In the last decade, I’ve lost countless friends, family, allies and enemies in the continuous conveyor belt of video game apocalypses, experienced heartache, betrayal, vengeance and regret by the bucketload. The thing is, these feelings were rarely triggered for the right reasons, with only a handful of games really getting close to the point of how despite the hopelessness and futility of surviving the end of the world, humanity strives to find a way regardless. Sheltered is one of those games that does make you care, but is the game surrounding it up to the same level?
Sheltered was initially developed by just two men, before Team 17 came in and helped build it into what it is today. Versions of the game have been available in early access for about seven months now, and the final build looks to deliver on much of the promise of those early builds. At its heart, Sheltered is your garden variety post-apocalyptic survival/crafting game with retro-inspired visuals (think along the lines of Another World/Flashback), but it takes those touchstones, and sprinkles in a little Fallout Shelter, This War is Mine and a dash of the bleak aura that surrounds Cormac McCarthy’s grim novel, The Road (though thankfully not quite that grim or the developers would have to include therapy sessions in the price of the game), to give you something familiar, yet impactful. The atmospheric low-fi gloom Sheltered has is striking without being spectacular, and coupled with the haunting soundtrack, it makes for a good representation of the end of humanity.
The side-sliced 2D layout means you get a view of everything going on at once, but it doesn’t mean it’s any easier to negotiate all the drama that follows. You begin each playthrough as a family of four (two adults, two kids that can be customised to a small degree) along with a family pet (snake, fish, horse cat or dog, all with their own advantages) who have just escaped the end of the world by getting in an underground shelter, which is about as happy as things get. Immediately it becomes apparent just how overwhelming the situation is. There is a laundry list of improvements and additions to make to your basic shelter and what supplies you do have are fast diminishing. Thus begins the somber juggling act, where you have to gamble your family’s health and wellbeing against topping up your dwindling supplies.
Say you need to make some home improvements, something like a stove to heat meals up, that’d get you feeling a bit more comfortable all round, but the air filter is broken, and the materials you have means you can only build one thing now until you send a raiding party out. So naturally the air filter takes priority, but you can bet your last ration that you’ll end up cursing that sacrifice eventually; probably when your food supplies are low and you could do with the extra nourishment a hot meal brings. Things don’t really get much better as time goes on, your group just don’t suffer as much. There’s no true win state really, as the world is still in the toilet no matter how well-equipped and safe your home might feel. Just surviving another day without starvation, madness or raiders trying to hammer down your door, is another small victory in a game you can’t beat.
Like most people management style game (yes, there are more than just The Sims), your family have various energy bars to represent their needs. An overall health bar is affected by one’s for thirst, hunger, sleep, hygiene and so on. Keeping a good, everyday routine as best you can in the circumstances, and ensuring you have a good supply of food and drink too, is essential to keep going. It’s lethal to neglect any of these as they begin to chip away at the main health bar and eventually, obviously, cause death in the cases of thirst and hunger. Then you’ll have to decide what to do with the body, as its mere presence really affects the remaining people in the shelter in a variety of ways. This all applies to everyone in your shelter, most surprisingly, the children are included in that, and that makes for a particularly harrowing experience if (more likely when) it happens.
I know that it was distressing enough for me to stop the game and start over again. It does sell the idea that nobody is safe, something that was diluted somewhat in the updated version of the similar This War of Mine when it introduced children in The Little Ones expansion. It’s a bold move, and one Sheltered probably gets away with thanks to the faceless nature of its character design. It certainly gives greater motivation to keep everyone alive, and gives you a horrid sense of dread when you can see a character declining before your eyes and thanks to myriad circumstances, you’re helpless to save them.
Your main quest outside of survival inside the shelter is going out into the world to scavenge for supplies. You have to choose two people from your shelter to travel to points on your map while the remainder stay at home. The raiding party will occasionally radio back to seek advice when they meet new people and find possible loot havens. If you choose to let your party talk with strangers then the game switches to the wasteland and shows them and the strangers in an RPG turn-based battle style that works as either a conversation or an actual turn-based battle. Sadly, neither comes off as particularly impressive, being a little too simplistic for its own good; if it wasn’t necessary, then I doubt you’d ever bother.
Keeping on the theme of strangers, they show up at your door occasionally, usually pleading for shelter or wanting to trade. Then there’s the less friendly types of course, that just want your stuff whether or not you give them permission. You can allow some strangers to join you in your shelter, and in a nice touch, they have free will for the first few days they inhabit your shelter, refusing to do anything they don’t want to do. As such, you have to build up a level of trust with them to get their cooperation. That’s vital if they are to stay with you, as they put further drain on resources, the upshot being that once they trust you, they can go out on raids for you, letting others in your group defend the shelter from possible attack, and also lessen the burden on them to do everything. Rejecting folk rarely goes well, with them usually sabotaging your air or water filter as they skulk off. In one astounding instance, a stranger defecated in the water filter after being shunned. Like I said before, you just don’t win in Sheltered, you just endure.
The balancing act of survival and growth is well done. Your first three or four runs will usually end up with you seeing certain doom mere weeks into your quest for survival, learning as you go for the next time. There is some variation in how often situations and items occur in the wastes, meaning you don’t exactly play the same game twice, but the initial fortnight or so in game is almost always exactly the same things in a slightly different order. This tests the patience somewhat as while Sheltered has depth, it isn’t nearly enough to offset the repetitious nature of the opening hour or two. Having to go through it over and over is all the more frustrating when you understand that the game begins to get more interesting after that point, but not enough that you’re willing to continue plugging away at the increasingly tedious start to get there.
Thus Sheltered fumbles its promise and ingenuity via repetition—a curse that has befallen many a game. Still, there’s plenty to praise about the experience. A small development team has delivered a very clear vision of what their apocalypse is, and it’s very good indeed at depicting a harsh, unforgiving world without much in the way of technical power. Perhaps it’s a little too effective at recreating the monotony of early post-apocalyptic life, however; the mind-numbing, soul-crushing bore of living in a shelter isn’t really entertainment material when treated with such realism. Indeed, this is the game’s biggest strength and weakness in almost equal measure. The biggest compliment you can pay Sheltered is that it doesn’t treat the end of the world as an excuse to go a bit fantastical, rather it shows the bleak, unfair, uncaring truth of what it should be, and that’s a welcome change, if not a particularly pleasant one.