There’s a mobile game called A Dark Room which holds a very special place in my heart and mind. This game, brought to us by Doublespeak Games, is a text-based resource management RPG, though that title barely begins to encompass what A Dark Room truly is. I picked up the game for iPhone in January of this year, a time in which the video game industry is typically quiet and dark, and I began to explore the world laid out before me, represented only with words, lines, and black-and-white figures. For two days straight I lost myself in this world which, on the surface, seemed to offer so little but, underneath, had an impossibly grand story to tell and did so with purpose and effective intention. I loved A Dark Room, and I will always remember it fondly as a game that altered me to my core.
When I flipped on Sheltered for the first time, that same familiar feeling resonated through me. A mix of adoration and heartache, joy and devastation, expanded by the size, depth, and enhanced visuals of the PS4 entry. I couldn’t wait to find out if Sheltered could offer me the same emotional revelation as my beloved mobile masterpiece.
If this sounds overly grandiose and exaggerated, well, perhaps it is. But that’s not a bad thing. The best games are always the ones that affect us to some monumental degree, the same as the movies that make us ponder our existence, the music that makes us cry for unknown reasons, or the plays that leave us walking out of the theatre in silent awe. Games are a different medium than these but, because of their inherently intimate nature, are that much more capable of offering a uniquely important experience to the player.
Sheltered never shies away from this responsibility. Sheltered is a beautiful game full of possibilities, challenge, and deep reward for those who commit fully to what the game has to offer.
Enough ranting: What is Sheltered? Sheltered, a resource-management survival game from Unicube and produced by Team17, begins with you creating a family of four (and selecting from a variety of pets). This character creation mode is moderately deep and allows you to name your characters, dress them, assign them strengths and weaknesses, etc. While not quite as deep as the character creator in, say, The Sims, Sheltered succeeds in developing an emotional connection to your characters as you build them in the exact same way The Sims does. By the time your family is complete, you will already care about them to some degree, which is important.
Then the game begins, as you and your family begin life in a small underground bunker. A brief tutorial gives you a couple of the basics, but it’s almost entirely inadequate for covering the large scope of things you’ll need to know. This isn’t a deal breaker, however. In fact, the lack of a proper tutorial enhances the experience to a degree, heightening the stakes and level of desperation as you try things, learn things, and struggle to survive.
Sheltered is half The Sims and half A Dark Room. You will manage your characters’ needs, which consist of thirst, hunger, tiredness, dirtiness and, of course, the need to use the bathroom. Cycling between characters allows you to assign them to tasks, whether that is to take care of themselves, fix an important object, or some other unique project. You will need to fix and maintain your important items, such as showers, bathrooms, a generator, an oxygen filter, and a rain-water collection filter.
But resources are scarce in the wasteland, and things rarely just come to you as you hide in your bunker. A radio allows you to send out a broadcast for traders to come to your shelter, but you will still need items and resources to trade and upgrade your items and bunker. Thus, you will need to send members of your party out into the wilderness on expeditions. Using a map, you will chart a course for your characters to different landmarks, represented by question marks until you discover them. You can equip your characters with items such as weapons, larger bags, and protective gear before sending them out into the unknown. From there, you’ll control and interact with your expedition party via radio contact.
However, if your party runs into another wander (or something more sinister), you’ll have the option of jumping to where they are and directly interacting with the event. This can include attempting to trade with the individual, recruiting the individual to your shelter, and even fighting with them, which offers a surprisingly detailed turn-based combat system. These interactions can be a mixed bag, as after a while things start to get stale and others rarely have anything special or unique to offer.
And that’s the game. Keep your family alive and their needs met. Gather resources to upgrade your objects and your bunker. Explore the wasteland in search of more. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So what makes this game so special if it’s just so much of the same? It’s not any one part of Sheltered, but rather the total sum of all of its parts, and the experience offered. Frankly, it’s the emotional connection.
When many people discuss their experience playing Skyrim, they talk about the awe-inspiring feeling of creating a story for their character in a world that felt so full. Games truly allow us to invest fully in an experience, developing empathetic connections with characters and a world that only exists on our televisions. This is part of why video games as a whole are such a big part of modern society, and why Virtual Reality is causing such a stir in the industry at the time of this writing.
This is Sheltered’s biggest success: creating a fully realized experience that players can put their hearts into. When your characters are doing well, the world feels lighter. When one of your characters dies (and they will die), it’s a devastating experience. You care for them, nurture them, create stories for them, and watching them struggle and ultimately fail is heart wrenching. Thus, everything you achieve, whether it’s unlocking a new upgrade for your workbench or finding that necessary bottle of anti-rads in a pharmacy, feels like the beginning or ending of the world.
Fundamentals: The art style is cute, although it gets bland and tiring after a while. The sound design is functional in its support of the gameplay. The core gameplay is addictive and excellent.
There’s one other thing that needs to be mentioned, and it’s important: Part of why A Dark Room is such a successful experience is because it had a story to tell. You didn’t always know what you were working towards, but you were working towards something, and there was a clear, emotionally-satisfying ending. Sheltered has no such conclusion (barring some future update). The “goal” of the game is to survive as long as possible, which explains why leaderboards are available with the number of days you survive on it. While that’s not to say there’s no merit to this, the purpose of the game feels somewhat hollow without a proper ending for your beloved characters.
That being said, Sheltered is a devastatingly beautiful experience, and a true must-have for those who are looking for a wonderful resource-management survival game to add to their collection, or those who (like me) are looking for something to move your spirit just a bit. It’s not quite a perfect game, but if you give Sheltered a chance, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
A PS4 code for Sheltered was provided by Team17 for the purposes of this review.