Shelter 2 – The Save Game Review
The survival genre of video games has become synonymous with horror over the years. Zombies, mutants and all sorts of sinister abominations are the forces we’re used to battling against. But Shelter 2 is a very different kind of survival game. In it, you take on the forces of nature itself, and you don’t even do it as a human. No guns, no med packs, just the will to survive, and protect those who need you most.
My four cubs and I have been scouring the wilderness for food for what seems like an eternity. Their constant cries of hunger only begin to dissipate due to a cacophony of rain and thunder engulfing everything around us. I’m suddenly stopped dead in my tracks. In the distance, I see what appears to be a herd of deer. The thought of briefly leaving my cubs alone in these conditions is unbearable; but the prospect of hunting down a meal that will feed all of them is too tempting to pass up. I stalk the deer cautiously, corner one and take it down with a vicious leap. The satisfaction of my kill, however, is short lived. In my absence, my four cubs have been surrounded by a pack of wolves. I rush over to save them but am knocked unconscious by an advancing wolf. When I awake, only three of my cubs remain.
Shelter 2 is the follow up to the 2013 game Shelter from indie developer Might and Delight. In the original Shelter, you played as a badger caring for five cubs. In Shelter 2 you play as a mother lynx that must raise her four cubs from their infancy until their old enough to survive in the wild on their own. Looking after your young is a harrowing journey with little reprieve throughout the experience. After completing this game, I now finally understand every late night call from my mum asking me where I am and what time I’ll be coming home.
The game begins with the lynx mother frantically trying to escape a pack of rabid wolves chasing her through a blistering arctic night. She is yet to give birth, giving an increased urgency to lose her pursuers. It’s in this sequence that the game introduces the player to the basic control movements. Narrowly escaping her pursuers by hurdling to a higher ledge, she then finds refuge from the tumultuous conditions in a makeshift den. Now safe from predators and the harsh weather, she gives birth. As night fades to day, she is now accompanied in the den by her newborns. It’s a truly heartwarming beginning that I’m pretty sure awakened maternal instincts in me that I probably shouldn’t have. Cleverly, the game allows you to name the cubs. Seemingly an inconsequential feature, my attachment to the cubs increased considerably after naming them all. I unashamedly named one after me, the ultimate test to see if I could look after myself.
A mother for only a few hours, the lynx leaves the den in search for food. Fittingly, you’re left to your ‘animal’ instincts to work out what do next. After hunting down a rabbit, I bring it back to the den and drop it in between the cubs. As they start to eat, a sound plays and the layers of snow begin to melt away revealing lush green foliage. As I continue to bring back rabbits and shrew to eat, the cubs are eventually strong enough to follow me out of the den. Chasing your prey down requires some strategy, as a regenerating stamina bar in the corner of the screen determines how long you’ll be able to keep up your pace. Opting to eat a fresh kill instead of giving it to your cubs will give the mother lynx more stamina, which can be useful when hunting down deer, as they’re a lot harder to catch than the average rabbit.
Apart from a sound playing or a seasonal transition, the game will do little else to let you know that you are progressing. Even now, after completing the game several times, I’m unsure if the game progresses by exploring new areas, or by the amount of times you feed your cubs. Even when your cubs begin to grow in size, there’s no real indication as to how this progression has come to be. There are collectibles such as fungi and animal skulls, but they don’t seem to serve any other purpose besides adding to your playtime. My motivation to collect these was scarce, as I was always too busy worrying about searching for food or protecting my cubs from the unruly jaws of wolves.
Initially, I was taken aback by the lack of direction. However, once I settled into my role as the mother lynx, I realized that the approach makes a lot of sense. This is a new experience for the new mother and the player. There is no linear progression to the story of survival. Decisions made by the player shape how their story progresses. Whether it’s heading to a new area in search of a greater food source, or finding a larger shelter to offer relief from the unforgiving weather, these decisions will undoubtedly determine the fate of your cubs.
Reminiscent of a quilt constructed from contrasting fabrics and patches, the unique beauty of Shelter 2’s world is realised by an art style that gives the ever-changing environment a rich and stylized texture. Despite the abnormal aesthetic to the game’s world, the combination of surrealism and realism come together to create a harmonious juxtaposition that makes it hard to envision the game looking any other way.
The gorgeous visuals are underscored by the accompaniment of a sublime soundtrack by Swedish band Retro Family. Soft percussion lays the foundation for the game’s soundtrack, which is fleshed out with simple layers of guitar, bass and piano. The music is present throughout the experience, but never gets in the way of the game’s more tense moments, such as when you’re stalking your prey through grass. There’s just something about a mixture of folk and subdued jazz that blends so effortlessly with an unbridled journey into the wild.
Despite you raising your cubs from their infancy, Shelter 2 is in no way a long journey. The majority of my playthroughs lasted around an hour and a half each time. Once the game is completed, you can take on the life of one of your surviving offspring, which in turn adds to the family tree and allows you to continue with the game’s story. Unfortunately for me, Damian was the only cub who didn’t make it through my first journey into the wild as a mother. Continuing on by playing as one of my offspring did not seem to alter the game’s overall experience in anyway.
I was originally hesitant about playing the game again as I thought it might have tainted my initial experience of heading into the wild uninitiated. Yet there was something surprisingly satisfying about knowing exactly what I had to do to ensure my cubs safety. For example, in my first playthrough, I’d always look behind me if I wanted to see if my cubs were safe. In my second playthrough, however, I relied on the mother lynx’s roar that in return yields a high-pitched yelp from my cubs. If I counted less than four yelps, I knew that one of my cubs was in trouble. It were these minor adjustments to my play style that were unexpectedly satisfying.
Although I enjoyed my additional playthroughs, revisiting the experience was disappointingly repetitive and barely deviated from my initial experience. This paired with the fact that the game is currently priced at $18 AUD may be enough to scare some gamers away. In refutation to this idea, I would say that Shelter 2 is an experience that warrants at least one playthrough. Any game that can make a 24 year old guy question his abilities as a mother is a game worth playing in my opinion.
The game’s shortcomings are fortunately overshadowed by its stellar audio and visual presentation, offering a refreshingly unique take on the survival genre that explores the unfamiliar gaming territory of motherhood. Even days after playing the game, the fact that I lost one of my cubs still frustrates me. To me, this is true indication of a game that warrants its price of admission. Now I think I’m going to buy my mum some flowers and give her a big hug.