On February 12, Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden from French studio DON'T NOD was released. And I'll say right away - it's its best game since Life is Strange. During the walkthrough I remembered The Witcher 3, God of War 2018, The Last of Us Part II, forgot about food, relentlessly took screenshots and constantly tried to negotiate with my own conscience.
In Banishers, the French are trying a new setting for themselves. It's not modernity as in Life is Strange, not the future as in Remember Me, and not Victorian London as in Vampyr. The action takes place in 1695 in North America, in a province called New Eden. Two "exiles", Red and his lover Anthea, arrive here. They have been summoned to deal with a curse that has gripped New Eden - winter never goes away, people die like flies, see nightmares and ghosts.
Exorcists are in the business of putting to rest ghosts that haunt the living. They're a bit like witches - they have their own order, unique weapons, herbs, rituals and abilities that allow them to get rid of creatures (for money, of course) that no one else can handle. And that's quite normal in this version of North America - there are still demonologists, century-old witches, reanimated corpses and half-screen monsters assembled from a pile of bodies.
About freaks and humans
However, those who are familiar with the work of DON'T NOD should have already guessed that this game is not about ghosts and monsters, but about people, who are the main monsters. Both the curse of New Eden and other cases of "presence" (i.e. the appearance of ghosts), which our heroes encounter, are caused by human sins.
But, of course, it is not about religious moralizing, although the action takes place at a time when the Church was particularly strong. On the contrary, there are clearly anti-religious motives here, and in general it is about universal morality. And of course, partly about the usual DON'T NOD agenda. One of the key characters is forced to hide her feelings for a girl. Anthea herself is dark-skinned. And upon her arrival in New Eden, she encounters an ambiguous, shall we say, attitude towards a woman being in charge of the exile tandem. In general, Anthea is more of a feminist, though she is remorselessly in love with the charismatic Scotsman Red.
But the authors do not dwell on all these themes at all. This is just one of the colors in the general, rather gloomy, palette of human vices, weaknesses and prejudices shown in the game. And the main judges of the living and the dead are our heroes.
Life or death.
The thing is, almost at the very beginning, Anthea dies and returns to Red in the form of a ghost - and that's long past the point of being a spoiler. Now ironically the exorcist and the ghost travel, fight and deal with the curse together. But always remembering that at the end, when they reach Anthea's body, they will face a choice - resurrect the girl with forbidden magic or perform an ascension ritual so that her soul can leave the world of the living in peace.
According to the code of the Exiles themselves, the right solution is, of course, ascension. But first of all, Red and Anthea are people who love each other very much. And love can do the most unpredictable things. And who knows what they'll choose? Or rather, what you'll choose. And this choice comes at the very beginning, when we have to swear an oath, whether the heroes will follow the path of resurrection or the path of ascension. No one prevents you from breaking the oath, but in the finale it will affect the relationship between them.
A nuance is that for the resurrection ritual, it's better to give as many death sentences to living people as possible when we investigate presence cases - it satisfies Anthea's ghostly hunger and fills her with living essence. For ascension, on the other hand, it is better to banish ghosts to the Void as often as possible, condemning souls to eternal suffering, or to release them by giving them peace.
Initially, the most obvious choice for me was to help the lovers and resurrect the girl, especially since the ghosts would disappear after the death sentence was passed. But the problem is that almost all presence cases are quite complicated, and there is no clear right and wrong - or everyone is guilty.
What to do in a situation where a woman cheated on her husband with a thief and in a fit of rage killed her spouse, who beat and tortured his wife? At the same time, the former thief stole the name of the murdered man and his work, but performs it frankly unimportant - because of the ghost of the victim terrorizing the couple. Does the woman who tricked the weakest, most burdened settlers to their deaths so the rest could survive deserve to die? And the former doctor who poisoned a young hustler who had syphilis and wanted to marry her sister? And this is only a small part of ambiguous situations.
