Platforms: PC/Steam, Mac | Developer/Publisher: Might and Delight | ESRB: E
The Shelter series from developer Might and Delight is a different kind of survival series. This one has players take on the guise of an animal, struggling to move through an open natural environment, all whilst keeping her young away from the many dangers of the world. Growing up, many of us have seen nature documentaries in science classes that depict the plight of the young mother in nature — the many predators that would see her children as food, or the many environmental hazards that make survival a numbers game with odds slightly less encouraging than the blackjack table in Vegas. Might and Delight does an excellent job of putting us in the mother’s shoes… err… paws, with some caveats, possibly major depending on what you are looking for in this type of game.
Shelter 2 begins with a unique visual style that furthers their artistic representation of nature in the first title. The environment is like a patch-work quilt of textures, each unique section or scrap of fabric and pattern is woven together to form a world that is both realistic in form but surreal in its stylistic make-up. The transitions between seasons and textures, night and day, are met with hard-lines that would be distracting in a realistic art style — here it just works, starting with our pregnant mother under duress at night, looking for a place to birth her offspring.
Shelter followed the story of a badger with five cubs, in Shelter 2 we take on the form of a mother lynx. As wolves pursue her through the frozen night, she is somewhat sluggish, burdened by the weight of her soon to be born cubs. This is where the game covers the basics of movements — shift to run, space to jump. Even in her current state, she has an ability to reach higher ledges off of her powerful hind legs and leave pursuers far behind.
Continuing forward, the arctic landscape begins to open up as she heads up a rise. The Winter sky glows with all of its color and interesting constellations. She has followed some mysterious night stars — probably a metaphoric representation of her animal instincts — to a a small shelter on a small rock outcropping beneath large pines. And here she gives birth. The camera lingers on the mother and her newborns, a shaft of Winter light highlighting their new existence. It’s a beautiful way to begin.
Our new mother sets out from the den in search of food. This is where the player and the mother by-proxy become unsure. We are given little in the way of guidance on how to proceed or how our progression is to be measured. Running at groups of rabbits, we can attack with a left mouse click. Vanquished prey can be grabbed with the right mouse. Instinctually, I take the prey back to the den and drop it. Doing so the first time, music kicks in and the blanket of winter begins to slowly pull away revealing the greenery of the surroundings. A few more rabbits and a tone indicates some sort of progression, the cubs begin to follow me from the den.
This initial confusion and lack of direction will probably be seen as strange for many gamers, particularly ones who have grown up in the modern era. In many ways I think this fits with story, as-it-were, of the game. This new mother only has her instinct to go on. This is a new experience for both of us. And so, the game begins, where do I go now? How far can I take them and keep them safe for danger? Do we travel further in search of more food or bigger game? Should we find a new and bigger shelter elsewhere?
With the little ones in tow now, each sprint towards prey means that they can stop and feed away from the den. There are leaves, minerals, and animal skulls to be picked up. They seems to be collectibles of some sort, as icons showcase progress, but I never found out if they had any purpose, or indeed any benefit other than collection. A singular meter in the lower right corner of the screen seems to be a combination of stamina and hunger for our mother lynx. Sprinting diminishes it faster, eating brings back.
Eventually you will begin to wander farther from your den, transitioning into new areas, which may or may nor shift the weather. The cubs will begin to grow with no real clue as to what brings on their progression. How much food am I feeding them, or do I need to travel certain distances? Perhaps it’s just a matter of time. It seems so easy, until you lose one.
I had moved into a new area of the game, far from the safety of our initial den. The cubs were still in their smallest state. It had been quite some time since I was able to find a kill and I was starting to get a little nervous. In the far distance I see what appears to be a small school of rabbits, so my little family and I head that way. All too late I realize that this is a roving band of wolves, hidden amongst some tall grass. As two of them stop to bare down on us, and the howls are all around, I strike out quickly. A yelp and the attackers run away, the rest of the pack with them. I can barely see the cubs, so we press on and exit the grass… only where there were once four, three remain.
It’s these moments that capture what Might and Delight are trying to deliver. I had grown confident in my safety and understanding of nature as I understood it — exploring far from the areas I had grown comfortable with. In doing so, I lost a more common source of food. The beginning feelings of desperation to feed the young lead us into a dangerous situation and now I had lost one of my babies to a predator. I felt sad about that for awhile after. Later when one of my cubs began to lag behind and not move, I carried her in my mouth for a ways, this seemed to relieve weakness and once again the cub frolicked with siblings — my panick subsided. It almost erased the earlier feeling of loss. Thus was the balance, the yin and yang of natural randomness.
All of these moments are punctuated by an amazing musical score from Sweden-based musicians Retro Family. It’s a mixture of styles that ranges from driving, almost native-American sounding motifs, to soft jazz-style pieces and piano, guitar or bass-focused tonal arrangements — all featuring soft percussion throughout. The music paired with the simple sound design, most often filled with the sound of running or stalking through the grass is my favorite aspect of the game.
My experience with Shelter 2 ended much more quickly than I had anticipated. Shelter was a short experience, but it felt much more guided in its progression. As I felt the game open up, It seemed like this would be a much more in-depth experience. However, not much more than 90 minutes in, I was done with the game, or the cycle more specifically. Pairing this brevity with a lack of information on progression and what the collectibles mean to the game made it feel even more abrupt. The story can continue on, as you can take on the life of one your surviving off-spring and continue on the family tree. What amount of replay this will offer, I’m not sure. I will provide an update if there is any significant impact on the game.
If you love animals or have an interest in nature, and also enjoy departures from the “realistic” style and traditional gameplay, Shelter 2 may be one of the indies you would like to pick up. Realize that it’s a short experience that excels in its visual and audio presentation. Its story is simplistic and done without narration or dialogue, but it’s one of nature, the difficulty of survival in the wilds, and ultimately the cycle of life. The mechanics work well enough for how they are explained, but the lack of guidance — most likely meant as a way to further “get into the mindset” of the mother lynx — is a little off-putting. If you’re okay with sort of “letting it play out” without fully understanding your role as a player in guiding the story, than you will enjoy your probably short time with the game.
Whether you will continue to live the lives of the offspring enough that you feel the experience is worth $15 is up to you. Regardless, Might and Delight has provided another interesting experience with a great audio-visual presentation. I appreciate there efforts and Shelter 2 will take a spot next to the original on my virtual Steam shelf.
An early build for review on PC/steam was provided to OnlySP via the publisher. The game is available on PC, Mac and Steam on 3/9/15