I launched Might and Delight's latest title, Shelter, for one of the last times before I began to write this review. Shelter is about survival, as indicated by the title. In this game you control a mother badger who has to provide for and protect her five cubs as they trek through the world. Early on in the game the concept is introduced that you need to keep your cubs fed or else they will starve. In my first playthrough of the game none of my babies succumbed to hunger (Though some of them did meet other various ends, but we'll get to that later.), so I wanted to see how that worked. That's my job as a reviewer; to poke and prod at a game's systems to figure them out and describe them to you, dear reader. So I started a new game, got past the brief opening title crawl of the game and left the game running. I switched over to my Xbox 360 and watched the most recent episode of Breaking Bad to be entertained whilst nature took its course.
About 40-minutes later I switch off the Xbox, my mind still racing at what could come next in Breaking Bad, the last thing I was thinking about was Shelter and those baby cubs. As my monitor cycled through the various inputs it finally switched over to my PC and the sight before me made my heart sink to the pit of my stomach: five little corpses, drained of all color, surrounding mother badger. At first I didn't know what to do, my blood finally started racing as did I across the level, gathering a buried turnip and bringing it to the nearest still body. It had been so long, they were obviously too long gone, surely? But as I laid the food down before it, miraculously the baby stood up, quickly downing the food and regaining its color. Elated, I gathered more and more food, eventually bringing all of my children back from the dead. No one had been lost.
Then after some time passed my intellect started deconstructing the implications of the event. It had only taken me about an hour to finish Shelter, so if my babies didn't die of starvation in over 2/3's of that time, then it was improbable that realistically starvation could ever occur. That particular threat that Shelter hangs over your head was bullshit. Merely an illusion to nurture conflict and danger for the player to overcome, because that's what videogames do. It was as fake as the actual game itself; an artificial construct to facilitate engagement.
But in the moment, when my skin grew cold and my eyes grew wide as I saw the half-circle of my supposedly dead children, it felt all too real. Shelter tricked me to care, and that's more than what most games can, or even wish to accomplish. And despite some of Shelter's other notable problems and flaws, it's something worth noting.
Indeed I didn't lose many cubs at all in my original playthrough. The game is hardly challenging and barely punishes you. As mentioned above, starvation isn't an issue, and during some of the "boss" fights in the game against certain predators like a soaring hawk or hidden wold, the game only lets you lose one cub and then the predators will just disappear. You could stumble through most of the game, but still have a decent number of cubs by the end.
Truly the most dangerous foe is the AI of your cubs. You don't have any direct control over them, so you would love that the developers would have this locked down, but alas, 'tis not the case. I only lost two little ones in my playthrough, one because it decided to run around in the open instead of hide inside a bush like the rest of my cubs, getting swooped up by a hawk in the process, and another because of a seemingly scripted moment. Both felt completely cheap and unnecessary, and instead of the heavy sense of loss that the game obviously wanted me to feel, all I felt was anger at the game design which drew me out of the experience.
Also since Shelter is such a short game I wish there was more variety in the scenario design. The previously discussed hawk fight, where you have to run between bushes to avoid losing any cubs (unless the AI goes bad), is repeated multiple times throughout the game. Though to be fair they are presented in different ways, but the underlying mechanics are the same, so it was just an exercise in repeating what I had already mastered the first time.
The single element that I can praise Shelter for without finding fault is its presentation, as the game simply looks and sounds fantastic. Visually the game takes inspiration from paper craft works and the world feels like a living origami scene, and there are some later levels that play with this in some brilliant ways. The soundtrack is also great, a charming little score that reacts and plays along with what you do in the game. These are the things that are the most self-evident when you watch a trailer of Shelter, but still are the best aspect of the game.
I apologize in advance for reiterating the obvious, but this game is called "Shelter". It's a title that promises a hostile world which you must not necessarily conquer, but simply struggle to survive in, a war between you and your baby badgers against uncaring mother nature. The game doesn't do good on the promise of its premise, adding on to it is the repetition of the scenarios and the sometimes cheap AI which broke the atmosphere and removed any sense of responsibility or feeling of anguish as a hawk took one of my baby away.
I enjoyed Shelter as I played it, and the ending is a potent one that has something important to say about the world we live, but as I consider this game in retrospect, it's hard for me not to feel disappointed by the execution of such an unique experience. In the moment Shelter may trick you to care as it did me, but the reality is that this Might and Delight game simply has no fangs.
THREE OUT OF FIVE
(A balanced game that has a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, meaning that it alternates between being good and bad in mostly equal measure.)