You’ll find love, fear and guilt in this Journey-esque adventure, following a family of badgers through a beautiful and deadly wilderness.
• Developer: Might and Delight
• Publisher: Might and Delight
• Reviewed on: PC (DRM-Free)
• Also Available On: PC (Steam)
• Release Date: 28/08/2013
I thought the biggest threat to my cubs would be starvation if I couldn’t find enough food for all five of them. I’d avoided a predatory bird swooping overhead, leading the family between long grass before it could spot us, and felt in control. It was later on in the dead of night, unable to see more than a few feet ahead, that something growled from the darkness and the cubs spooked, running off without me. I chased after them, and was relieved to catch up; then I realised there were only four in the group. Somewhere behind me I heard a whimper and a snarl, and I knew my fifth cub was lost.
Shelter is a minimalistic tale of surviving the ever-present threats of a volatile nature. You are a mother badger; doing everything you can to protect your clan along the way.
The game begins with an emotional kick, teaching you the importance of food in the game world. All the necessary information, such as controls and techniques, are passed to you via simple imagery and game-play that walks the line between showing you what to do and letting you fail, to learn for yourself. It certainly doesn’t take much more prompting to know what to do, or not do, than when you’ve seen one of your children die in front of you.
The game isn’t entirely bleak, however; far from it. From the first few minutes when emerging out of your sett, the forest astounds at every turn. Though the game is not graphically demanding, the art style commands attention; presented as an almost papercraft, collaged environment (similar to upcoming Vita game Tearaway), paper clouds float across the pastel-coloured sky, scrunched up green shapes form the leaves on trees, decorated with watchful owl eyes pasted onto the trunks, and illustrated fire dances in glowing columns. There is joy to be had watching your clan chase you across the grasslands and bark at fruit hanging from a tree calling for you to knock it down and feed them, when chasing a leaping frog through reeds, or the call-and-reply relationship you have with your kin.
Though that visual beauty persists as you venture further into the game, the explorative wonder soon turns to perpetual caution, and the once serene atmosphere becomes tense and eerie. Each death weighed upon me, and I felt as if I had failed in my duty to protect the cubs, vowing to try harder each time. The genius lies within this system – in most games your own life matters little, as you expect to reload or respawn should you come afoul of murderous AI or hazardous levels, but in Shelter the sense of danger and loss is tangible, as you are left with the reminder that though you are as healthy as ever, there is one less companion following you. Think of Journey‘s scarf, and you’ll be a tenth of the way there.
In an already understated game, the soundtrack and sound design play a quietly essential role in cultivating the atmosphere and your experience. They perfectly complement the environment, and the minimal, acoustic score (by Retro Family) adds a layer of crisp beauty, while the sound played after feeding a cub becomes a welcome comfort on the journey.
The game is not without flaws, and coming in at 2-3 hours, the asking price could feel a little steep. Though it’s more acceptable post-Journey to have a game present a brief, powerful experience, I felt I could have played for half an hour to an hour more based on the pacing. It’s lacking polish, with a camera that cuts through walls and occasional path-finding issues for the cubs, though this oddly reinforces the cautious game-play and requires you to keep an eye on them even more so. However, minor gripes have little to no effect on the impact of the tone and experience-driven game and having been made by a small indie studio I certainly don’t think the game needs to be held up on a couple of bugs.
Lastly, the game concludes in an affecting sequence that also flips your perception in a wonderful, poignant way. It’s quite special, and I won’t say any more at the risk of spoiling it.
Describing Shelter as 2013’s Journey would not be far off the mark, in a striking experience that packs emotional punches and summons tense survival instincts, perfectly transporting you into the role of a mother. Though brief, it’s a unique experience and demands to be played.