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Shelter review: Badger over troubled water

JG Carter

It's 3AM, and I am not a happy badger.

I've restarted this level at least five times now. It always ends the same way, on the same barren stretch of land between the comforting cover of the underbrush and the inviting darkness of the tunnel that marks what I think is the end of the level. The eagle strikes as we're halfway across; too far to return to the underbrush, but not close enough to reach the tunnel without the feathered git making off with at least one of my cubs. This is my last shot at the level. I've come to accept that I have to lose one of my children to proceed – that the game won't let me reach its finale without at least a taste of loss – but I'm already composing an angry email to the developers in my head. You can't just betray the player's trust like this; narrative be damned.

A rush of displaced wind and a terrified squeak lets me know I can open eyes and see which one of my cubs didn't make it. The one with three stripes. He was my favorite. I scrap the angry email idea and elect to send them a live badger by airmail, that'll teach them.

Then something amazing happens. There's a noise; one I haven't heard before. I turn, and the missing cub saunters through the tunnel entrance, apparently unperturbed by his brush with mortality. Is this a scripted event or a random occurrence? I have no idea, but at that moment it's irrelevant. My cub has escaped certain death, and I am elated.

Such is the sole real triumph of Might and Delight's Shelter. For all its failings, and there really are quite a lot of them for such a small game, it did make me care.

Gallery: Shelter (8/28/13) | 10 Photos

While many games address parenthood in somewhat abstract terms, Shelter bravely tackles the theme head on. You play a mother badger, tasked with escorting her litter of cubs from a depleted burrow (albeit one with a striking view of a nearby waterfall) to more fruitful pastures. For those of you who just read the word "escort" and started scrambling for the exits, be assured that Shelter avoids many of the pitfalls associated with the dreaded escort missions of yore. The cubs aren't the brightest, but they'll stick to you like glue, stopping only when they spot something to eat.

The food system is definitely the most interesting idea in Shelter. Each of your cubs, helpfully distinguished by the arrangement and number of stripes on their back, will slowly fade from a rich brown to a light grey as they grow hungrier. To feed them, you must hunt down root vegetables, catch frogs and small rodents, or knock down apples from trees with the judicious use of your skull as a makeshift battering ram. The unstoppable eating machines will run toward and eat anything left on the ground, but you can also pick up food and give it to specific cubs. There's a real potential for tension here, as picking which hungry cub you want to feed while they squeak and jump for attention can be a difficult decision. Likewise, taking food from one cub to give to another will make you feel like the biggest bastard in badger-land. Unfortunately, none of that tension ever shows up, as the game is far too generous with food resources. The levels are littered with veggies and apple trees, so much so that even the worst hunter will have no trouble keeping the cubs well fed. The game is far too easy as a whole, but it's disappointing to see what could be a sublime mechanic undermined by what is essentially poor level design.

Shelter is light on other ideas, with most encounters simply boiling down to moving at the right time and accounting for the cubs' slower running speeds. You'll spend the majority of your time simply waiting for danger to pass and then dashing to the next haven. Realistic, perhaps, but not fun in the slightest. You ford rivers by lunging from safe area to safe area between waves. Eagles, beautifully represented by tribal-style shadows projected onto the ground, stalk certain places, but you'll end up avoiding them in the same way, by sprinting from cover to cover and hoping you get the timing right.

There is an attempt to mix up the gameplay with an ill-explained nighttime level that sees you trying to keep the cubs within a certain radius of their mum. Let them stray too far, which they will because they dart in random directions in response to noise, and they'll be snatched up by invisible wolves. That's about as fun as it sounds. In a later level, you have to guide the cubs through a raging forest fire. Dodging falling branches and grass fires should be exhilarating. Instead, it ends up being exactly the same experience as the previous levels, only at a marginally faster pace.

And that's really all there is to Shelter. It's very short, clocking in at only a couple of hours at best, yet it still manages to run out of ideas well before you reach the last of its linear levels.

The save system doesn't help. Losing a cub should be the emotional focus the game, your diminishing number of young serving as both a grim version of a lives counter and a reminder of your past failures, but even that is imperfect. You can subject yourself to the pain of losing or a cub, or you can simply quit and restart the level with a fresh set, with no negative penalty for doing so. Is this the badger-equivalent of save scumming? Possibly. But Shelter would be far more effective if its structure gave more permanence to your losses.

Shelter review
As for what Shelter does right: the game is gorgeous. Its textures aren't really "textures" at all. Rather, they're somewhat abstract paintings of the objects they're meant to represent, pasted onto simple, angular models reminiscent of folded paper sculptures. Think models of trees, covered in tiny pictures of trees. Each of the levels sports a unique color theme, and while the high-gamma might send some of you diving for the black-level controls on your monitors, it does serve to make the burrows and dank caverns that represent safety that much more inviting. While the smaller models look good, it's the large abstract backgrounds that steal the show. The second level's night sky, which looks like the kind of wallpaper you might buy for a space-obsessed toddler, is particularly beautiful. It's a clever bit of thematic reinforcement when you think about it; a game about children that all but resembles a child's pop-up book.

The sound is similarly abstract. Important information, like the location of the cubs or nearby animals, is presented via competent, but not brilliant, sound effects, while the general goings on of the forest are conveyed through evolving drum beats and acoustic guitar riffs. It's certainly an interesting approach to environmental audio, but some of the arrangements – the fox theme from the first level for example – wear out their welcome very quickly.

Ultimately, Shelter may be a victim of its own potential as an idea. It sets out to explore a very compelling set of themes, parenthood, responsibility and the casual cruelty of nature, but it ends up doing so in the most straightforward and predictable way possible. It's almost ironic how a game so adamantly about nature manages to feel so unnatural. Looking at Shelter's screenshots, you can't help but imagine some kind of godly, heart-breaking mashup of The Oregon Trail, Tokyo Jungle and Pikmin. With badgers. What you end up playing is a linear, overly-scripted, not particularly well-executed version of Frogger. With badgers.

This review is based on a Steam download of Shelter, provided by Might & Delight.

Grey Carter is a professional writer and aspiring human being most well-known for his surprisingly poor webcomic, Critical Miss. You can stalk him on Twitter if you like, @GreyTheTick.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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