It’s not exactly shocking to say that we happen to have a wide selection of apocalyptic survival games to choose from these days. Needless to say, it takes a lot to stand out among a crowd that huge, but Unicode and Team 17 have put forth a valiant effort with Sheltered, a 2D game about one family’s efforts to survive the fallout after a nuclear disaster. The good news regarding all of this effort is that Sheltered is a good game. The bad news, however, is that…well, Sheltered is a good game.
Comparisons to other games such as This War of Mine and Fallout Shelter are a bit unavoidable when it comes to Sheltered. For one, much like them, you have a cut-away view of the bunker that your family takes refuge in. After customizing your two parents and kids in both appearance, skills, and statistics, and choosing a pet, you get them settled in and acquainted with everything the place currently has. The essentials are the air filter, water filter, generator, food supply, medicine cabinet, and workbench. The latter is particularly necessary for crafting, as you need it to expand the shelter even further in order to provide your family with places to sleep, cook, shower, read and everything else they need in order to stay healthy and sane. Fail to deliver and you find your folks potentially dying of starvation, sickness or huddled in the fetal position due to being unable to take it anymore.
Sheltered does indeed put up quite the challenge. Having to manage all of your resources, decide which household items are currently valuable and need to be built and prioritizing what needs fixing at the moment all presents quite the struggle. Especially when one of your family members is maxed out when it comes to their need for sleep or hygiene and thus they need precious time that could be spent helping out just getting back to normal. Or when you have to decide between using precious wood to either build traps for food or beds for comfort, maybe hoping that you can scavenge for rations later. It is a game of difficult choices, which it does quite well.
Expeditions are another vital factor in your survival. You can send a maximum of two people out to various points in the surrounding area on your map, which requires disposable gas masks and water for those heading out. The farther away everything is, the more water they need. You keep in constant communication via radio, informing them of whether or not to search places for loot or engage with other people to encounter, resulting in either trades, turn-based combat, or additional survivors to recruit and help work in your shelter. It all works quite nice as the core gameplay is solid, everything controls nicely, and the pixel art style is appealing.
It’s all very good, but the problem is…well, that’s just it, nothing in Sheltered ever really rises above “very good.” This is what I was hinting at in the opening, yes. Sheltered is definitely a well-crafted game of survival and simulation, but you’ve seen all of these elements – crafting, managing health and happiness, building, deciding what goods to keep with limited space, et cetera – all done in many other games of this nature before, and better as well. The one unique hook this game really seems to have is the fact that you’re managing a family unit this time around, and even that feels slightly underwhelming at times. Your children have access to different skills and stats, and there are certain tasks they can’t do, but functionally and personality-wise, there’s not much noticeable difference between them and adults.
Plus, for a game whose motto is “family comes first,” there doesn’t really seem to be much of an emotional bond between your group. Several weeks into my game, the father of the family came back from an expedition after a wolf attack and died shortly after from blood loss. Now, in This War of Mine, a character’s death was treated as a completely devastating event. Everyone in my group there could barely find the strength to continue after that, and even I found myself unable to continue playing after such a loss. Here? All it took was one grave crafted out of some wood, a buried body, and one sad journal entry, and the rest of our family was pretty much perfectly fine, back to fixing the makeshift crapper and cooking rabbits like nothing had even happened.
It also doesn’t help that Sheltered suffers from difficulty issues at times as well. Aside from the occasional annoying design quirk (why can’t my characters fixing the above-ground air and water filters just automatically put on hazmat suits if they need them so badly?), all of the surrounding buildings containing randomized loot sounds like a nifty way to offer up some difficulty in theory, but in practice it means that you can find yourself reliant on chance at the worst possible times, with the odds against you. After my family’s original freezer had broken down, I needed to craft a new one so that we could gather meat again (for some reason, you don’t have the option of cooking and eating animals you catch immediately after). However, we were one hinge away from being able to craft a new one. So I set the wife and one of the sons out on an expedition, but after hitting up a dozen locations and at least two people to trade with along the way, we still couldn’t find one damn hinge. It says a lot when I honestly kept wishing for the game to stop throwing generator fuel at me, important as it may be.
Despite any faults listed above, don’t get the wrong impression: Sheltered is a fun and challenging game, especially if you’re willing to put a lot of time into the game crafting the best shelter possible. It’s just that it’s not particularly innovative and it can wind up screwing you over at some of the most inconvenient times. Still, if you’ve got an itch for post-apocalyptic worlds and a need to try and see how well you’d do in surviving them, it’s a quality game that can be recommended. Just make sure to keep plenty of hinges handy.