A few hours into Sheltered, I was ready to give the game a fairly mediocre review.
After playing This War of Mine, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons thanks to their very similar gameplay and premise, and unfortunately Sheltered seemed to come off worse in all areas. But then something happened: I couldn’t actually pull myself away from the game, and 15 hours in I can’t wait to get my next fix.
By no means is Sheltered a perfect game. It’s flawed in many ways, but somehow it seems to get that one crucial element that’s so important to any game: it’s incredibly addictive. The premise of the game is very simple; taking control of a family of four, you’re left to survive some kind of nuclear fallout by taking refuge in a very modest underground shelter. You’re given the basics to get you started – a few days’ worth of food and a means to collect water – but it’s up to you to help your family survive by expanding the shelter and scavenging for important materials. It’s impossible to not instantly compare Sheltered to This War of Mine, 2014’s simulation of a war-torn Eastern Europe where you played as a family struggling to survive until ceasefire is declared. Both involve keeping your family safe and fed by means of scavenging and upgrading facilities in your stronghold. Where This War of Mine places more emphasis on scavenging, however, Sheltered remains more grounded in the upkeep of your abode; you don’t accompany your scavengers out on their missions – you merely get updates from them via a radio transmitter. At first, this felt tedious and boring, but once I learned to stop comparing the two games and let Sheltered guide me on its own path, everything started to feel much more enjoyable.
There’s a lot more emphasis on upgrading and progression in Sheltered rather than just survival. My first two attempts failed miserably around the 25 day mark when all my family got sick, I had no food or water and no signs of the situation ever improving. On the third attempt, however, I seemed to get the balance just right. Delicately exploring the surrounding area bit by bit, I brought back only what was necessary in my very limited storage, and eventually my basic underground bunker became better equipped and more self-sustainable. I’d found enough materials to build enough water butts to store weeks’ worth of water, and had adequate traps and a stove to be able to source and cook my own meat. I’d been able to craft my own backpacks so scavenging was no longer an essentials-only activity; my inventory was booming. It may have been the apocalypse, but things were good.
Sitting atop your shelter is a run down camper van, and whilst the game never particularly brings attention to it, your own curiosity drives it to act as your primary goal. You see, there are parts scattered throughout the region that can be used to repair it, and once it’s up and running, it’s yours to drive and take on scavenger hunts to bring back massive amounts of valuable materials and resources. It’s a worthwhile goal to work towards, but it’s often a wild goose chase as you’ve no idea where the parts can be. The map is sprawling, and previously visited locations will yield different loot on a repeat journey, so your chance of finding any campervan parts are purely down to pot luck. 220 days in and I’ve collected 9 of the 11 parts. The problem is after 220 days of scavenging, I’ve been able to upgrade most of my shelter and have a massive supply of most materials, so by the time the campervan is built, I’ll unfortunately have little use of it.
It’s perhaps this insatiable drive to find all the camper van parts that keeps Sheltered feeling so addictive. You’re desperate to send another group out on a scavenging mission; visiting as many locations as humanly possible to bring back as much loot as you can carry, and hoping that one shack or another might hold that holy grail of van parts. Although you don’t accompany your explorers on their scavenging missions, you’re very much an active part of it. You plan their route via selecting as many points on the map as you’d like to visit (limited only by your current supply of water), and then, at every lootable location they reach, you’ll get a notification via the radio and be able to choose what items to take from the available stash. There are encounters that happen out in the wild too; you’ll meet random people who may or may not be friendly. Sometimes it’s up to you to make the first call, and you can either offer them shelter, trade with them, or fight. Other times they’ll be the ones to decide which way things are going to go. You’ll also encounter wild animals whom you can fight or flee from, and there are missions along the way too. Certain people you meet may have a specific request for you; often they require particular items bringing in return of a reward. These are pretty scarce through the game, but it helps to keep things feeling fresh.
The combat in Sheltered is pretty fun; at least to begin with until it becomes quite repetitive. Playing out like a rudimental turn-based RPG, you can choose whether you want to attack, disarm, steal from your opponent or flee to safety. Attacks can either be melee or gun-based, depending on what items you have available and what you’ve equipped before heading out into the world. Generally, most fights are won easily – especially once you’ve got a weapon – as enemies rarely seem to have any level of difficulty attached to them. There have been a few hairy moments, but on the whole, I’ve felt safe to launch an attack on pretty much anybody with the confidence of knowing I’m going to come out successful (albeit with a bit of blood loss here and there, but a friendly bit of stabbing never killed anybody… unless you forget to bandage yourself up when you get home, that is). After each successful fight, you’ll gain experience to your strength and stamina, which improve your performance in future fights. The problem here is if two people are out scavenging together (as I always chose) it only seems to give experience to the person who does the finishing blow. Bob might have done 97% of the damage, but since Curly Sue knocked him down with her feeble girl-punch then she’s taking all the credit for it. I’d hope this is is something that may get fixed in a patch at some point.
The pixellated art style of Sheltered is something of an acquired taste, although I’ve got to admit I’m not usually a fan of throwback pixel art, but here it somehow works. In some ways, the blocky visuals help to make the game more approachable; given more realistic graphics, this game may just be too bleak and harsh, and whilst the dulled colour pallette and ambient music remind you that things are dire, somehow the art style carries the game through with a lighter air around it than – and here’s that comparison again – This War of Mine. The combat in particular is rather bloody and brutal, with your characters visibly pummelling each other with a myriad of lethal weapons – axes, knives, shotguns, a random pipe you found in the scrapyard, you name it. The dissent from realism helps to keep a “casual game” vibe to what would otherwise be a harrowing display. That’s not to say that Sheltered doesn’t have its fair share of grim moments: the frequent bouts of food poisoning that leave your characters retching on their hands and knees; the dead family dog covered in flies because you didn’t have enough food to spare for him; the armed attackers who force their way into your shelter and render your characters helpless and vulnerable.
My main gripe with Sheltered – and I imagine the one issue that will stop this game being accessible to a wider audience – is its lack of explanation. Even when you opt to have the tutorial on, this results in nothing more than a very basic introduction to your shelter and a few tooltip pop-up boxes throughout your first few days. Many times I had to turn to asking Google how to do certain things; I suppose in this day and age it’s less of a problem thanks to having the internet to rely on, but personally I’d rather my in-game experience remain in-game.
Despite my initial concerns that it was nothing more than a “poor man’s version of This War of Mine” (and I really do apologise for that snap judgement, Unicube), Sheltered grew on me with every extra minute I spent on the game. Every new thing I learnt to do or figured out was a success, and every time you find a rare item or get the materials you need to update a part of your shelter, it really does feel like a valid cause for celebration. More than just a case of survival, Sheltered pushes you to grow and eventually thrive, and the moment your little unit starts to become somewhat self-sufficient, you’ll feel a real swell of pride. The problem is that upon reaching that point, there becomes less and less for you to do; you’ll repeat the same scavenger hunts, do the same fights and encounters again and again, and any cause for celebration will dwindle down to a trickle as 50 or more days may pass without you finding anything particularly useful. Still, I may already have everything I need to survive and thrive, but I’m still going to persevere until I find those campervan parts – just because I have to.
Sheltered isn’t a game for everybody, but if you’ve got the patience to put in a bit of time and learn the ropes, you stand to get a lot of enjoyment out of this neat little package. It may be simple, a bit repetitive, and your overall goal might be a bit of an anticlimax, but by god it’s addictive.