Spooktober 2018 Entry #9 – Previous Entry: How to Survive 2 // Next Entry: Crypt of The Necrodancer – The Greatest OST Ever Made
As much as it would be a dream to try and survive in the nuclear winter, the odds aren’t high.
Chances are, you would be one of the first skeletons covered in radiation, and the last thing you saw would be the mushroom cloud. Depressing to think, even more so in this current climate, but hey, at least we can fantasize! One of the few things the world still allows us to do, and thankfully, Sheltered is here to let you live those dreams.
This is a survival simulator, and the debut title from Unicube Studios, a four-man team located in Shropshire, which means that the Tikis are on them if I ever visit. Sheltered was made possible thanks to a Kickstarter campaign passing its £15,000 goal, along with the glorious blokes and Sheilas from Team17 publishing it. Good on them, as Team17 have an eye for the unique.
You control a family of four, who have just hunkered down into a pre-made bomb shelter dug just underneath the surface. The bombs have dropped, the buildings are mere skeletons compared to their former shining glory, and now it’s down to you to provide for this family and work towards a brighter future. Whether you’re hostile or friendly, you’re going to have to comply to the new laws.
Remember SYMMETRY? It was a similar 2-D side-scrolling survival simulator that looked like it owed a few of its mechanics to Sheltered, but it made the mistake that a lot of other survival simulators do with hunger and thirst. A lot of things just disappeared in SYMMETRY without an explanation, and thankfully, Sheltered doesn’t suffer from the same issues.
You choose your family members, their background, and preset stats, you name ’em, grab whatever your pet you want from a horse to a fish, and hunker down in the bunker. As soon as they slam that hatch down, you’re in control with what they do, whether it be letting them starve to death or going out into the world.
While Sheltered is considerably easier to adapt to than SYMMETRY, Unicube has compensated by making you micro-manage every single shred of this family’s daily life. From eating to drinking, to peeing and pooping, to showering and sleeping, literally everything on their rotas needs your attention. Even when they’re in auto-mode, they still require some form of attention.
Sooner or later, you’re not going to be able to sustain this family by sucking on the radiators, and you’re going to be taking two of them out to explore the land. The world around you is procedurally generated, and provided that you have enough water to sustain the trip, you can plan out the trip they make to various buildings to search for more supplies and crafting materials. Equip yourself with the correct items and make sure that the world is more welcoming to your presence.
One thing you can do before that is scan frequencies for a while, constantly shifting from channel to channel to see if there’s anyone nearby who needs a hand or a fist up the arse. It can be neat for later expeditions, as everything that isn’t immediately around the shelter is marked with a “?”, but it only does one building at a time, and you can’t choose that building either. It’s nice to see where special events are, yeah, but still, there needs to be a bit more of a reward for wasting your time like that.
If you’re unlucky, you may run across random survivors and animals, and if it’s survivors, you may not have to whip out a weapon, and instead choose to recruit them to your shelter, trade, or fight. Early on, it might be best to see what they have to trade or offer, and maybe choose to let them live in your shelter also. Animals don’t give you that chance however, which in turn brings combat.
It’s turn-based, there’s not a lot of options, and good Lord, is it visceral. Despite the unbelievably simplistic pixel art, there is a lot of detail and effort put into the animations, and even though it might not like much, the squelches coming from a rock slamming against a skull are nauseating. Thankfully, this isn’t always an option, as being more of a pacifist can reward you. Disarm your enemies and subdue them, and not only will your family members not be traumatized, but you can still loot the unconscious bodies afterwards!
A problem that never gets properly explained are the stress and trauma levels. If you put your characters under enough pressure in the shelter, or if they’ve killed too many people, they’re supposed to do… something. I’m not entirely sure what they’re supposed to do, because no matter how much I make the Peel family slaughter every animal and human in sight, they never begin suffering from any kind of PTSD.
Another thing that I can never get to happen is the raider events. Supposedly you’re supposed to run into raiders who try and enter your shelter without permission, and you have to repel them off with traps and such. The only problem is that I can also never get this to happen, even when I broadcast my position, so maybe it’s for the really good players.
While they’re doing that, the shelter occupants not on a journey throughout the wastelands can make good use of their time by improving the shelter. Adding new rooms, making beds– Even though you were smart enough to build a shelter before the bombs dropped, you weren’t smart enough to stock it up beforehand. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to accommodate the massive amount of supplies your expeditions are going to get.
This is where the game gets kind of fiddly. Not only do you have to feed your family, but you’re going to need toilets, showers, more storage, cement for new rooms, weapons, stoves, incinerators, beds, toy boxes, and let’s not forget the upgrades! That oxygen filter might need a tune-up, that water filter’s going to need to be quicker in terms of making water safer to drink, and then there’s the generator. It’s an overwhelming amount of stuff to do.
In truth, it doesn’t come off as overloaded as I’ve described it, not at the beginning, at least. At first, you’ll probably want your work bench to be a bit better, and then from there, it’s whatever can be done in order to just cross it off the list. The problem comes from the fact that after a while, the stuff you need to upgrade never has enough crafting materials, so you go to make longer expeditions, and what you need never comes.
You’re mindlessly scrambling your small group of survivors to inspect anything within the vicinity, and you might get a bunch of motors, batteries, rope and food, but what if you need nails, nylon, switches and circuit boards? You keep picking up crap you don’t need until BOOM! You’re out of decent supplies and you’re watching a family of four vomit all over each other before cradling into a ball and dying.
No matter how much I prepare, no matter what I do in order to make sure the next hurdle is as painless as possible, I hit that blockade. All of my characters suddenly get an ailment I can’t remedy, an enemy that gets a lucky shot, and it’s just frustrating. Sheltered is basically a game of nuclear Tetris, and you know what? It’s actually incredibly fun.
While it might be confusing to consider how watching a pixel-art version of When The Wind Blows is fun, you have to consider what you do in that time. You have that really punchy turn-based combat, you have all of these ideas and new strategies to try. Think of it as Dwarf Fortress, but set in the world of Fallout 3, with just as many Yao Guai to look out for.
Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t reach past a certain part despite all of my brilliant foresight, so it’s possible that there’s an entire league of random encounters that could put a smile on your face. The truth is that I’m kind of crap at this, and that’s still fine! The game’s still enjoyable whether you can make this family survive or not. It might be a bit more fun if you don’t make ’em die of radiation sickness, though.
In the end, Sheltered is a nice little treat, as it’s something you can play while you wait for something else in your life to finish. It’s not the most refined experience in the world, as there are a lot of mechanics that are either not realized well enough or just flat out boring, and it isn’t the most gratifying experience either. It’s a small time-waster that may hold you attention long enough for you to not notice the neutron bombs drop.
Half a league, half a league, half a league onwards. All in the valley of Death, rode the six hundred.
This review of Sheltered is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
An understated and fun little survival simulator that is mostly well-balanced, and a small treat to play.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.