Saturday, 6 August 2016

Sheltered - Review

Developer: Unicube
Publisher: Team 17 Digital Ltd
Platforms: PC (version played), Xbox One, PS4 

A nine year old girl is currently being left to handle both my family’s radio broadcasts and fix up the bunker’s generator, whenever it decides to conk out. If I ask her to fix the generator she’ll nonchalantly whip out a blowtorch and get to work. A nine year old using a blowtorch. Welcome to Sheltered.

Post-apocalypse survival games are a hard genre to reinvent. The core gameplay is already laid down; scrounge, build, improve, survive and repeat, so it can be hard for developers to improve upon the genre in any meaningful way. This is the glaring problem with Unicube’s Sheltered, a perfectly serviceable survival game that simply struggles to present any major new ideas.

The central premise of Sheltered plays out like a 50/50 mix of The Sims and the sublime This War of Mine, mixing your typical scrounge-and-survive gameplay with the strangely addictive, motive-based system of EA’s sandbox juggernaut. In practical terms, this means alongside having to send out your family on trips through irradiated wasteland to pick up supplies, you also have to make sure a toilet is built so that a member of your group doesn’t shit on the floor.

As a central gameplay conceit, the idea of mixing survival elements with The Sims’ moreish gameplay seems rather interesting. And it has to be said there’s something weirdly addictive about watching your family’s survival shelter slowly take shape, as you carve out new rooms with cement you pick up, or build a freezer so that you can start storing meat harvested from the local wildlife. As a simple game, Sheltered is never short of playable.

Where Sheltered does fall short is in its overall atmosphere. This is a game that’s sharply lacking in its own identity, the basic visuals and simplistic survival mechanics mean that there’s little to get invested in here. Whereas the likes of This War of Mine quickly immerse you in the lives of your group, in Sheltered the characters feel more like artificial units that you merely order about.

A lot of this immersion issue can also be traced to the basic gameplay loop. While some of your group are left to look after the base, you’ll frequently have to select some of your survivors and have them plot out an expedition to gather resources. After marking out where they’re going (trips further from the shelter require more water, arguably the most important commodity during the first few hours of gameplay) the expedition team sets off on their merry way.

Every so often any groups out on expedition will report back, usually to tell you what they’ve found supplies, but occasionally it’ll be because they’ve encountered someone or something. Sheltered’s negotiation system is woefully lacking from the get go, a basic stat system has various points assigned to five different categories; strength, dexterity, observation, charisma and intelligence. Strength and dexterity are primarily for determining combat, whilst charisma and intelligence are there to handle recruitment and trading opportunities.

I’d be lying if I ever noticed charisma and intelligence having any noticeable impact, however. My father and son scavenging team were both utter delinquents with dreadful social skills (the father had only a single point in charisma and two in intelligence, so I suspect he resolved most conversations with monosyllabic grunts), yet they handled random encounters with strangers and traders in essentially the exact same way as anyone else.

Likewise, combat is kept simple. Fights involving wild dogs and bears, along with hostile survivors, are handled in a turn-based manner, with each character taking their turn to deal out attacks, defend or attempt to disarm their opponent. If there’s something to be criticised about the game’s combat it’s that it rarely becomes something to worry about. For a game about carving out life in a nuclear-blasted landscape, there’s very little danger.

This also affects life in your shelter. There’s the option to build various traps, hideouts and stock up on ammunition, but it never became an issue at any time during my playthrough. Almost everyone that arrived at my family’s shelter were friendly.

What all of this means is that Sheltered quickly lapses into boredom after a brief early game of getting those vital amounts of food and water. Most of its other challenges are artificial; despite having all the supplies in the world available to me, I couldn’t store them for several hours, because I didn’t have the last nail needed to craft a new box.

Crafting systems are understandably a great way to extend a game’s life, and provide a level of context to survival games like this. However, when they’re utilized in such a brain-dead way, they become laughable, rather than engaging; another hoop to jump through rather than a way to immerse the player.

Which brings things back full circle to the immersion problem. Sheltered, whilst not terrible in any way, fails to engage, and that lack of engagement quickly turns to boredom. Worse,  its attempts at creating emotion come across laughable rather than moving. This is a game where killing a wild bear that’s threatening you and your son triggers the exact same response as murdering two people in cold blood. Also, there’s something oddly hilarious about a game that allows children to expertly wield blowtorches, but stubbornly insists they use toys to cheer themselves up, whilst parents are allowed books as a stress relief.

For all these niggles and complaints, like I said earlier, Sheltered is never particularly bad as a game, it just comes across as if it were designed by robots, rather than people. The decision to choose a different pet at the outside (there’s five to choose in total) has the most important impact on your strategy in the early game. The horse for example, is the most resource intensive, requiring more food, but also allowing you to carry more supplies on each expedition. Contrast this with the humble goldfish, who only cheers up your group, but doesn’t require much maintenance.

Similarly,  despite looking simple, there’s clearly an attempt by the developers to inject the visuals with a particularly style. The eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of John Carpenter, adds some much-needed menace and danger to a game that desperately needs it, but frequently lacks it. Combined with the weirdly psychedelic backdrops; all bright pinks and greens amidst a skyline of bombed out skyscrapers, and you can definitely see a unique style that the developers were going for, even if the game fails to get there.

If you were to assess the game purely on its technical merits, Sheltered would succeed. Looked at holistically however, the game fails to separate itself from similar games that have done far more with the same tools.


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