I still remember my experience with the first Shelter: I took on the role of a small mother badger, fending off the elements from her four even smaller cubs. I escorted them through valleys of screeching hawks and wild forest fires only to end up with two reaching full adulthood. The first game was a tight and concise experience that never seemed lose its tempo. The only gripe I had with it was the linear nature of its gameplay. It felt too restrictive at times for a game that focused on the dangers of the open wilderness. Developer, Might and Delight, attempts to fix these issues in the sequel by dropping players in an open world sandbox instead of a series of carefully constructed set pieces. However, their attempt to make lightning strike twice with another emotional animal survival game ultimately feels half nurtured, offering a gorgeous looking experience that largely feels untapped and barren.
Unlike the calm nativity scene in the first Shelter, Shelter 2 begins with a pregnant mother lynx trying to save her own life from a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. Here, players learn how to run and jump, the only two movement mechanics that the game offers. The mother lynx barely escapes and is greeted by a sky full of constellations that fill up the screen, guiding her to a safe cave where she can give birth. A couple of loading screens later, you can name your cubs and start your journey as a parent. This initial burst of action gave me quite a lot of hope for Shelter 2, which unfortunately became disillusioned the moment the actual game started.
When you step out of the small crevice that you call home for the first time, you are hit with a beautiful winter vista. Snow slowly falls patting the ground, and the mother lynx’s breath fogs up the air in front of her. The series’ charming paper-craft like aesthetics are still intact, and is definitely one of the game’s stronger aspects. Whichever direction you look towards, you are greeted by a world with an endless horizon dotted with trees and streams. The initial impression of Shelter 2’s open world is enticing, and feels like a map that encourages players to explore its every nook and cranny. Later on as your walk around searching for prey, you can see that there are collectibles sprinkled all across the landscape for you to discover as you scourge the land for food.
Rabbits are at bottom of the food chain in Shelter 2, and will consist most of your family’s diet throughout the game. Once you feed your nervous cubs a few times, they too will stumble out of the den and start following you around on your journey.
As mentioned before, the controls in Shelter 2 are simple. There’s a key for running, a key for calling out for cubs, and a key for using your senses to find prey. Clicking the right mouse button washes out the color of the landscape around you and highlights animals you can hunt in red. This “animal instinct” mode can also be used as a navigational tool, showing you important landmarks so you don’t get lost. A map is provided, but it’s such an abstract mess of jumbled lines that it might as well be an undecodable cave painting. The charm of the game’s visuals also wear thin later on, as foliage and animals blend together, causing frequent situations in which you lose sight of your prey. It doesn't help that the camera controls also feel extremely floaty, not letting me take sharp turns while running.
The only real meaningful piece of information in the game’s HUD is your stamina meter, which regenerates half way even if the mother lynx doesn't nourish herself. In fact, you actually don’t even need to feed yourself to keep surviving. The consequence of death only touches your precious cubs, so the primary goals in Shelter 2 is killing prey and making sure you feed your newborns on a regular basis.
Run. Catch. Eat. Repeat. This is what Shelter 2 ultimately boils down to. There was really no aspect of the game that actually hooked me in. I caught rabbit after rabbit, a few deer along the way, but after awhile, the game just became tedious. While catching my first deer was an exhilarating experience, even that became a bit boring after watching the same leaping animation for the fifteenth time. I hunted the same game again and again until it felt like a chore.
As time passes, watching your young slowly grow and learn to hunt themselves feels rewarding, but overall the game lacks a sense of progression. Shelter 2 tries to weave a narrative through title cards, like those in a silent movie, putting forth poetic verses on the screen during load times to tell me the changing of the seasons and the ages of my cubs. These transitions felt extremely janky, and at one point in the game, magically transformed my cute little cubs into full grown lynxes in one loading screen.
The game provides enemy encounters through the random wolf packs scattered about the map, which I’ve only experienced once during my first play-through. But if I were to point my finger at the real antagonist of Shelter 2, it would be the weather. The winter took my first cub, Alex; I failed to feed him properly during the blistering cold.
Even if it stumbles in many aspects, Shelter 2 excels in one area: giving players the feeling of vulnerability of taking care of the defenseless. I felt this pressure through my whole play-through, checking behind me to make sure that my kin were safe at all times every few seconds. As the seasons changed, so did the harshness of the environment.
This sense urgency is amplified by the game’s amazing score and audio design. Retro Family’s soundtrack breathes life into the open wilderness of Shelter 2. Every sprint, pounce, bite, and roar that the mother lynx takes, the music also adapts to. Warm guitar chords glide during the summer and spring, while plucking strings cover the winter and fall time. Since there is little in the way of user interface, sound is also utilized to highlight the dangers of the environment. Thunderous claps in rain storms, to the distant howls of wolves all alert the player of the obstacles that might lay ahead. In fact, one of the only ways to detect if one of your cubs is malnourished is by recognizing which one is whimpering for food.
When your cubs finally grow up, they solemnly say their goodbyes and leave you to live their lives independently. You’re then told, like a salmon, to retrace your steps back to the little den where you gave birth. You play a final short scene with the mother lynx, and the credits roll. When I realized that Shelter 2 clocks in around two hours, I was a bit disappointed. Knowing that the first Shelter took around only an hour to beat, I really wanted Shelter 2 to be a much more meaty experience coming in. But, by the conclusion of the game, I just felt as if there just wasn’t enough mechanical depth there to make the game any longer. The game tries to extend its longevity by incentivizing players to continue their family tree with one of the cubs the players raised, but it’s ultimately just the same romp all over again. Though the encounters are randomized each time you start a new game, there still wasn’t enough variation for me to finish my second play-through.
I really wanted to fall in love with Shelter 2. It had all the ingredients to become one of my favorite games this year. Pleasing in both the visual and audio departments, the game really distinguishes itself apart from others. However, Shelter 2 commits the worst sin a sequel can carry out: playing it safe. There was nothing about the game that made it immensely superior to the original Shelter. It just felt as if developer, Might and Delight, shoved the basic mechanics of their first game into a bland open world. In fact, due to the non-scripted nature of the sequel, there were much less memorable moments in Shelter 2 than in Shelter. If you're looking for a robust survival game experience, Shelter 2 can wait.
- The game is pure eye candy. Beautiful to look at.
- Amazing music and sound design.
- The lynx cubs are adorable.
- The open world feels aimless.
- Replayability is low for such a short game.
- The core gameplay is too repetitive.
- The game’s art can become muddy at times, making it hard for players to distinguish prey.
You can buy Shelter 2 on Steam for $14.99.