Sheltered has turned me into a child slaver. Sort of.. I mean, my children are regularly fed and watered. They get sleep whenever they need it and opportunities to use the restroom, even shower when we’ve had a proper rain. The only thing I ask of them in this post-apocalyptic survival simulation is that they build furniture, fix utilities, and only occasionally put on radiation suits to venture into the wilderness for the good of the family. So, I’m not really that evil.
Sheltered’s one of those games. The type you’ll either like, loathe, or grudgingly come back to despite an endless panoply of disagreements. The amount of micromanagement required is absolutely excruciating and weirdly, that’s both good and bad. At its best, the game is capable of instigating a transcendental zen-ness. You fix equipment, you attend to basic ablutions. You send family members into the wastelands, you broadcast enticements to traders. You rinse, you get rid of rats, you repeat, over and over, as you accumulate resources and build on the ramshackle warrens that you call home. It’s a hypnotic time sink earmarked by fits of accomplishment.
At its worst, though, Sheltered is an endless succession of small frustration, of gnashing your teeth because you can’t seem to find hinges or metal or light bulbs on demand and oh god, honestly, can I just tell someone I’ll give them endless fuel for twenty planks? Please? Someone?
On the most basic level, Sheltered is a survival simulation that puts you in charge of a small family. In a pleasing twist, you can customize this core unit however you desire – and by that, I mean you can decide to have anything from queer pairings with wild-haired foster kids, to traditional Scandinavian family units. Anything you want, so long as it amounts to exactly four people.
Also, you can pick a pet. I suggest getting your pretend-children the horse they always wanted.
Once you’ve figured out how your family will look, you’re then dropped off into an underground shelter that comes with the bare minimum: a generator, a miniscule water storage unit, even a small platter of rations. From there, it’s your job to make sure they don’t die. This, of course, entails building a better assortment of utilities, upgrading your existing equipment, and maintaining living standards. (Pro-tip: do not let food poisoning-induced vomit accumulate on the floor.)
I’m going to take a moment to lay out my first complaint, though. Sheltered’s user interface isn’t the best. It’s not god-awful. But it isn’t great. I’ll give you an example. The “needs” bars that delineate every character’s status are all in green and will turn red once they’re actually full, indicating you’re critically lacking whatever that meter represented. I stumbled on a number of hiccups like this early on, including one that involved having my dog starve because I couldn’t pick out his bowl from the backdrop.
And the randomness of resource availability! Good lord. Some games, you’re swimming in lenses. Others, you’re scraping through broken houses for hinges. It is never, ever consistent, which makes sense for the randomly generated landscape. Nonetheless, I still wish the game would be less obtuse about where certain resources are hiding.
But when Sheltered works, it works. There’s a quiet drama to the lives of your survivors. Water and food are both scarce. I’ve lost playthroughs to careless stockpiling, and I’ve hooted in delight when my traps snare an enormous stag. It’s satisfying to venture into the wilderness and come back bearing much-needed gifts, and it’s just heart-warming to light up that underground shelter with bulbs. (The day I get that truck to move again, I’m going to dance a little jig.) I just wish the overall process wasn’t quite as tedious. Although it is always nice to get that flush of accomplishment, Sheltered’s rather good at making everything feel menial, even outings into the wastelands. Meet people. Talk to people. Sometimes shoot people. Investigate houses. Acquire resources. Wobble home to hang around the water cooler.
Also, I find it rather hard to believe that no one in this world ever seems surprised to see a grim-faced kid wielding a shotgun.
My big problem with Sheltered, though, isn’t that. It is that I actually find it hard to care about my cadre of survivors. They’re literally as faceless as their respective sprites. Now, I know. It’s weird to demand personality from what are essentially blank slates we’re meant to imbue with identity, but I couldn’t make a connection, which is weird because I’m perfectly happy making up stories for my XCOM 2 squaddies.
I have a theory, though. In games like XCOM, you don’t see the minutiae, their down-to-earth struggle to find an available lavatory, their domestic ups-and-downs. You only see a slice of their lives, a flash of the glory. Sheltered, however, grinds you into the muck of everyday life and for a while, it works. But after two weeks of absent parents and being told to build concrete rooms, you’d think someone would have something to say about the mess.
To be fair to the game, personality traits do exist in Sheltered. Some are wasteful, some are big eaters. Others are Courageous enough to land two free hits before their opponents can react. But the effects, outside of actual gameplay, seem almost negligible. A glutton will gobble their way through supplies, but no one will complain. Their monologues are similarly bland. They tell you they’re tired. They tell you there are supplies to do anything. No one ever seems to care about doing anything except work.
For all of my complaints, though, I think Sheltered can be a fantastic game. Just not yet. It needs a few more patches. It needs rebalancing. It needs the option to fight raiders instead of cowering in your base, completely bereft of whatever skills you’ve acquired before. It needs Pokmon skins for your pets. But the basic foundations have already been laid out and in a few years, especially if the developers allow for heavy-duty modding, it might become absolutely engrossing. Right now, though, it’s best for people who enjoy fussing over every detail of a family’s lives, including when they can and cannot poop, and who is in charge of stitching together ruined sleeping bags.