The Banished Vault is a lovingly crafted space strategy game set in a beautifully bleak universe. Our review:
This year’s biggest space game, Starfield, makes a big deal of how its aesthetic is “NASA-punk”, a mix of real technology and cassette futurism that takes the industrial-space stylings that have been infinitely copied since Alien, and mixes them in with a good dose of real space travel technology to give the game a veneer of realism akin to movies like The Martian or Sunshine.
Whatever the aesthetic, you can be pretty sure that flying a spaceship in Starfield won’t be much different from driving a car in GTA, give or take a couple of degrees of freedom. The same is true of most space games, from No Man’s Sky or Elite Dangerous. Even in strategy games such as Stellaris, moving a fleet of space cruisers is functionally not much different from giving marching orders to your spearmen in Age of Empires.
This is not how things work in The Banished Vault. Distance is measured not in miles or kilometres, but in fuel. Every journey is a balancing act between fuel, thrust and engine efficiency. To undertake a long journey across a solar system uses up fuel, but fuel also takes up space in your meagre cargo holds, so you must gamble. Pack everything you need now, or hope you can produce what you need from where you land?
In terms of story and gameplay, The Banished Vault is perhaps closest to space roguelikes such as FTL or The Long Journey Home. But those are games set in populated universes full of space pirates and alien ships, and while both of those games offer your ship a slowly downward trajectory as your take damage and use up resources, neither can compete with the sheer bleak entropy of The Banished Vault’s world, where resources dwindle turn to turn as you travel through huge, dark and above all, empty universe.
Often, playing The Banished Vault feels like an adaptation of the famous and controversial science fiction story, The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin. Your every move is completely at the mercy of the numbers. But before we delve into those numbers, it is worth taking a look at the majestically grim setting The Banished Vault offers. While the merciless number-crunching of its gameplay is very NASA, The Banished Vault’s fiction has no such pretensions.
The game sets you in command of a gigantic, gothic space cathedral, drifting through space to stay one step ahead of an unstoppable oncoming darkness known only as ‘the Gloom’. Travel between star systems is long, and your crew survives not through faster-than-light travel, but through a kind of hyper sleep fuelled by a mysterious substance called Stasis. Your primary objective, in every system that you arrive at, is to find the raw materials to manufacture enough Stasis for your crew to sleep through to the next star.
The worldbuilding isn’t deep or intrusive, communicated primarily through black-and-white sketches and snippets of in-world holy texts or historical accounts scattered around the menus and manual. Most of the worldbuilding is visible through the game’s graphical interface itself.
You see, you navigate your giant space cathedral, its ships and the mining colonies it builds not through some omniscient camera that shows them all in situ, or through some kind of holographic interface. Instead, the interface is reminiscent of a game board, with your ships and buildings represented by playing pieces that recall the opening titles of Game of Thrones.
I’m a keen board gamer, but I’ve always thought it feels slightly redundant to have a video game interface that looks like a board game. Here, though, it fits. You can truly imagine the withered-looking space monks off-screen, slowly moving figures around a map as they try to scrape together enough resources for the next long sleep.
The Banished Vault leaves a lot of room for you to imagine what is in the gaps of the scant worldbuilding it provides, and it is a fascinating world to imagine. But the game’s primary mechanism for showing you this world is the game mechanics itself.
Those mechanics can be punishing. The Banished Vault has made a physical version of the game’s manual available for purchase, and this isn’t merely a retro throwback souvenir. You will find yourself checking back with that manual continuously during play. This is a strategy game in the truest sense of the word – the manual advises deciding on your goals and then planning your moves backwards before making a single move in the game, and you may find yourself needing a pad and paper next to your laptop while you play.
They are, despite the need for manuals and an in-interface calculator, surprisingly straightforward. The list of materials and buildings is short. Building a planetary outpost is simple once you get the hang of what everything does, and minimalist enough to feel almost like a minigame. But it’s a minigame taking place simultaneously across every planet you land on, and your resources are stretched across all of them and moving resources between them also costs resources and most importantly, time. Keeping all those plates spinning in your head, or neatly organised on your notepad, is essential to achieve even rudimentary success in the game, and The Banished Vault offers no mercy if you can’t manage it.
This is a good and well-crafted game, and you can tell that every aspect of it from graphics to gameplay to sound design has been carefully thought through and tested. That doesn’t mean you’ll like it. This isn’t a game that aims to please everyone or even most people, but what it does do, it does exceptionally well. And while getting to grips with the game’s ship course charting and building mechanics can be frustrating, I quickly found myself getting enraptured even as my cathedral full of space monks was doomed (or should that be “gloomed”?).
As the timer ticked down with every turn, I felt like one of NASA’s backroom people trying to snatch resources from anywhere and everywhere, working out how I can get fuel to one place if I just leave another crewmember marooned, but might still have time to swing by and rescue them if I can put a fuel refinery here.
Then you realise at the crucial moment that this planet doesn’t have the raw material you need to make a particular resource, or that you forgot to bring one of your crewmembers with you so you don’t have enough action points to complete your plan, and then you spend six turns trying to fix that until at last, the sun goes out.
And almost automatically, you start again.
The art style is beautifully bleak. While the ships are glorious gold playing pieces, and the buildings charming wooden structures, your crewmembers look somewhere between tarot card drawings, medieval woodcuts, and the idle sketching of a particularly unhappy artist. You’ll be thinking about this game’s art and world for a long time afterwards.
The Banished Vault isn’t for everyone, but players who love unremittingly harsh strategy games will surely love it.