At a glance, Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden owes a lot to Sony’s recent God of War outings. Its close third-person camera perspective, linear-but-open level design, and mix of environmental puzzles and hard-hitting melee combat are all present. But there’s more than meets the eye here. After playing a whole quest I’ve discovered that beneath that surface lies a soul just as connected to the Life is Strange series developer Don’t Nod is famed for as it is to Sony’s godly behemoth.
You play as Red, a Scotsman in 1695 North America, who’s taken up the profession of Banisher – a sort of exorcist Witcher who hunts ghosts rather than monsters. But he also has a greater, more personal purpose. Red’s romantic partner, Antea, recently met a tragic fate, and so his primary objective is now to find a way to bring her back to life. That’s one option, anyway. Beyond its third-person action flourishes Banishers is hiding a choice-based adventure firmly rooted in developer Don’t Nod’s DNA. It provides a mix of violence and delicacy that could be felt clearly as I played through an hour-long mission from one of its earliest chapters.
Arriving in a small 17th-century east-coast settlement made up of ramshackle log cabins and huts that had seen better days, I was quickly introduced to the town’s matriarch. An imposing woman by the apt name of Thickskin, she had little time for small talk but all the time in the world for big beasts. After tasking me with a mission to rid the town of a mysterious ghostly monster that’s been terrorising its inhabitants for some time, I set off into the wilderness in search of clues. First, though, I’d need a gun, and in order to get it I had to navigate a conversation with Thickskin’s much less evocatively named sister, Kate. While the dialogue choices made here had no bearing on the outcome (you always get the gun), it did teach me more about the familial dynamics at play here – information that would later aid me in making a much bigger decision.
With my new gun slung over my shoulder, I headed into the altogether unwelcoming woods in search of my prey. It wasn’t long before grunts from beyond the grave looked to stop me in my tracks, however, allowing me to put my musket to good use. Its old-school kick delivers a satisfying shot as punchy bullets crash into bone, but a lengthy reload fitting of the era stops you from sending another in quick succession. You have unlimited ammo, but this reload time adds a natural risk/reward aspect as it leaves you vulnerable while you prepare another loaded chamber.
Melee combat then, is something you’ll be utilising with far more regularity. On the surface it’s not dissimilar from the raft of action RPGs you’ll have played in recent years. A standard mix of light and heavy attacks, dodges, and blocks are punctuated by some of Banishers’ more unique approaches to combat.
You see, Antea may be dead, but she’s still by your side in spectral form. And she’s just as up for a fight as you are. Switching to her in combat opens up new possibilities, albeit not drastically different ones. She’s still melee-focused – preferring bare fists to Red’s cutlass – but is in command of a powerful area-of-effect attack that deals ghostly green damage to any ghoul around. And where Red has a health bar to manage and top up, Antea has no more life to fill a bar with. Instead, magic is her vitality. This is where the music to Banisher’s combat dance is written – building up Antea’s mana bar by attacking as Red before switching to his dead lover to send a kiss of death to their enemies.
You can switch to Antea at any time outside of combat, as she’s the vital key to solving some relatively basic environmental puzzles, such as lining up glowing glyphs to trigger a jump across chasms. But Antea is also a sort of spirit detective and can inspect spectral dust for clues to what has happened to the people of this place. Gaining new information not only fleshes out these ghost stories, but any scrap of intel could also prove crucial when faced with the ‘big decision’ that will seemingly occur at the end of each mission (more on that later). Echoes and visions of villagers’ grisly demises only add to the creepy, uneasy tone that Banishers perpetuates throughout. Inspired by films like The Revenant and The Village, it’s a New England setting haunted by old evils.
That tone translates onto the enemies you’ll face, who primarily consist of mangled collections of bones suspended by a ghoulish green glow. Waves of foes were made up of relatively basic melee and ranged units during this early section, but every now and then a stronger test would be posed. Enter the fearsomely named Nicholas Doolan – a reanimated corpse of a mini-boss that aims to pick you off at range with a musket of his own while swamping you with his skeletal friends. It posed a welcome challenge that made me juggle all of the tools at my disposal in an exciting manner.
Of course, because we’re in the year 2023, there are multiple ability, upgrade, and crafting menus to sift through in order to tailor your playstyle to your liking. Banishers’ developers promise not to overload you with too many different types of weapons or armours to collect, though, instead letting you choose which of its modest offerings to specialise in and upgrade to their maximum level. I didn’t get to experiment too much with these systems during my limited time with the game, but glimpses of powerful arcane abilities can be seen in some of the game’s trailers, suggesting an exciting level of skill progression. Combat is not necessarily where I see Banisher’s most interesting promises lying, though. Instead, I’m drawn toward its story and the impact your aforementioned choices will have on it.
The mission ends with a ritual that summons a visually impressive boss battle. A huge, clawed beast made up of rot, bones, and branches scratches and swipes at you as you chip away at its equally large health bar. It was a fun, three-stage fight that married the combat of previous encounters with in-world lore as each fleshless limb was banished after the next. The encounter itself is not revolutionary when compared to the action RPGs Don’t Nod appears to take inspiration from, but what happened next is where Banishers sets itself apart.
Using all of the knowledge gained from the journey and tales told by memories of the dead, a fuller picture of the curse befouling the town is painted. These facts are crucial when making a critical choice involving the fate of the two sisters met during the mission’s opening. I won’t reveal the nature of their story, but rest assured it’s one filled with horror and tragedy befitting of the setting. It’s not told through the most poetic of prose, but one that admirably establishes a bond between its characters in a short amount of time.
The decision you have to make is a clear one, with genuine consequences for not just the sisters, but also Red and Antea. Pick the cutthroat option and the path towards Antea’s resurrection will be further walked along. But opt for the more merciful route and you’ll instead push Antea in the direction of ascending to the afterlife. It’s this central conflict that will likely propel Banishers through its 20-30 hour story, and one I’m sure will be riddled with all sorts of ethical conundrums as the temptation to return Antea to her corporeal form looms.
While it may not have the level of quality in its writing or ferocity in its combat to match the calibre of games it’s evoking, Don’t Nod’s trademark choice-based narrative systems are where Banishers differentiates itself. Despite only playing for an hour, I found myself quickly invested in Red and Antea’s story, and intrigued by what the remainder of Banisher’s tale (and indeed my own decisions) have in store for them. I look forward to seeing what dark, sad, and likely horrific places it takes me to next.
Simon Cardy is a friendly ghost. Follow him on Twitter at @CardySimon.
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Author: Simon Cardy