Banishers: Ghosts Of New Eden – historical ghostbusters (Picture: Focus Entertainment)
The new game from the creators of Life Is Strange and Jusant is a supernatural love story that involves some very difficult moral decisions.
Other than hit franchise TrackMania, Focus Entertainment used to be quite an anonymous publisher. That has changed in the last few years, as they’ve begun to cultivate single-player narrative games like A Plague Tale: Requiem, Evil West, Atlas Fallen, and the Bioshock-inspired Atomic Heart; all of which fly in the face of an industry seemingly obsessed with live service games – a genre so intensely hit driven that 95% of releases disappear without trace.
Not all of Focus’ games have been hits, but it’ll be interesting to see how concentrating on a genre that’s so out of fashion with many publishers pays off. If third person action role-player Banishers: Ghosts Of New Eden is anything to go by, Focus may well be onto something. Delayed from an initial November 2023 release for a little extra polishing, it’s finally out this week and, as the latest game from Life Is Strange developer Don’t Nod, it’s another enjoyably unique, story-led adventure.
Set in freshly settled 1600s New England, it tells the story of Red and Antea, a couple who live and work together as Banishers, a job that’s somewhere between exorcist and witcher. They’ve been hired to sort out a particularly nasty haunting in the village of New Eden, and by the time they arrive the person who hired them has already been killed by the savage supernatural entity that’s taken over.
Like a pair of Enlightenment-era Jedi, the Banishers are initially calmly confident in the face of what appears to be an overwhelming force, but then it instantly kills Antea, leaving Red to work alongside her ghost for the rest of the game. The grief of losing his lover is tempered by the realisation that there’s a ritual he may be able to perform to resurrect her.
The downside is that to do that he’ll need human sacrifices, and not just one or two. That sets up the backdrop to the game’s ongoing moral dilemma: do you deliberately kill the settlers whose hauntings you investigate in order to bring back Antea? Or instead work towards releasing her ghost, thereby losing your love forever, but in a process that causes no harm.
The initial choice about which approach to take comes in the form of an oath you take together, and it occurs early enough in the game that although you have a feel for Red and Antea’s love affair, you’re perhaps not fully bought in, making the choice to kill a bunch of innocents seem like quite a bad idea. That’s reinforced when the first haunting you investigate is far from conclusive, with one settler having killed and eaten his friend while starving to death in the woods.
Investigating what happened, you find out that the ghost of the deceased holds no malice towards the man who ate him, understanding that it was motivated by desperation. With those facts in mind, it’s your job to pass judgement. You can aggressively banish the ghost, let it ‘ascend’ peacefully, or alternatively you can execute the cannibal, which lets Antea absorb his soul, bringing her one small step closer to returning to the land of the living.
It’s an interesting call to make, and as you tour New England you’ll come across numerous hauntings, each of which features different characters, situations, and moral ambiguities. We found ourselves gravitating towards doing justice rather than feeding souls to Antea, but as you progress and their relationship is drawn more fully, you do start to wonder whether there might be some sense in attempting to resurrect her.
That’s brought to the fore later in the game, when you get an opportunity either to renew your vow to let Antea ascend or change your mind and work towards bringing her back (or vice versa if you initially chose to attempt a resurrection). That comes at a turning point in the haunting episodes you’re called to investigate, with several that seem almost unambiguously based on evil, letting you harvest souls whilst also enacting what feels like justice.
Finding fresh ghostly situations to scrutinise means exploring Banishers’ semi-open world, with a map that works a bit like Atlas Fallen, in that packets of landscape are separated by specific chokepoints. It means navigation is never intuitive – you can’t look at a hill and decide to climb it – instead relying on a fantasy version of satnav, your current objective highlighted on the compass at the top of the screen, letting you follow it to your next destination.
Banishers: Ghosts Of New Eden – the game can be very pretty (Picture: Focus Entertainment)
It works fine, even if it does suffer from Ubisoft syndrome, where you’re continually surrounded by a swirling cloud of potential objectives, missions, and side quests. But the separation of its landscapes also means it can gradually reveal secrets and new areas Metroidvania-style. As you unlock more of Red’s weaponry and Antea’s supernatural abilities, you can revisit old locations and access all-new parts of them.
Although the world looks lovely, there are few places that feel particularly memorable. In a game pushing 50 hours, the only location we remembered unprompted was the iconic shipwreck coast. The rest of its snowy mountains, villages, and pastoral meadows, while pretty to look at, have so few landmarks that the countryside and cave systems can start to feel very samey.
That also means that other than conversations, where your limited choices let you either find out more or skip straight to the important bits, the only real source of player choice and interaction is combat. It’s just as well that feels so good, taking its cues from Assassin’s Creed but spicing things up considerably by letting you switch characters mid-combo, with Red providing the swordplay and Antea the spells.
There’s a set of skill trees that you unlock alongside protagonists’ equipment and abilities, and while they’re not particularly extensive, they do provide choice about what skills to favour, and whether to build your bonuses around, say, parrying or fusion, where Antea briefly takes over Red’s body to combine magic with muscle.
Banishers: Ghosts Of New Eden – a difficult choice (Picture: Focus Entertainment)
While there are puzzles, they mostly revolve around finding the right angle from which to shoot the buds off magic vines, to gain access to blocked areas, or to line up glowing portals so you can teleport across chasms. You’ll also need to find and destroy ghost wards, which block you from switching to Antea in certain areas, and wipe out spectral nests, which reward you with permanent stat boosts for killing the ghosts that live within them.
There are a clutch of boss fights, each of which has its own personality and vulnerabilities. Interestingly, you discover each of those bosses is simply misunderstood, their rage caused by injustices meted out by misguided humans, rather than being the result of some generic ancient evil.
The thing that really elevates the game though, is its heroes’ romance. Beautifully written, and with some of the best voice acting ever heard in a video game, its emotional scenes are heartfelt and affecting, whilst studiously avoiding sentimentality. By the end of the game, we were dreading saying goodbye to Antea almost as much as Red was, inspiring unexpected levels of regret that we’d chosen not to simply kill a clutch of witless settlers rather than lose the love of his life.
Its landscapes may not be all that memorable, and its battles do eventually start to pall, but the plot’s buoyed by its characters, and a focus that avoids so many familiar video game conceits, with a romance rather than a revenge story at its core.
Banishers is capable of engendering real emotion, which is still something of a rarity in video games. Even though it has a significant amount of content to play through, it’s inspiring how different each haunting is, with a fresh set of motivations to chew over and reconcile with your overarching decision to ascend or resurrect Antea.
Banishers: Ghosts Of New Eden review summary
In Short: A sprawling action RPG with a poignant love affair at its heart, whose enjoyable combat and supernatural detective work is all in pursuit of a morally ambiguous goal of your own choosing.
Pros: Premier league script and voice acting with engagingly human characters. Fun combat that gradually builds in complexity, and genuine variety in the hauntings you investigate.
Cons: Navigation is only possible by following icons on your compass, which suffers from Ubisoft-style objective overload. With so much traversal it’s a shame the landscapes have so few points of interest.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Developer: DON’T NOD
Release Date: 13th February 2024
Age Rating: 16
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