A fellow critic once explained to me that our profession has a wonderful upside: when something is really good the critic gets to understand why it is good, and so the critic can appreciate that thing all the more.
This also works the other way. Let me tell you why I didn’t like Shelter.
Shelter comes to us from Might and Delight (the indie studio that gave us Pid) thanks to the Steam Greenlight project that allows indie games to be funded based on votes from the Steam community. Full disclosure: I voted for Shelter. I have never voted for anything in the Greenlight project before, but I love artsy games and Shelter looked as hardcore artsy as possible.
Shelter is about a mother badger tasked with feeding a family of cubs while protecting them from the dangers of the wild. There’s a lot of legitimate danger in that concept, but in Shelter you’ll mostly be confronting the perils of walking.
The levels are essentially just long hikes with very little happening between events, and even those long walking segments are interrupted constantly because you have to slow down to let your cubs catch up or stop to feed them at one of the many abundant food sources scattered throughout the environment. Of course, I stopped for every carrot and radish, mostly because I wanted to see if there was an achievement for finding all the food (I stopped caring), and also because feeding my kids seemed like the right thing to do, but there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it. Food pops up like ammo in BioShock and my cubs were never in danger of starving.
Of course, that’s not to say that my cubs didn’t die over the course of our little adventure, it’s just that when they did die it didn’t feel like it was even close to being my fault. The cubs just have bad A.I., not unlike the A.I. one would encounter in a cheap FPS, and by that I mean they love to die. Even when I did everything right, fed them, walked them to safe spots to avoid falcons, everything, every now and then one of them would decide that this whole “life” thing was probably a bad move. So that kid would stop short of rejoining the group in favor of a grisly yet adorable death via bird, water, or… that’s it: birds or water.
But ya know what? I’m still glad I supported this game, and I would vote for it again if I could, because even if this game is a bit of a miss, the ideas behind it are solid and absolutely original. What other studio is making a game about parenting that involves zero dialogue? Taking the game in that direction was a bold move, it’s just unfortunate that the execution of those ideas made the game a tad boring. I mean, just look at the care that went into that art style! It’s downright cuddly!
The soundtrack brings home the “comfortable in the woods” feeling. It’s mostly a series of new-age noises and gently played orchestral instruments, which, unfortunately, acts as a lullaby on an already slow game. Sometimes, the music speeds up during what were supposed to be the exciting parts, but the hints of orchestral instruments never whipped up some pulse-pounding crescendo. It was just elevator music, but in a forest.
Undeniably, Shelter is the game Might and Delight was trying to make. It’s a relaxing, low-impact romp through some genuinely beautiful woodlands. Sadly, that’s all it is. The game rarely provides a sense of impending danger with either the hazards or the supposed starvation factor. All of the game’s obstacles are easily avoided, and between the walking and the feeding it just feels too much like work. I was supposed to love my cubs, but they were just a health bar, a frustrating health bar that shrinks because it’s stupid.
Ultimately, I wish Shelter was something a little deeper or better constructed, but it’s not. Instead, just spend your ten bucks on some meat and try to catch a real raccoon. It will certainly prove to be more exciting and it won’t make you hate your kids.