Shelter Review: A Journey with Badgers

If you’ve played That Game Company’s sublime Journey on the PS3 then you’ve more or less played Shelter. I don’t mean that as a knock in any way and the developers at Might and Delight should take that as a sincere compliment. But, I couldn’t help but think on many occasions as I was making my way through Shelter, “OK, this is totally Journey with badgers instead of weird, floaty hooded dudes.”

Shelter: PC [reviewed] and Mac
Developer: Might and Delight
Publisher: Might and Delight
Release Date: August 28th, 2013
MSRP: $9.99

Steam Store: Shelter

There’s a famous quote from the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes that goes: “…the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” which sums up the whole of Shelter rather well. Hobbes was referring to the state of humanity in a time of war, but Shelter can certainly be seen as such. You are cast in the unlikely role of a badger sow (mother) protecting and guiding her litter of five cubs to a new home. Her/Your war is against the environment and natural predators, both seen and unseen.

Where Shelter is most like Journey is in its “jump in the river and learn to swim” style of gameplay. You are rarely told what to do or where to go. Once in a while a pictograph will pop up, giving you some vague idea about how to do something (like attack a frog and feed it your young ones) but that’s about it. Otherwise, you are on your own and that’s where Shelter is most dissimilar to Journey: you weren’t alone on your trek in Journey; you had your various mystery pals there to assist you every now and again and that was, in a word, magical.

Not to say that a game mechanic like that would work for Shelter; where a “you against the world” mentality is vital to what makes it work as a gaming experience. But I can’t say that I didn’t wonder more a few times as I forced my Badger Mom to forage for grub yet again, “Hey, where the hell is Badger Dad? And why isn’t he helping me out here? I’ve got five kids to feed!” If anything, Shelter gave me a brief glimpse into the helter-skelter life of a single mother (be it human or animal), and I can’t say that it seemed all that fun or glamorous.

While I love the concept and narrative that drives Shelter, I do take issue with its presentation, control and length. The graphics are stylized, but have a distinctly polygonal look, as if this game was developed for the original Playstation or the Nintendo 64. And, unfortunately, I encountered one of the main failings of many games of that era: a wonky, 3D camera that obstructs your vision of the game itself when it goes “behind” trees or rocks or whatever. I have to admit that I was kind of taken aback when it first happened because I hadn’t seen this issue occur in quite some time. Plus, it completely ripped me out of the game world. To offset that shortcoming, the ambient animal and nature sound effects are spot on and the musical score is quite interesting to boot.

The controls are standard WASD keyboard controls with the mouse controlling the camera and the badger’s bite; the SHIFT key will also make your lady badger speed up a bit. As a whole, the controls work OK, but they definitely contribute to the vision obstruction issues I mentioned above. Not having at least an option for a controller and/or gamepad in any type of game nowadays borders on criminal in my humble opinion. I understand that certain genres of games just work better with keyboard controls, but Shelter isn’t one of them. It isn’t a “twitch” style game by any stretch of the imagination but there are certain harrowing situations (in the nighttime and brush fire sections) where the keyboard controls (i.e. jamming the bloody hell out of the SHIFT key) just wasn’t doing it for me.

Luckily for me and my badger brood, I was able to keep my cool in those tight spots  with the controls working against me, as the words and music of Bob Dylan came to my lips to comfort and guide me: “’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood;  when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud; I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form; ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’” Shelter from the storm indeed…

One final thing to mention here is that I completed Shelter in about two and half hours. It costs $10. That’s just too damn much for a two and half hour game with limited re-playability; I’m sorry. I had a similar issue with Gone Home, which I beat in a little over three hours and that costs $20. Methinks that someone needs to get these indie developers to an economics class that will teach them how to price their products more reasonably.

All that being said, any game that can make me haul out quotes from both a 17thcentury philosopher and a 60’s era bard is worthy of note, but the technical shortcomings (i.e. camera wrangling) of several generations ago, and the fact that it can easily be completed in one sitting, really hamstring the overall experience that Shelter offers when it comes down to the brass tacks. But, if you dug Journey and are jonesing for another experience of that ilk, then give Shelter a go. It doesn’t quite capture the enthralling magic of Journey, nor does it have the overall polish. But, it does come close a few times, and that’s certainly saying something.

Pros:

  • Offers a very unique, “circle of life” perspective to the video gaming landscape.
  • Has some rather gripping and sublime moments.
  • Nice audio work overall.

Cons:

  • Technical issues cause you to lose immersion.
  • No option for a controller and/or gamepad.
  • Too short and overpriced for that length.

Final Score: 70/100

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