[Reviewed on PS4]
Sheltered’s title not only refers to the impossibly grim situation facing its protagonists, but also the complacent minds of the people destined to play it. Never before has a game set in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse pulled fewer punches: it offers a malleable narrative that literally never ends happily, and the more attached you become to the characters that you have a confined hand in creating, the more gruelling the whole enterprise becomes.
Children will be inexplicably murdered above ground when you have no option but to send them off scavenging for you. If you never found the right resources to build a freezer for stashing corpses in, family members will very quickly start losing their marbles. And when things really start going to pot, that roaming drifter who you generously took under your wing will stand around and watch you all starve, berate you for not feeding your dog and then rob you. The word ‘bleak’ doesn’t do it justice, but Sheltered is a shrewd, bracing mystery as well as a crisis management sim.
Explanations are scarce. The game’s tutorial is swift and pitiless, and doing something as simple as feeding the family pet involves investigation, which is hardly ideal when your oxygen filter needs fixing and water’s running low. And yet somehow, playing through Sheltered is a totally energising experience, which is incredible when you consider that it’s fixated on stressing you out. Someone is always suffering and you’re always on the brink of some kind of crisis, but every small victory – be it the salvation of a random rainstorm or the discovery of an abandoned church filled with essential components – brings both joy and genuine comfort. Until fresh disasters start looming mere seconds later.
Small text windows occasionally pop up to let you know what members of your clan are saying or thinking. They feel like potential clues at first, but it’s a con: there’s no reprieve from the brutal randomness of everything, and the fact that so much is down to chance might be a serious barrier for some. You can improvise yourself out of most situations if you’ve been paying strict attention, but the second you turn your back on something, it sucker punches you. If you manage your trips to the surface carelessly, then you’ll be forced to watch everyone around you slowly perish because you never found a hinge for that freezer or because it just won’t bloody rain.
If you enjoyed last year’s iOS/Android sleeper Fallout Shelter, but wanted more complexity, less predictable combat and a greater sense of achievement even in abject failure, look no further. Who said that certain death had to be depressing?