When I enter my 23rd solar system, I know this is the end. My small crew of exiles is running out of faith — a pillar of their monastic identity, as well as a core game mechanic. At a glance, the planetoids in this region of space don’t have the resources or land masses for me to build critical outposts or craft key items. I don’t have enough stasis — a liquid matrix that enables the exiles to survive the excruciating hibernation process between solar systems. Eventually, they will grow weary and lose the ability to perform any actions, which is tantamount to curling up in a ball and waiting for death.
The Banished Vault is essentially a single-player tabletop scenario that has been honed into a singularly intense, sadistic instrument of survivalism and resource management. Each solar system is a procedurally generated trial with the same spiritual vibes as that math problem that requires moving a group of people and a hungry lion between two islands in one boat. It is The Art of War for logisticians written by a spacegoth Dune mentat. Mentally, I refer to the game as The Punishment Vault. It is the most grueling thing I’ve played in years, and I love it.
I’m in charge of the Auriga Vault, one of many enigmatic interstellar monastery cities that chart the universe. Somewhere on the edge of space, it encountered a planet-eating entity called the Gloom, which decimated its inhabitants. The surviving skeleton crew, now known as exiles, has devoted their remaining lives to documenting their journey. To complete the game, I must help the exiles complete four Chronicle entries in a structure called the Scriptorium, which can only be built on a special Hallowed planet.
Each solar system has its own random conditions, some of which feel like the work of the cosmic devil himself: Young systems might have tiny asteroids with only a single resource, while old, dying systems have increased travel times between planets. Against an ink-black abyss littered with tiny stars, I direct my team to gather resources, build outposts, craft items, excavate artifacts to unlock abilities, and, wherever possible, get to a Hallowed planet (if there is one) to write the next chronicle.
Fuel and iron are critical, but things like titanium and silica can be a gamble — I sometimes find myself barreling into a system that lacks the one resource I need, with no way to move forward, which means restarting the whole game. I roll dice to overcome hazards, which increase and intensify in comically cruel ways as my ordeal continues. It is inevitable that he Gloom will come for us. After 30 turns, it starts swallowing chunks of the geomantic map; more often than not, it also swallows my exiles.
I spend hours in a brain-melting trance of fuel calculations and reckless maneuvers while the universe constricts around me; my hyper-focused state is helped along by a brilliantly atmospheric soundtrack with cavernous reverb and cosmic choir voices. I’m generally bad at math, but for the sake of the Vault, I rally every cell in my left brain to action. Every mouse click is a commitment to its consequences, because there is no undo button — when I screw up, I have to start a new game. Every slightly misplaced building or minor miscalculation elicits a thrill of terror because I know I’m going to pay for it, dearly. With each restart, I wonder if the game is wildly over-tuned, or if my exiles are filthy heretics who aren’t meant to write their story. My most successful turns are spent strung tighter than a tripwire, pumping out as much stasis and faith-replenishing elixir as I can without risking too much.
My frustrations evaporate once I accept the harsh, precise reality of space survival; The Banished Vault isn’t a territorial pissing contest or a cozy terraformer where I can settle down and make a home. There is no conquest or diplomacy. I don’t have armies and silos to stockpile a safety net — I don’t even have a single proverbial fat year to reap from, much less seven. I just need to scrape together the bare minimum to make it to the next solar system.
With all of this perverse hardship, it makes sense to contemplate who or what I’m suffering for. The 46-page game manual is a click away, so I can make quick references to building materials and mechanics, but it also includes very selective snippets of lore. The gorgeous black-and-white illustrations evoke the gothic sensibilities of William Blake’s engravings and the bleak unknowableness of these 1906 drawings for War of the Worlds. The intricate cross-hatching gives the manual a sort of Victorian, almost anthropological quality, like a painstakingly crafted companion to the exiles’ monastic duty to the Chronicle. The four Chronicle entries themselves offer no concrete answers or details about the exiles’ people—only tantalizingly vague bits and pieces mixed in with esoteric religious allegory. If the Auriga’s monks believed in a god or a specific higher power before the Gloom, it has forgotten them.
After I complete my first playthrough, I am both horrified and delighted to find two new modes: Difficult and Intense. I’ve been playing Normal this whole time, which is a revelation to my internal masochism meter. I may not have signed up for sadistic 4D chess, but I’m not backing out now. Five minutes later, barely two turns into my first Intense game, I’m ready to boot my exiles out of the airlock into the arms of a kinder fate. Every difficulty gives the same amount of starting resources (fuel, iron, elixir, and so on), but dials up the number and intensity of hazards and complications at this level of play — my skull feels like it’s leaking.
After multiple restarts, I spend all 30 turns making barely enough stasis for everyone to survive; just as I’m ready to put the crew into hibernation, I realize we’ve left someone behind on an outpost. I have no opportunities to collect knowledge to upgrade my exiles and steel them against the brutalities of the next solar system, which will surely be more challenging than this one. Intense is not for me, but I relish my brief time under its oppressive conditions to concoct dramatic end-of-life epiphanies for my crew.
If the exiles’ civilization set up this monastic exploration program as a means of colonization (à la the Alien Engineers), the Auriga Vault is the inevitable result of mortal hubris meeting cosmic entropy. There’s a sliver of sly delight in the inverted dynamic of these would-be colonizers fleeing before an all-consuming force obliterates them. It is pointless to ruminate on the flavor of their imperialism or the exact nature of their religion and its viral spread across the universe through these massive colony vaults. I will never know anything meaningful about their home — the place to where the Chronicle is supposedly being transmitted. The storytelling is deliberately sparse, but elegant in both form and function: The omissions and negative space here do far more to bond me with the exiles than any lore dump could.
The Banished Vault is, if anything, a master class in the economy and cruelty of space survival where every movement matters. It is wholeheartedly uncompromising in bending the player to its will and vision, and it is right to do so. I realize that the intangible, interstitial faith holding my exiles together has become fused with my own confidence in what I’m doing; I don’t care about parsing the minutiae of their civilization as much I care about having the chutzpah and half-assed math to pull us through.
The Banished Vault will be released on July 25 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Bithell Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.