Ok, so it isn't the weekend, but the latest game from PlayFirst, Wandering Willows, just can't wait that long! Combining some of the best parts of Animal Crossing and Virtual Villagers with a sprinkling role playing know-how, this game is something so incredibly alluring you'll burn through a few hours of game time before you realize what hit you. It's a pet-raising recipe-collecting item-bartering friend-gaining character-customizing leveling-up collect-a-thon!
A hot air balloon is gently hovering in the sky when a seagull suddenly pierces its canvas, sending you gently crashing to the ground. You land in Wandering Willows, an island inhabited with strange (but cute) animals and a handful of fellow strandees. Your goal is to repair your balloon so you can get back in the air, but in order to accomplish that, you'll need a hand. The locals are more than willing to help, only you'll need to do a few things for them first...
And so your epic quest of running errands begins! Wandering Willows is all about mini-quests that lead in to solving the bigger puzzle of repairing your balloon. To get the wicker you'll need to repair the balloon's basket, for example, you'll need to find some sticks to bring to one of the villagers. In order to get the sticks, however, you'll need to dig them up. You might also have to bring the villager an additional item he needs to make the basket, sending you on another quest with even more items to find and tasks to complete. And believe me, that's only the beginning!
Your actions are divided into a few easy categories: making objects (cooking food, planting seeds, creating clothing from patterns, crafting flower bouquets, etc.) and working with goods in your inventory and in stores. Your pet companion has several actions as well, including climbing, which allows you to nab things from trees, charming other animals, and digging to uncover items. These abilities level up with use, and you'll need to keep your pet strong to be able to reach the highest items and dig in the toughest parts of the ground.
If you're worried about keeping all of this sorted out in your head, don't worry, Wandering Willows provides you with a great tutorial to ease you into the game. A handy toolbar gives you easy access to all of your current quests, inventory items and food recipes are also easily accessible, and the mini-map lets you see who needs to talk to you and where you need to go to complete your mini-quest. The layout is perfectly conducive to a casual experience, no steep learning curve required.
Analysis: This is one tough game to tear yourself away from! Wandering Willows has a great over-reaching main goal that keeps you driven towards a larger end, and the mini-quests you complete in the interim bestow a superb casual flavor to the game. Pick up and play, or sit and stay all afternoon. I did both with the game, and I'm still hooked. Within the first half hour you'll have mastered the basics, and from that point everything is an extrapolation of the core mechanics. The game actually has a lovely progression from simple errand running to a larger-scale role playing-esque experience.
Visually, as you can tell, Wandering Willows is cute-to-the-core. You can almost feel the happy fun rainbows pouring out of your monitor. The animals are adorable and rather creatively drawn, and the items have an almost whimsical look to them.
Here's the true beauty of Wandering Willows: it's extremely open-ended. At all times you feel as if you can do anything, make anything, and explore anywhere you want. A few areas aren't accessible at the beginning of the game, and you'll need to do certain things in order to unlock additional items, clothing patterns, etc., but other than that, you're not pressured by any clock, scoring system or anything. Kick back, enjoy the scenery, and do some seriously fun item collecting.
Wandering Willows is one of the freshest casual games I've played in some time. This review only touches the surface of the many things you'll uncover and experience throughout the game. It's difficult to categorize because it breaks so many genre conventions. None of that matters, though, because from the moment I started playing it, I knew I was in for a great time.