Ever since Life Is Strange properly put the developer on the map, story over gameplay seems to have been the mantra at DON'T NOD. That's no bad thing; it gave rise to Life Is Strange 2 and Xbox exclusive Tell Me Why. However, with the likes of Vampyr and Jusant also in its back catalogue, there's always been potential there for the studio to happen upon something truly great. Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden is the realisation of that. Joining a captivating narrative and an enjoyable blend of combat and exploration at the hip, it's comfortably the French team's greatest achievement to date.
You play as the loving couple Red and Antea, two ghost hunters sent to New Eden in the year 1695. The town and its surrounding area have been engulfed in a haunting sending the populace mad, and they're there to investigate and conclusively put a stop to it. Things go south, though, when Antea succumbs to the curse and is killed, leaving Red on his own in the real world while his partner returns as a ghost.
This sets up a moral dilemma you must battle with throughout the entire game: as well as defeating the spectral torment, Red can choose to either help ghosts and ascend them to the afterlife, or banish them for their wrongdoings, which has the potential of killing the living and breathing host. If enough ghosts are banished, Antea is brought back to life. Their duty is to send the dead back to where they belong — the couple's motto is literally "life to the living, death to the dead" — but what happens when it's the one you love most?
The predicament manifests in both the main story and side quests (known as Haunting Cases), where you'll need to work out why a ghost has returned to haunt an individual and then judge who's to blame. A little like the recent Sherlock Holmes games, you'll scan the environment for clues and work out motives, forming your own conclusion at the end. Again, though, if you want to bring Antea back, you may need to go against what you believe is morally just to harness enough power through banishments.
It's an absorbing situation on its own, but the stakes are heightened by excellent performances from Russ Bain (Red) and Amaka Okafor (Antea). You really get a sense of the love and care the two characters have for one another, as they battle between the demands of their job and the affection they have for one another. Both regularly doubt their betrothed and their intentions, with Red having to make promises throughout the story about what he'll do at the end. Through their performances, Banishers is made to be a tale just as much about love as it is the phantoms plaguing New Eden.
Away from its narrative threads, the game sort of plays like 2018's God of War. It's more open zone than open world — larger locations and towns are connected by paths and tunnels, while light Metroidvania elements tease the sort of areas you can unlock once you've got the required ability. Red becomes the main playable character after Antea's death, but you can swap to her with the press of a button during exploration. She'll reveal collectibles and chests only visible in the spectral realm, and leap across the environment at select points to reach secrets.
It all comes together to make exploring New Eden feel rewarding; the map is busy with icons teasing optional activities, and lots of little environmental puzzles hide chests containing gear and items. You can always be assured you'll find something, whether it be rare resources to fuel upgrades or a fresh combat challenge. When there's that guarantee, exploring off the beaten path becomes a joy.
A lot of combat encounters stand in the way of those hidden trinkets, but that doesn't mean the fun factor deteriorates. While fights do feel a tad clunky in the early game, you'll be off to the races once you've got Antea by your side and some abilities unlocked. Red wields a sword and a torch (and eventually a rifle), through which he can perform fairly basic attacks, but all the while he's attacking, a meter is being charged that's used to unleash Antea.
She prefers hand-to-hand bouts, but over the course of the roughly 25-hour campaign, she'll automatically unlock new abilities that seriously spice things up. From a damage-dealing dash to mystical tendrils that hold an enemy in place, Antea injects a lot of variety into the combat system. You'll want to be consistently switching between Red and Antea to suit the occasion, mixing and matching with what the ghostly enemies have to throw back at you. You can get into an excellent flow state of charging Antea's meter, activating all her abilities, and returning to Red to start the process over again.
What really helps to elevate encounters are the many upgrades you'll accrue along the way, which feel genuinely game-changing. Rather than offering inconsequential percentage boosts, the improvements you can make to Red and Antea make switching between the two more viable in certain situations, while parries become more effective and provide extra worth to your banish bar — a mechanic that eliminates most ghosts in one hit.
The skill trees are a pleasure to work through, though their upgrades can only work so much magic. While the two protagonists only ever better themselves, the enemy variety is shockingly slim. They all fall into — at best — three or four categories. There are some that look like dogs, others a bit like a pirate, a few ghosts attack from long range, and then there are bigger brutes that swing their arms about. Besides unique designs for each boss fight, you'll never encounter anything else. Considering how expansive your own options can be, it's disappointing to come up against the same spirits over and over again, all of whom never deter from their basic attacks.
What makes pushing through them worthwhile are the side quests, which at times can give the main plot a good run for its money. Impressively fleshed out and engaging, you'll solve the hauntings of individual townsfolk, again working out whether the ghost needs banishing or it's the person at fault. There are some really interesting, horrifying, and gripping short stories tucked away in these Haunting Cases that make the distraction from the core narrative extremely worthwhile. Some will appear as standalone cases while others naturally stem off the main narrative, giving you reason to meet new faces and further flesh out returning ones. Up there with some of the best side quests we've seen in some time, they're not to be missed once they populate your map.
It might be worth waiting for the game to take a few patches before you jump in, though, because it leaves a lot to be desired on the technical side. A Quality Mode and a Performance Mode are offered, but both constantly drop frames even when there's not much going on and you're just running through the environment.
Then, visual glitches like the map disappearing and a pixelated look around the edges of the screen and characters become a distraction. There's a noticeable lag whenever you bring up the inventory, and audio bugs randomly cut the background music during cutscenes. Most — if not all — of these issues should be easily fixable in post-launch updates, but they did become a distraction throughout our playthrough.
Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden sees developer DON'T NOD reach a new development peak, as it marries an excellent narrative with engaging and enjoyable gameplay. Poor enemy variety and technical flaws hold it back from true greatness, but its excellent, story-focused side quests on the other side make a few drab combat encounters worth pushing through. The studio's best game to date, Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden is a new IP we hope is here to stay.