Choices that shift and change
For a long time I gave almost everyone a death sentence, often hearing curses against me. I justified it to myself by saying that they had all been deservedly punished in one way or another. I lied to myself, but I really wanted to bring Anthea back to life. But when I had to execute a father in front of his son, I gave up. I became uncomfortable with the weight of the decisions I had made, and I reset the save to make a different choice. Even though that man still deserved to die (he sent an innocent woman to the stake under pressure from the crowd), I felt better when I saw him broken, embittered, but alive, sitting next to his son.
But most importantly, at some point Red feels uncomfortable with these decisions and verdicts, and he tells Anthea that he is afraid to feel who he is turning into. We can guess who he's turning into - Ellie, who also initially chose her own path and followed the corpses for the sake of one goal. And Anthea gives him a last minute chance to change or reaffirm his original vow.
And for me it became the strongest, most difficult and right moment in the game. Right not in the sense that we are offered to switch to an unambiguously good path - here, as in life, there is no such thing, and after much deliberation I swore again that I would bring Anthea back to life at any cost. And in the sense that we are allowed to make and change key decisions affecting the fate of the characters throughout the game, rather than at one crucial moment before the denouement. After all, at that moment the finale was still a long way off, and who knows what will happen in the end and who Red will or won't turn into.
Comparison with Baldur's Gate III is indicative here. There we decide once whether, for example, Astarion will follow the path of evil, becoming a supreme vampire, and then face the consequences, with explicit or implicit condemnation of fellow players. But here, I repeat, we spend the whole game in the state of making this one crucial decision, agonizing, weighing pros and cons, making a deal with our conscience and even getting the right to come to our senses and act differently.
It doesn't matter that even after you change your vows you can still do what you want, it doesn't matter how much all the tossing and turning, actions and promises affect the final results. What matters is that for those 10 minutes you sat staring at the screen, agonizing over whether you should change your vow or not. What's going to happen to Red?
From this point of view, Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden is a rare game where your decisions cause the character to change not within a couple of quests, but throughout the story, and the weight of the choice is reflected on the player, not only on what is happening on the other side of the screen.
Together in love and in battle
Most importantly, all of these moral quandaries are woven into the body of an engaging and gameplay-diverse game. Sure, we spend a lot of time investigating cases of presence - looking for signs of ghosts (in fact, the analog of witch's sense of smell is applied here), interviewing people, conducting rituals to summon phantoms or reconstruct past events, and eventually passing one sentence or another. But this is only part of the class.
But this isn't your typical Soulslayer - the combat system is its own and quite interesting. It's all wrapped around the ability to switch between Red's physical form and Anthea's ghostly incarnation on the fly. The girl spends spirit points on attacks (they serve as an analog of health), and when they run out, she disappears. The spirit is replenished by Red's potions and blows.
Each has their own techniques - he uses swords and guns and can parry, she punches with her fists and relies on unique ghostly skills (called manifestations) that allow you to, for example, bind enemies or deal area damage. But most importantly, each is more effective against a certain type of enemy. And in almost every battle, there are different enemies; moreover, the shadows that Red is better at fighting, try to take over the corpses in battle, while Anthea is more effective against them. So you have to switch constantly.
Many of the skills we learn in the shelters for skill points are designed for this. For example, one of them guarantees that after four powerful attacks Reda Anthea will jump out of her dimension and smack the enemy between the eyes with an attack that ignores stability. There are bonuses, for example, for switching to the girl after three light attacks, after parrying or dodging - it's called perfect switching.
In general, there are many skills. And all of them are designed for different styles - you can bet on Red's attacks or, conversely, on Anthea's manifestations, on gunfire or on blows in close combat. And in the shelter you are free to disable one skill and enable another. Plus comes a lot of types of equipment (each has its own - Anthea use only magic jewelry), which gives not only an increase in various parameters, but also new properties - for example, a decent increase in damage to wounded enemies, but by 90% reduces the damage to enemies with full health.
By selecting equipment, upgrading it in the shelter for the collected resources and turning on/off certain skills there, we form different builds. And the differences can be quite serious. For example, one ring gives the property that the less full the spirit scale is, the more damage Red deals. The other has the opposite effect - the more full the spirit bar is, the more damage Anthea does.
