Review: Sheltered14 Nov 2017 0
Released 25 Oct 2017
Sheltered is a ruinous, hazardous and ultimately monotonous foray into the dystopian survival genre. In it, players customize a 'nuclear family' whose chief task is to continue living in the wake of the radioactive apocalypse. After a fashion, art mirrors life: just as the dull goal of the in-game avatars is to merely exist indefinitely, the goal of the out-of-game player is simply to continue playing. Success means nothing so much as more of the same. If all this sounds like thin gruel, it's because that is exactly what it is, and yet the game's grey and plodding consistency is paradoxically one of its biggest draws.
Along with a brief tutorial, the game opens by tasking the player with creating and naming the family unit. This family struggles to meet their physical and psychological needs while improving their shelter's defenses and amenities. To accomplish this, they explore the surrounding environment and gain experience from individual tasks and encounters around the shelter. Set each member to autopilot and they will wander about filling their most pressing needs with little thought of tomorrow; turn this automation off and they will idle until your industrious thumbs tell them whether to repair the water filter, build a bed, or do any one of a multitude of pressing tasks. In its degree of simulation, the game stops just short of having its families literally change lightbulbs.
As you can well imagine, the game's micro-intensive nature makes it a good fit for touch-based mobile gameplay. Even over the course of a single day, the game demands many small course corrections and judgment calls, usually striking a careful balance between immediate concerns and far-flung goals. Scavenging, repairing, crafting, and fighting each rely on a character's stats, selected at the game's start by picking one of a preset number of personalities which allocate these stats. My disturbed family member, for example, made a handy footsoldier but simultaneously lacked the charm to recruit new survivors.
The life-management aspect comes from character's needs,which function much like with the Sims, filling up to critical levels necessitating the occasional snack, drink, and nap, along with trips to the loo. Otherwise they die, faithfully and right on schedule, much as a neglected Tamagotchi might. Even the most indispensable things, like a bed or (human)wastebucket must be built from scratch with your character's precious energy and resources, natch. The game's crafting system is extensive and laborious, to the extent that most game items are simply reducible to material for creating or upgrading items.
The remainder fall mostly into two categories: consumables like food and fuel, or limited but powerful and situational items like weapons and anti-radiation pills. Items themselves are prone to bouts of plenty and scarcity depending on the RNG, which makes proper rationing all the more difficult as storage space in the shelter is finite (but, like most everything, upgradeable). Getting a better water filter after the end of the civilization is supposed to be a major achievement, I guess. By that measure, eking out enough resources to build a working jukebox, a top-tier item, is like finishing a world wonder. Strange stuff.
But not wholly unconvincing. The systems interlock with satisfying monotony, as the rhythm between sustaining the status quo and trying to rise above it has been pitched just about right. The customizeable family stays bland, thanks to some wooden dialogue and flat attempts at characterization. The resources, overworld, shelter and people in it all become strictly means to an end, or rather, towards an endless future. Knowing people or even individual game elements becomes secondary to the deeper knowledge of knowing the system, how every soulless gear locks into place.
The game schools you dispassionately in its own cold mechanics, and if you stay long enough in the shelter, that tingling lack of sensation might start to register as something in its own right. Daily life is about scraping by, with the hope of scraping by a little more easily later. In this respect, the seemingly dystopian or bleak elements read instead as empathetic and human, sensitive to suffering and penury. If so many games end up as glorified hamster wheels with a dash of Skinner box thrown in for good measure, then at least Sheltered is forthcoming and imaginative in its spare construction and the manner of dull, petty crises it visits upon the player. The game's challenges are good and fair, its theme modest and slavishly present in every detail.
To answer the dangling paradox from earlier, it is these consistent elements of drudgery which make Sheltered an interesting, addictive experience even as they make for a poor, easily worn-out game. Systemic understanding and tokens of achievment seem to be about as hard-won here as they are in many peer survival games, but this is beside the point. Becoming better at Sheltered might or might not be especially difficult, but regardless of player skill level, the game stays largely the same. It instils nothing so much as a perverse curiosity to understand more, to persist further, to see whether the genuine possibility of change is out there somewhere in the forsaken wasteland.
Yet nothing changes, there are no inner lives to be found in its human characters, nor are there places for truly decisive or clever judgements. The game derives its meaningfulness from sheer attachment and memory, from its own sense of inevitability and continuity. Yet to evaluate it as a diversion from the humdrum of daily life, which is, after all, the role most would consider for games play in life, Sheltered fails. So its recommendation as a game must be limited to masochists with a penchant for flattened affect and grueling grind.