Image via Bithell Games

Review: The Banished Vault

I have never encountered a game that has made me feel as stupid as The Banished Vault does. There have certainly been titles with mechanics of abyssal depth or vast nuance that I don’t have the dedication to wrap my head around, but this is an absolutely new level. It’s layers of things that just make me feel mentally deficient.

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And I actually had to stop playing far earlier than I intended, because there was this ever-present shame that kept clawing at my spine. I was hoping that if I kept scratching at the game’s layers, something would click and suddenly it wouldn’t seem like such a monumental task. Yet, the more I played it, the more uncomfortable I was. Enough is enough. I just need to unpack right now.

The Banished Vault Colony
Screenshot by Destructoid

The Banished Vault (PC)
Developer: Lunar Division
Publisher: Bithell Games
Released: 25 Jul, 2023

The Banished Vault drew me in with its beautiful but highly unusual concept. It’s a strange marriage of religious imagery and hard science fiction. It’s monks in space, but the absolute literal sense. There’s nothing fanciful about its depiction of science fiction, it’s the most literal interpretation of both subjects.

The eponymous “Vault” is actually a space monastery where survivors of a strange phenomenon called “The Gloom” are taking shelter. The survivors spend their time traveling between star systems in suspended animation thanks to “stasis.” Every so often, they must stop at a star system in order to manufacture more stasis to allow them to continue their flight from The Gloom.

The goal of The Banished Vault is actually to find time during your escape to pen the Four Chronicles that can only be written in special buildings on hallowed planets. So, you collect resources, create stasis, and pen your diary. It’s not a particularly difficult concept. That’s not what makes me feel stupid.

Getting closer to God

I think what poked at my insecurities most is the fact that there’s no real automation or delegation in The Banished Vault. Gathering resources isn’t a simple matter of plopping down a building and having it churn up the ground. Nor can you just assign an exile to a specific task and have them do it themselves. No.

Each of your exiles is given a certain number of action points a turn. Aside from when they’re in transit from planet to planet, you need to actually take these actions each time. So, if you need 4 units of CO2 from a harvester, you need to click for each one.

That’s not so bad on a microscopic level, but The Banished Vault will give you multiple exiles to keep track of. To optimize, you’ll probably be sending groups of them to different planets. You then have to perform a task on one planet, zoom back to the planetary map, zoom in on another planet, pick the factory that you need a resource from, and extract that resource. Over and over again. With 30 turns per star system.

And then you also have to keep track of how difficult it is for your ships to perform actions in certain parts of the solar system. The Banished Vault requires your ships to expend a certain amount of energy and have a certain amount of thrust available for each maneuver. You’ll expend more energy doing certain things or visiting planets with high gravity. You want to make sure you have enough fuel to perform the action, and then return once it’s complete.

The Banished Vault Starmap
Screenshot by Destructoid

The merciless cosmos

Therefore, the overall goal of The Banished Vault in terms of design is forcing you to plan ahead. It wants you to know how many turns it’s going to take to perform a certain task. Wants you to have calculated how many action points you’ll need and how many turns it will take. This is something that I don’t do well.

Or do I? My bumbling did achieve success through a few star systems. I didn’t stop playing because I was losing but merely because it made me feel insecure.

This is the problem here. It makes me feel stupid because I don’t enjoy the complexities of its systems. I don’t want to play around with the energy calculator and take notes on how I’m going to perform certain action. I sure as hell don’t want to keep on swapping out exiles manually from the ship to the surface so I can get certain resources.

If some of this could be automated so that I could program multiple steps in advance, that would have been appreciated. Instead, I have to keep track of so much information in my head or write it down. Beyond that being something that I find very stressful, I also consider it uninteresting and unsatisfying. I’m sure that there is a type of person out there who finds this sort of thing to be the ultimate gratification. There’s also something to be said about a game that makes you get your hands dirty and takes away all those comforting little toys. For me, however, it just hurts to play.

Screenshot by Destructoid

The unfeeling expanse

This is all played underneath an equally uncomfortable soundtrack. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it consists of a lot of deep, droning tones that I find difficult to listen to for extended periods of time. I even had the game alt+tabbed for a short while and found I couldn’t leave it running in the background, as it still provoked anxiety.

On the other hand, The Banished Vault has some lovely art design. It has ornate backdrops, wooden character pieces, and lovely hand-drawn cards. It can sometimes be difficult to discern the different ship varieties and building types, but it’s otherwise both beautiful and functional.

But that’s pretty small comfort when I don’t like the game. I was hoping that, at some point, the whole concept would click with me, but instead, I just found more complaints. I just became more and more uncomfortable and insecure.

Was that the goal of the developers? Probably not. It could, after all, be a problem with my brain worms and not with The Banished Vault at all. On the other hand, it’s such a deeply unfriendly title that marries simple concepts with a demand for particular skills. Putting myself aside, I don’t really see it connecting with a wide audience. I absolutely respect The Banished Vault for its unique approach and its wonderful choice of aesthetic. I just wish it wasn’t so aloof.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

An Exercise in apathy, neither solid nor liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit 'meh,' really.

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Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.