worked in a little better.
Elsewhere, it's a standard point-and-click affair, with reasonable enough puzzles typical of the genre. There are some brilliant characters to meet along the way, as well - ones you'd expect to meet in the best of children's television or cinema. Indeed, the whole game is flooded with a childlike wonder, the sort where all the terrifying things in the world cease to matter, because you're facing up to them, and growing as a person, and maturing every second of the way. It's magical.
So. What's wrong with it?
We'll start with the technical. It's prone to stuttering every now and then, particularly during the transition between two screens, which results in a quick shot to the atmosphere every time you leave or enter an area. There's no option to alter the resolution, leaving everything in a fixed 1024x786 regardless of the size of your monitor or capability of your machine. Spectacularly, there is no widescreen support. By which I don't mean widescreen monitors clip the top and bottom from the picture, a la BioShock and its sequel; I mean the game simply does not support widescreen resolutions at all. Instead, the picture stretches horizontally, unless you select the option to play in a window. I did just that, which had absolutely no effect whatsoever, the game remaining in full-screen mode no matter what I tried.
There is no excuse to release a game with such overt technical issues. You could forgive them in the face of the wondrous nature of the game, if it were all so marvellous itself.
More fundamentally, though, The Whispered World is frequently an uncomfortably slow experience. Its meandering nature fits at the start, as you begin your journey dejectedly, ambling around forest looking for new customers, or talking to the rest of your circus family, or simply taking in the glorious views. As the game progresses, however, it begins to grate. The second of the four chapters suffers particularly in this respect. Taking place on a hillside village at night (the most evocative of the four locations, it must be said), the region's entire middle section is one single scrolling screen. There's no option to sprint, meaning Sadwick is left trotting at an excrutiating pace every time you need to traverse back and forth across the area - which is more times than you might be willing to accept.
The issue resolves itself a little later on, with less backtracking required, and tighter, more restrained locations to explore. Unfortunately, it's all leading up to what could be the most bitter pill The Whispered World asks you to swallow. The ending.
At around 15 hours long, and much too slow in places, The Whispered World's play time could have been cut dramatically. Still, when the ending finally does arrive, it does so in a remarkably abrupt fashion. It's also bewilderingly out-of-place, switching tones dramatically and introducing entirely new narrative concepts just minutes before the conclusion. It's difficult to explain without dishing out massive spoilers; suffice it to say, this change of focus manages to spectacularly negate much of the wonder of what came before.
It's such a shame. Those prepared to ignore this startling change of emphasis and an abrupt denoument might find themselves staying in love with The Whispered World a little longer. For me, it served as the final insult from a game that had already been pushing its luck for far too long. This is a glorious, wonderful world to explore, a painterly land bristling with character and emotion. It pains me that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly.