Preview: Shelter Hands-On

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When your first game as a developer is a surreal, retro-flavored platformer, what do you do for your second project? Stay within the boundaries of another familiar genre? Or step outside the box to try something completely fresh and different?

For Might and Delight, looking to follow up on last year’s charming yet equally demanding Pid, the answer was easy: Make a nature survival game about a family of badgers fending for their lives in the harsh wilderness. Now that’s definitely what I would call fresh and different.

My hands-on preview playthrough with M&D’s new game, Shelter, started immediately, without any manner of setup or explanation, inside a cave, located somewhere underneath a waterfall, where I took control of a mama badger and began to sniff about for where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to accomplish. At first I was clueless on both fronts, but eventually I saw (and heard) that one of my five baby badgers was helplessly crying in pain and figured out that I needed to take the nearby vegetable up in mama badger’s mouth and carry it over to the injured young to nourish it back to walking strength. Thus my adventure with Shelter began.

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From there, I led my clan of badgers out into the wild, where I proceeded to learn how to gather food by ramming into trees to knock down the hanging fruit, digging up root veggies and chasing down other animals like frogs and mice and foxes. So, I did that for a while, slowly feeding on the fruits and meats of Mother Nature while leading the badger family around to another cave/tunnel which safely bypassed a waterfall feeding into an impassable river. That’s where things started to get very interesting—and very dangerous.

Eventually I came to an open field being keenly observed from high above by a hungry bird of prey. Using disconnected paths of high grass and fallen, hollowed-out tree trunks as cover laid out across the field, I managed to guide all five babies to the other side unscathed. But not without a few heart-skipping scares as anytime the badgers had to leave the shielding brush the bird would swoop down and attempt to pick off one of my defenseless cubs.

After surviving the field, the setting switched to nighttime in sort of a mountainous canyon area alive with what sounded like wolves or coyotes on the prowl for supper. (I don’t know for sure because I could never see what was out there.) Suddenly and without warning, the sound of a scuffle and a terrible cry left my badger clan with two less cubs than when the adventure started. I did manage to live out the rest of the night with the three remaining cubs, but sadly this animal family’s hardships were only just beginning.

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The next area involved navigating a winding river flowing faster than normal due to the downpour of a heavy rainstorm. At some point I lost another cub to the rapids while crossing the water. Then it was on to a wooded area burning to the ground from a raging forest fire, which would set brush ablaze and burn up cover points to make avoiding another bird’s eagle-eyed vision even tougher. The forest fire was avoided without any further loss of life; however I wasn’t so lucky in the next area, where another hawkish avian predator picked off the last of my cubs and, afterward, the lonely mama badger. Game over. Rest in peace, my poor badger friends. Sorry I let you down.

As I have hopefully illustrated, Shelter is a very unique experience. It is an adventure game not about puzzles and deductive reasoning, but rather survival and nature and a deep immersion into the animal kingdom without a single element of humanity to be found. As a video game, it really doesn’t have many “gamey” elements. Early on little pictogram pop-ups will appear to provide text-less gameplay hints, but there is no HUD or even a proper tutorial. Important information is instead portrayed by the animals themselves. For example, the badger cubs will slowly fade in color as a means of showing their health/hunger status. The number of cubs you have in your clan would also seem to represent an overall health bar of sorts. In the preview build, once all the cubs were lost and mama was carried away in the death grip of a bird’s talons, the journey was over and I had to start all over again.

Shelter is methodically paced, so it can drag in spots. But the overriding feeling of responsibility over the life and death of the badger cubs created an emotional connection to the game world that I wasn’t expecting. (I am a serious animal lover, though, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.) The art is pure elegance and beauty in motion – like an animated blend of origami paper craft and various styles of painting – and yet the atmosphere is actually quite tense. I constantly felt the need to stop and take a badger headcount to make sure everyone was still with me, and the feeling of dread that hit when I would turn around and notice a cub missing made my heart drop. In the role of a mama badger, I felt sad that I couldn’t protect all of my babies. That’s a sensation I’ve never encountered while playing a video game before. The closest relation I guess would be the sadness felt losing Agro in Shadow of the Colossus.

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For an hour or so, Shelter provided an immersive animal adventure experience like no other game I can think of. However, my only wonder now is how this experience will translate once the full game is out sometime before the month ends. Will there be a way to save progress or will death always result in starting over from the beginning? That could get a bit old since the world doesn’t appear to offer multiple pathways. How will level progress be structured? In the preview build, I would reach a certain point in one area and the screen would fade out and then back in at a different location, at a different time of day, and even during a different season or weather cycle. Hopefully that’s just an early build thing and the final polished game will have a little more continuity. I’m also not quite sure how long foraging for fruits and vegetables and playing stealth games of cat and mouse with birds will hold up, unless Might and Delight has other dangerous surprises in store that I just didn’t get to see yet.

Whatever the answers to these questions may ultimately be, Shelter has me completely intrigued. If you too appreciate games as art and are captivated by games that try something different, Shelter needs to be on your indie game radar. Watch for it on PC and Mac later in August.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!