Over the weekend I’ve played 14 hours of Sheltered and now I want to die. There’s your tagline right there. It’s sort of what would happen if Fallout Shelter and This War of Mine or Gods Will Be Watching had some sort of unholy offspring bent on sucking all the happiness out of the world. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad game, quite the contrary, but it’s at times very effective at being infuriating, depressing or nerve-wracking. While still in early access, you can tell that the folks at Unicube really have their minds set on making the videogame version of a dementor. What? Don’t look at me like that, I know what you kids these days like. With your Harry Pottsons and Game of Thorns and Breaking Badlies. See, what’s happening now is: I’m using humor to avoid thinking about Sheltered. But we have to talk about it eventually, don’t we?
Sheltered: XBox One, Windows [Reviewed], Mac OS X, Linux
Developer: Unicube, Team 17 Digital Ltd
Publisher: Team 17 Digital Ltd
Release Date: 4 August 2015
Price: €12,99 [Disclosure: Game copy supplied by Developer/Publisher]
A Sheltered life we lead
Now, fair word of warning, I’m probably going to reference Fallout Shelter a few times during the course of the review, since it’s the most similar high profile title in both theme and gameplay. The main defining difference between the two titles in my opinion would be that while Fallout Shelter is a passive game, essentially making you wait (in a familiar mobile free to play fashion) for tasks to conclude and then restart them, Sheltered is much more active, having shorter (and interruptible) waiting times and requiring a more hands-on approach to surviving. You start off Sheltered by creating (or randomly generating) a family of four. You can customize anything about them from cosmetic aspects like gender, clothing, skin color to more mechanical ones like traits and personality. The traits I won’t go in-depth over. Suffice to say that most deal with how quickly or effectively you finish certain actions and during your survival, some strengths may swap for weaknesses or vice-versa.
Your family consists, in the beginning, of two adults, two children and either a cat or dog. Right off the bat, without knowledge of the game’s systems, you’re told that the dog relieves more stress, is less effective at catching rats and needs to be fed daily while the cat relieves less stress, catches more rats and only needs feeding every other day (which as a cat owner I call bullshit on just so we’re clear). I chose the cat for both pragmatic concerns and sentimental reasons. The game starts you off as your family enters the shelter for the first time. A brief tutorial lays down the basics: you have an air filter that keeps out radiation, a water collector that stores rain water in barrels around the shelter and a fuel-based generator that runs both of them and the lights. Your shelter also comes with two hazmat suits for work on the shelter exterior, a journal that lists your past endeavors, a Geiger counter to keep an eye on the radiation levels, a map used for planning scavenging and exploration expeditions and a radio and intercom for long-range and short-range communication. The most important piece, however, is the workbench. Here you can craft equipment and facilities, give orders to build new shelter rooms and even rearrange your current setup.
Sheltered gives you enough resources to craft your bare necessities and some other improvements of your choice. Your survivors have a needs system similar to that of The Sims so crafting the missing facilities such as a bucket toilet and a makeshift shower should be your top priority, followed by a sleeping bag or two, after which you can start planning ahead. Your generator, air filter, water collector and workbench start off at low levels. Upgrading the workbench gives you access to better items and facilities, while upgrading the other three systems increases their durability (as they constantly degrade, needing repairs) and efficiency. There is a self-sufficiency pipe-dream in Sheltered but it is long and needs a lot of resources, so if you don’t feel like chancing starvation until a travelling merchant delivers you the exact parts you need scavenging is your only solution.
You use the randomly generated map to pick a destination or several. You can choose as many waypoints as you like, but the longer the trek, the more water you need to take with you. As a sidenote, upgrading your water storage is a smart play, as you largely depend on rain and a lot of your shelter like showers, toilets and cleaning tools require water so when it does rain, you’d do well to take full advantage of it. Anyway, in addition to setting a route, you can also send up to two people in the expedition. You can equip a weapon, improvised or otherwise, on each. Also a gas mask, which apparently protects you from radiation, and two storage items to expand their inventory. Inventory being limited, it’s a good idea to plan improvements ahead and make a note on what items you need in your shelter as there is no way to check while looting. After your expedition is off you’re left managing your shelter occasionally being prompted via radio when your survivors encounter other people, find a location, reach a waypoint or are ready to loot. As far as I can tell there is no major mechanical difference between children and adults as far as game actions go, so feel free to send whomever you like.
Food will be, in the beginning, your scarcest resource. While water does quite literally fall from the sky semi-regularly, you need to loot canned food actively or build snare traps to capture some of the local wildlife when they wander outside your shelter. I have not yet had anyone die of starvation of dehydration, but if situations get dire and you’re expecting to be able to eat the dead, well…I’ve made it abundantly clear what sort of game Sheltered is. Plus, crafting a grave to keep the bodies out of the shelter is such a bother.
