I went into Shelter basically blind- I had heard the name, and apparently it had something to do with badgers? But beyond that, I was a blank slate. For its part, the game isn’t too eager to explain anything either. Menu options are the only text that appears in-game, there is no voicework, and no UI or signs of any sort. There is your character (a mother badger) and the five cubs that follow you wherever you go… and then a world. It took me a few minutes of messing around to even figure out what the game wanted from me. Once I had, though, it was fairly straightforward: I was leading this little cete on a journey, passing all manner of dangers of the wilderness, to an unknown destination. I supposed that I would probably know it when I got there.
Over the course of the next few hours, I led these young badgers across forests and fields, through streams and fires, in the shade, sun, and starlight. Mechanically, the game is quite simple- you can walk, you can run, you can sneak, and you can use your mouth- either to bite or to bark, as the situation requires. Long stretches of the game consist of simply walking through the woods, no real danger to speak of, just the fairly linear path the developers have carved out for you. Attempts to vary from the path are thwarted without exception- even slopes that don’t look the least bit imposing, you are incapable of surmounting. You go in the straight line that was designed for you.
In and of itself, this is not a problem, but the usual benefit of restrictive level design- a very tight gameplay experience- is not present. While you yourself handle just fine, your cubs prove far too slow and clumsy to handle the obstacles in your way. When you run, the cubs are unable to keep up with your speed, and given that many obstacles are timed, this leads to situations where it is almost impossible to keep them alive- they simply do not move fast enough. You run past the shadow of a hawk into the safe, tall grass, and your cubs wander over at their own leisure a good five seconds later. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but when a hawk is diving at you, talons extended, it’s the difference between life and death.
You also have to manage the hunger of the cubs, and they are similarly incompetent in this area. As they get hungrier, their fur fades visibly, shifting from a nutty brown to an ashen grey. Many times, I’d grab a snack for a starving cub, only to have his sibling who ate mere moments ago grab it instead. The AI works on a first-come, first-serve, and no matter how much you feed them, they never get so full that they won’t rush a new food item. In the course of the game (which appears to take two days, in world), these little cubs must have eaten five times their weight in food, each. In a way, it’s fortunate that the food is so plentiful as to make this system nearly pointless- keeping everyone full is never a challenge, and barely interesting. A lot of missed potential.
One thing that does stand out, however, is the wilderness that surrounds you. Simply put, it is beautiful. The models are simple, rough things, and the resolution is low, but the texture work and colors are beautifully creative, giving a look of finely crafted paper mache. There is an unfortunate level of contrast set in the game- everything looks noticeably washed out, and there’s no way to adjust it- but even that technical error doesn’t disrupt the majesty of it. Dancing flames look as magical as they do dangerous, the cascading water looks stunning, and it all runs smooth, with no technical trouble other than a bit of clipping that didn’t affect gameplay.
It’s also worth taking a moment to mention the music. It’s very simple, subdued stuff, a lot of acoustic guitar, but it’s really peaceful, and adds to the sense of nature around you. There’s a small experiment in the game with interactive music that doesn’t really work- when you feed a cub some food, a guitar chord plays, but the chord is always the same, and often doesn’t match the background music at all. It does keep from being annoying, but it doesn’t add anything. Still, the simple soundtrack holds the experience together, meshing with the art to give the presentation an altogether refreshing feel.
The message of the game is seemingly about the sacrifices of a mother, the deadly beauty of nature, and the struggle to survive, but the game’s poor gameplay systems rather undermine these goals. You don’t feel protective of the cubs, you feel annoyed at them because their AI is so useless. You don’t feel that everything is so dangerous, because you don’t have any trouble with the obstacles, just the cubs. And you don’t feel any kind of struggle to survive, because food is so plentiful that it’s a complete non-issue.
At the end of the day, the only thing this game really has going for it is its presentation. That presentation is absolutely stellar, with great atmospheric music and beautiful art design that looks wonderful while pushing astonishingly few polygons. The question is, is that worth putting up with bad AI, simple (at times tedious) gameplay, and an off-the-mark attempt at a greater message? For me, the answer is no. But I greatly respect what they tried here, and if you see the screenshots and just have to give it a look yourself, there are worse ways to spend ten dollars.
Two and a Half Stars Out of Five
I rate games not by overall quality, but by how much I enjoyed them, and think you will enjoy them. Rating their relative perfection is not interesting to me.
A copy of this game was provided by developer Might and Delight for the purposes of review. Played to completion.