Home sweet home?
Sheltered has been out for a couple of years on PC and is now gracing the Switch with its desolate, stressful presence. Set in the wake of a post-apocalyptic disaster, you have one goal: try and keep your family alive. The entire world has fallen into ruin, so rather than working towards the greater good, you just have to keep your loved ones alive for as long as you can.
Your little group stumbles across a shelter and decides to make it home. The trouble is – as with any random hole in the ground – it’s not exactly an ideal living space. Thankfully the whole family is pretty handy and capable of fixing the place up. You’ll start small, maybe build a bucket toilet, add a new room, or even have a shower with a curtain installed. Eventually, though, you’ll build more complex things like a freezer to store your food, or a stove to make more satisfying food.
In Sheltered you have to manage a group of people, not just one. Every need has to be catered to. You have to make sure everyone goes to the toilet, showers, eats, drinks, and isn’t too stressed at the immensely depressing setting they reside in. There’s also radiation to deal with, rats, intruders, and dust storms. Life isn’t easy when everything has been destroyed.
While water can fall from the heavens, every other resource must be scavenged from the desolate landscape. While maintaining the shelter itself can be handled by two of your four-person family unit – I recommend the kids – you’ll have to organise expeditions into the wilderness to find everything you need to survive. Food is the hardest thing to find… in some runs, at least. In other runs, the hardest thing to find might be hinges, or rope, or plastic. While randomness helps to keep new runs interesting, they also mean that you can end up feeling like the game itself has decided you aren’t fit to survive.
While RNG is the basis of a lot of games, it doesn’t always lead to watching a family of four slowly die of hunger because you couldn’t find any food. Sheltered is a somewhat stressful experience as a result. Managing a bunch of meters at once isn’t all that challenging, but having them constantly tick down while you keep your fingers crossed just isn’t fun. That lack of control makes for an occasionally frustrating experience, but one that encourages another playthrough the instant one family has fallen.
The family itself is entirely down to you. The number of customisation options available is impressive. It isn’t just that you can change the hair colour or race of your survivors; you can have the family be made up of any two parents and kids you want, so you can try to make sure you feel invested in keeping them alive. You can even choose a pet, each of which comes with its own special perk to help you stay alive a little bit longer. I choose a cat every time because then even if you don’t make it, the cat’ll just eat you and that’s kind of reassuring. Kind of.
The main issue I have with Sheltered is the control scheme. Accidentally assigning a job to the wrong person is much easier than it should be. The interface can be hard to see sometimes, too. The tutorial isn’t bad, but you’ll probably miss your pantry at first when trying to feed the kids. Things just don’t ‘pop out’ enough to be easy to use – you’ll learn where everything is eventually, but ideally, the problem wouldn’t exist to begin with.
The family itself will eventually start to grind your post-apocalyptic gear too. It isn’t that sending your people to sleep is something you have to do if they don’t do it themselves, it’s that they literally won’t do it themselves. Given the situation they find themselves in you’d think they had better survival instincts. Everything from eating to pooping has to be a direct instruction, otherwise your group will just stand there and wither away. It breaks immersion and adds to the stress.
The survival mode is the main draw and is the bulk of what you’ll spend your time dying in. There is a scenario mode too, which is a nice change of pace. Giving the lives of your little survivors meaning helps to make the game feel worthwhile, but many of the issues are still present, and still frustrating.
Sheltered is a game with some good ideas. The customisation options are fantastic, and the gameplay loop itself is enjoyable. It’s a shame it’s tarnished by horrible RNG and a general feeling of pointlessness. If you really want to struggle against the world there are better games out there that do the same thing, but better.
[Reviewed on Switch]
Jason is the Editor of The Indie Game Website. He’s a lover of roguelikes, soulslikes, and other kinds of likes. He basically spends a lot of time getting beaten up in games and seems to enjoy it.