It can’t be a coincidence that Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden is launching just a day before Valentine’s Day. As its title suggests, the latest game from Life is Strange developer Don’t Nod is brimming with ghost hunting and spooky happenings. Yet, at its core, it’s also a surprisingly tender love story about life, death, and sacrifice. This isn’t the most well-trodden path for an action-RPG, and that’s just one of a few key areas where Banishers is atypical for its genre. Between outbursts of stiff, run-of-the-mill action, it’s the quieter moments where the game comes into its own. Like Vampyr, one of the studio’s previous games, delving into various characters’ lives and making tough choices with far-reaching consequences are what make the game memorable.
Banishers begins with dual protagonists Antea Duarte and Red Mac Raith arriving on the sandy shores of the fictional island of New Eden, Massachusetts. It’s 1695, and the pair of eponymous banishers are hired spirit hunters entrusted with dispelling the ghosts and specters that still linger in our plane of existence, trapped between the living and the afterlife. New Eden, you see, has been afflicted with a malevolent curse. Hauntings are frequent, the weather is perpetually cold and dreary, crops are dying, livestock has perished, and the island’s settlers are in desperate need of help. With so many lingering effects, this is no simple curse, and while attempting to banish a particularly powerful spirit, Antea is tragically killed as Red is plunged into the freezing depths of the ocean and left for dead.
Upon waking up on the opposite side of the island, the grief-stricken Red is soon reunited with his fallen lover. Antea is now one of the ghostly apparitions she would previously hunt, forcing her to wrestle with the fact that she’s become the one thing she hates. From this point on, you can swap between both characters on the fly. You’re then thrust into making the first of many choices you’ll have to consider as you’re asked to swear an important oath. Will you accept Antea’s fate and ascend her soul, letting her move on to the afterlife, or sacrifice the living in order to resurrect her? Initially, I picked the former, for as much as I wanted to revive Antea, killing the settlers who asked for help never sat right with me. Morally speaking, it also seemed like a pretty clear-cut choice. Then I started meeting New Eden’s denizens, gradually delving into their lives and uncovering their darkest secrets, and my stance started to change.
As you traverse the island, journeying back to New Eden Town with the aim of both stopping the curse and retrieving Antea’s body, you’ll encounter numerous settlers who, for one reason or another, are haunted by tormented spirits that can’t yet move on. Figuring out why is your first order of business, which typically revolves around talking to a haunted individual before exploring an area or two to gather clues–perhaps rummaging through a house scattered with notes or scouring a cliffside for a dead body. Spirits linger because they have unfinished business– their reasoning can be malicious or altruistic. It’s your job to suss out the malefactors of both a supernatural and tangible variety. Once you’ve done so, you have a crucial decision to make. You can place the blame on the living by sacrificing them, thus letting Antea feed on their essence to aid her revival; you can ascend the ghostly spirit, serenely moving them onto the afterlife; or you can banish the ghost, condemning them to an eternity of suffering.
Dismantling all of the details to reach one of these conclusions isn’t as involved as one might hope, however. Antea’s supernatural powers let you glimpse into the past and unveil trails to follow, but there’s no sort of deduction or interrogation process, and it’s impossible to progress without finding all of the signposted clues, so gathering evidence isn’t particularly engaging from a gameplay perspective. You’re essentially playing out the solution rather than discovering and putting the pieces together yourself. The stories that are slowly revealed still have a way of grabbing your attention, even if player agency is limited, but it’s disappointing that these moments boil down to simply finding every glowing interactable in a given area.
The hauntings themselves broach a variety of diverse subjects, ranging from jealousy and the repercussions of war to slavery and forbidden love. Each one is generally well-written, too, often latching onto a moral grey area that makes it difficult to arrive at a straightforward decision. Admittedly, this isn’t always the case, and there are some hauntings that present what should be an easy choice, like when dealing with racially motivated murder and other heinous crimes. Yet, the central conflict of Antea’s fate still manages to give pause for thought. There are five possible endings to Banishers’ story, so while each haunting might offer a binary choice, there’s a cumulative effect to each decision that impacts how the narrative pans out. Even when the guilty party is indisputable, you might opt to spare those culpable for the sake of your deceased partner. This adds an interesting dynamic to each choice as you wrestle with all sorts of ethical conundrums.
One of the reasons this is so effective is because Antea and Red’s relationship is complex and feels genuine. Red might look like your typically gruff action hero, yet there’s a softer side to him that comes out in the quieter moments he shares with Antea. He might be a veteran of war, but he has wrinkles of co-dependency and is often informed by his emotions. Antea is the more experienced of the two banishers and rarely lets emotions get in the way of her work, so the two contrasting styles play off each other in compelling ways. There are flashes of levity between the two as well, with the couple sharing inside jokes and providing insights into their shared history. Occasionally, the narrative also touches on deeper themes, such as Antea’s Cuban upbringing and Red’s remorseful past, that add additional layers to how they interact with others. Needless to say, Banishers makes you care about Red and Antea’s plight, which makes each decision all the more thought-provoking.
The other half of the game revolves around combat and exploration. Its tight third-person perspective is reminiscent of the most recent God of War games, and the action isn’t too dissimilar either, offering a standard mix of light and heavy attacks, dodges, and blocks, with the latter doubling as a parry if your timing is on point. Red also has access to a rifle for ranged attacks, delivering a satisfyingly punchy shot and an era-appropriate reload time that prevents you from firing multiple bullets in quick succession. Melee combat is the primary focus, though, as you slash away at enemies using Red’s trusted cutlass. The former mercenary is most effective against the angry specters you’ll come across, whereas Antea excels against more tangible threats–some ghosts possess the decrepit corpses of both humans and wolves alike. Antea’s combat style isn’t wildly different from Red’s, except she uses her fists over any kind of weaponry. She does, however, have a range of supernatural abilities at her disposal, including a distance-closing dash attack and an area-of-effect blast. These powers also translate to traversal, letting you leap across chasms and clear blocked paths once these abilities have been unlocked.
Combat is decent but never propels itself to be amongst the genre’s best. There’s a slight rigidity when transitioning between animations that prevents your movements during combat from flowing smoothly–contributing to a sense of inelegance–and you can usually succeed in most encounters by button-mashing your way to victory, sapping away any strategic element to combat. You do have access to a modest skill tree that lets you enhance existing abilities with various buffs, but combat doesn’t evolve enough to stave off repetition in the game’s latter half. By the 15-hour mark, I could’ve done with significantly fewer skirmishes, especially once the well of enemy types dried up.
Exploration fares slightly better, with a semi-open world that’s neither too large nor too diminutive. The whole place permeates an uneasy tone with various biomes consisting of verdant forests, barren farmland, murky swamps, and cavernous mines carved into the sides of mountains. Crafting materials are often found off the beaten path, which can then be used to upgrade your equipment, and there are numerous side activities dotted across the map, including combat arenas and optional quests that typically revolve around killing or collecting something. These activities pad out the playtime but never feel necessary and are easily skipped.
Banishers’ strengths lie in its storytelling and characters. These aspects–along with its combat–can’t quite match the caliber of its genre-defining contemporaries, but Don’t Nod differentiates Banishers from the pack by implementing the studio’s signature brand of choice and consequence. It’s easy to become enraptured by Antea and Red’s story; shaping their relationship and who they are as a couple makes for a compelling experience. That still doesn’t mean I can wholly recommend Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden, but those looking for a dark, story-driven tale of love and sacrifice won’t be disappointed.