Platform: PC (£6.99)
Developer: Might and Delight
There aren't enough badgers in gaming. You'd think that we'd be spoiled for choice considering their bold colouring and ornery temperament, but time and time again the stripy woodland foragers get short shrift in favour of hedgehogs, bandicoots, transcendent wolf gods and the like.
Thankfully Shelter is here to redress the balance, seeing as it's effectively a badger survival simulator. Playing as a mother badger, players have to guide a litter of cubs through a beautiful if dangerous forest, keeping them fed and safe from predators. Only the fittest survive out in the wilderness, and even if you manage to ward off the birds and beasts of the forest, you can't hide from the constant threat of starvation and the brutality of nature itself.
If you're looking for something totally wild and different to round out your gaming diet, you can't go far wrong with this unconventional Swedish offering.
Things start out simple enough, by omnivore standards at least. Controlling your Mustelidae mother (I'm running out of ways to say badger here, sorry, I can't fight it any more) requires just standard WASD keys and mouselook, with only a context-sentitive bite and sprint to worry about. You'll need to dig root vegetables out of the ground to feed your roly-poly offspring, who constantly follow behind you in an adorable gaggle, and visually turn grey when suffering from starvation. Small animals can be hunted for food. Fruit can be dislodged from the trees. As you explore some large but frequently railroaded maps, you'll need to keep a close eye on your brood to make sure they're still following along, and check that they're all growing equally. Naturally they'll compete with one another for food, and you'll want to make sure they're all healthy.
Or, perhaps, a single sacrifice will make sure the others see adulthood? Good luck making that decision. The only real objective in shelter is to survive and keep on badgering, but it's certainly open to interpretation.
Once you've got the survival basics down, however, Shelter introduces predators. Your succulent cubs will be hunted from land and the air, turning exploration into flight and evasion. You can hide your brood in bushes or hollow logs, desperately hoping that your defenseless babies won't draw unnecessary attention. When night falls, the pace changes once again, reducing visibility to a small circle centred on your heroic matron. Knowing when to advance, when to hide and when to stand your ground takes practice and heartbreak. Natural hazards like flash fires help to stave off the onset of repetition.
Shelter's art design is utterly wondrous to behold. Halfway between papercraft and voxel, yet aping neither, the woodland has been brought to life with boldly simple models and attractive yet simple texture art. As the day/night cycles continue and the seasons change, you'll likely find yourself entranced by just how gorgeous everything looks - despite some odd camera clipping issues from time to time.
Unfortunately, much of Might & Delight's hard work is undone by a single bizarre stylistic choice, in that the colour palette has been totally washed out as if your monitor brightness and gamma correction were cranked up to maximum. The whole game looks muted and overly bright, lacking in visually engaging contrast and making what could have been gorgeous more bland and basic than it needed to be. Plus, it even interferes with menu operation.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I actually emailed Might & Delight to ask whether this was a bug or driver conflict. It isn't. I wish it was.
Taken objectively, Shelter is not an easy sell. It's short (perhaps running about two to four hours at most), directionless, oddly-paced, a little rough around the edges and supremely abstract. Valid concerns all, but they're missing the point.
Shelter's main objective is to evoke an emotional response in its players. Looking at the screenshots, you'll doubtlessly expect to quickly fall in unconditional love with your adorable little bundles of joy. The truth, however, is somewhat more nuanced than that. Though I always took great pains to keep my litter fed and safe, I often resented them for holding me back from exploring at my own pace. I became angry at the larger cubs for muscling in and stealing food meant for their siblings, yet disappointed that the runts couldn't fend for themselves properly. Sometimes I just wanted to leave them and strike out on my own, but always rushed back to protect and guide them any time I thought they might be in danger.
And that's when it hit me: my parents probably felt exactly the same about me during my lowest moments. Being a parent isn't easy.
I'm not for a moment suggesting that you can form as strong an attachment to virtual papercraft badgers as you can an actual child (let's not be silly), but Shelter succeeds because it evokes strong conflicting emotions as you struggle to survive, and your love for your litter is stretched by the grim reality of the great outdoors. Different people will interpret and enjoy it in different ways, whereas some will find themselves nonplussed or confused by the directionless experience. Others will just get a kick out of something totally new.
You won't know where you stand until you try it.
- Conjures powerful and conflicting emotions
- Engaging and totally unique gameplay
- Gorgeous artwork and simple effective aesthetic
- Washed-out colour palette and odd gamma undermines visual impact
- Short, a few clipping issues and rough edges
- 'Niche' is a major understatement
The Short Version: Shelter is a totally unique and heartfelt experience that will genuinely make you feel... something. I can't promise that you'll love it, or even like it, but you should definitely try it.
Wait, what am I saying? It stars adorable badger cubs. Of course you'll love it.