Occasional other concerns are stress (due to prolonged discomfort) and trauma (due to deaths and other bad events) which may render a character catatonic, food poisoning which occurs due to lack of hygiene (personal or environmental) and has your character throw up constantly but is easily cured by medication or time, and the dreaded radiation poisoning which occurs in characters exposed to the outside unprotected or by drinking or breathing contaminated water or air. Radiation poisoning can only be cured by special drugs and will kill a character quite quickly, so it’s wise to keep some in the medicine cabinet.
As you progress you’ll be able to range further and carry more loot, repair the camper outside the shelter and plan lengthier expeditions and eventually reach a degree of self-sufficiency with growing your own food and storing large amounts of water in your tanks. Here I find myself in need of comparing the game to Fallout Shelter. In Sheltered actions take a shorter amount of time to perform, but there is a deeper, if slower sense of real long-progress. Fallout Shelter allows you to build more and expand further at a rapid pace, while offering you little else but fuck-all things to do as you expand.
The ugly side of the post-apocalypse
Sheltered plays easily. Moving is done with the left mouse button and interacting with the right. Each character has a queue of up to two actions, the downside being that the move action also uses the queue and you need to manually cancel a move order to have a character move to a new destination as opposed to just clicking a new destination. In addition, the game features a lot of useful shortcuts that it fails to present during the tutorial and which make a huge difference. Most importantly, the automation function that allows your survivors to take care of their own fucking needs and not needing you to babysit them. The control scheme is strange but otherwise easy to use once you’re accustomed to it.
When you occasionally meet other survivors in the wasteland you have the option to bully them into giving you something, trade with them and recruit them which have varying degrees of success based on your stats. There is also the option to attack which sets your party into a very JRPG-inspired combat system that is both simple and satisfying. Survivors do seem to be less inclined to attack than they are to trade, or at least this was my experience. Every now and again they’ll show up at your door asking to be let in or to trade and while the game hints at the perils of trusting strangers I haven’t dealt with any social issues like betrayal or murderers or the like. Whether or not something like that is going to be in the final version of the game remains to be seen.
Graphically the game looks great. Now admittedly, I’m a very big fan of the pixel art style, but there is a lot of attention to detail going on here. The set pieces are nicely crafted, with the sun majestically rising and setting over a ruined city on the horizon and all sorts of interesting locations to visit while away from the shelter, but it’s the animations that steal the show. As soon as you see a character climbing down the ladder you realize that this is not your average sprite animation with three or five frames. Everything moves very fluidly making it a pleasure to watch when someoneis moving or working and less so when they’re keeling over to vomit. There is the occasional graphical glitch, such as a character sliding across a surface rather than walking, or weirdly rotating 90 degrees for the remainder of the game.
The sound design is minimalist yet effective. The vault doors have weight to them, the soundtrack is moody and the cat occasionally meows… oh God… The cat occasionally starts meowing when it’s hungry. Your whole shelter has been hungry for days. Rangings have been unrewarding and you’ve let some more people in. Maybe more than you can handle. Meow. It’s getting harder and harder, everyone is starving and stressed, but no one says anything about it. Meow. At least none of the humans. Meow. I hover the mouse over Mr Banjo. Meow. His health is decreasing at a noticeable pace. Meow. It dawns on me that these are the cries of a cat slowly starving to death. Meow. It’s the only sound the shelter makes for a while. Repetitive. Haunting. Meow. Meow. Meow. And then it suddenly stops. Everyone is traumatized by it. But hey. At least now there’s food.
This was a deeply troubling experience for my fragile psyche. I immediately restarted and made sure that during my subsequent playthrough I wouldn’t let the cat starve, no matter the cost. So far I’ve been able to hold myself to that. People came and went (violently or tragically) but the cat never missed a meal again. It did bring up an interesting issue I have with the game, though. No one ever really emotes. Sure they slump when sick and they keel over when they throw up but other than that, I didn’t see anyone crying or shaking or trembling or any other happy things.
In its current state of Early Access Sheltered still has quite a way to go. Balancing is still an issue, as you’ll be stuck in a routine seeing no real progress for extended periods of time until you find the last blasted hinge that you need to upgrade your workbench or something. It’s not on par with something like This War of Mine and lacks depth as of this writing, but it has complexity to compensate. It’s a battle of attrition with a slim promise of things getting easier further down the line. I’m looking forward to getting there eventually.