And, most importantly, it's all useful in the game. I played through Ghosts of New Eden on high difficulty (it's the third of four) and often had trouble - it's no Dark Souls, of course, but the enemies are constantly challenging. They often lock us in arenas, never attacking one at a time (except for the biggest bosses), teleporting, summoning someone. And it's very common for melee fighters to fight in conjunction with shooters.
You have to spend the whole game managing skills and equipment, pumping, doing quests, searching and opening chests, vacuuming the map in search of resources, and if they are not enough, then buy from merchants.
A world for the two of us
And the game gives you every opportunity to explore, grind, and find new adventures. At first I thought it was going to be a concise, story-driven, moral choice-oriented action RPG, but we got a full-fledged, engaging open-world RPG.
New regions gradually open up, and new quests and presence cases appear in previously visited ones - traveling back and forth in most cases can be done either on your own or through fires in shelters. The large map of New Eden expands and is peppered with new points of interest and question marks. It can be a nest of elite monsters (if you destroy it, all characteristics will increase), an altar that increases Red's health reserve, entry points into the Void, where especially strong enemies and cool rewards are waiting.
In general, there are a lot of nooks, secret passages, and closed houses at every turn, where there is obviously something to gain - and we have to figure out how to get there. Separately noted are the so-called ghost chests, to open which you must first learn a certain ritual and find all the necessary items. Yes, to perform various actions you often need to perform the appropriate rituals, and they consume certain resources.
Finally, Anthea gradually gains new abilities that allow her to remove obstacles to get to previously inaccessible areas where new chests, resource dumps, and challenges await. And some of these methods are somewhat similar to the puzzles we solved in God of War 2018 - Anthea hits a magical vine that closes the passage with her skill, after which Red must find and destroy several nearby spheres in the allotted time.
There's no such thing as perfect?
I could go on for a long time about what a great game this is. I haven't told you about how each, even ordinary, settler is worked out, with whom you can talk about different topics, including changes after our actions; about how charismatic Anthea and Red are, how they quarrel, joke, open up to each other and tell stories from their difficult lives - the characters seem alive, and you get attached to them with all your soul. In general, each character has a story to tell, and some dramas are heartbreaking.
Of course, you can find flaws in Banishers if you want to. Slightly frustrating are not the most interesting bosses, which not in all, but in many cases act too predictable.
In addition, some of the story missions seem to drag on and throw off the rhythm. We are asked to search for points in the same pattern over and over again, so that Anthea could put disparate lines into a circle and teleport the heroes to the right place.
And according to the same scheme we are looking for the points where Red should shoot to free a stuck elevator, to block a tunnel with monsters or something else like that. And when you want to move on with the story or get back to exploring the world and quests, this kind of searching for items starts to get tiring.
In addition, in the last third of the walkthrough, I started to experience freezes in some places. And once I caught a bug, because of which I had to roll back to the previous save. Although, perhaps, this is a peculiarity of the press version. And in general the game looks and is voiced at the level of a full AAA-release.
Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden is a great success both for DON'T NOD and for all fans of the genre. We somehow forgot that the French know how to make interesting RPGs. Their new work looks more thoughtful and balanced than Vampyr and Remember Me. Yes, exactly as an RPG in the big world it is hardly able to surprise anything. But in combination with a mature plot, serious themes and dramatic choices that make you check your own conscience all the way through, the result is a unique game about exorcising not ghosts, but your own demons. It's like combining God of War, The Witcher 3 and The Last of Us Part II, and then adding Trier, Zvyagintsev, Balabanov and other explorers of the dark human gut. But let us decide for ourselves whether this world is worthy of salvation or not, whether we should drown Abby to the end or take our hands off her neck at the last moment....
Pros: adult plot; wonderfully developed dialogues and characters that change as you pass; very difficult and in some places heartbreaking choice; unusual combat system, built on switching between two heroes; large and beautiful world with a lot of points of interest; gorgeous picture; expressive voice and music; high-quality translation into Russian.
Cons: I would have liked more interesting bosses; some story missions are tiring and off the pace; there were some freezes in the review version.