Right from its inception it is painfully clear that your time in Sheltered will not be one of rehoming lost puppies, much to my initial dismay. The start menu depicts a world ravaged by the fires of atomic warfare, with all semblance and possibility of cute cuddly canines reduced to radioactive dust. The world of Sheltered is not for the faint of heart, or weak of bladder. It is an extremely brutal, yet tremendously rewarding survival simulation that portrays the hardships of struggling to survive in a world where every single day is a battle for your very existence.
In Sheltered you are tasked with trying to sustain the lives of your traditional nuclear family of survivors. Taking inspiration from The Sims, you have to manage their needs, making sure that their lives in this post-apocalyptic hellhole are as stress-free as possible. Everything from their hunger, thirst, and hygiene, to their stress levels, psychological state, and bladder needs have to carefully micromanaged with the utmost precision. Your own stress levels will crescendo as you struggle to keep little Timmy from walking around smelling like a festering feline left in the wasteland for too long. Though it might at first appear rather tedious, the art of balancing the wants and needs of your individual survivors is an exhilarating experience. Things can quickly spiral out of control if you are not vigilant, keeping you constantly on the edge of seat in anticipation for the next tragedy to strike your beleaguered survivors. Your primary source of water comes from rain, and thanks to the unpredictability of nature whole weeks might pass before another drop of precious liquid finds its way to your shelter. While this can be infuriating, Shelter does not suffer because of it. The experience is all the more realistic due to such irregularities, and it only makes helps ratchet up the tension. However, when that rare moment finally arrives where all your survivors are as happy as they can be, the feeling of satisfaction is almost unrivalled.
Of course, if supervising your survivors was the only goal in Sheltered then it would amount to little more than a glorified Sims clone, with only a dash of radiation poisoning to enliven the action. Thankfully, Sheltered offers a cornucopia of micromanaging elements, the most notable of which is the shelter management. This small, dilapidated fallout shelter is your port in the storm, a haven from the whirling radioactive dust butts and immoral savages of the atomic wasteland. Though barren at first, with little more than a flimsy generator for company, you can expand your shelter by way of an impressive array of craftable items, all of which go some way to relieving the suffering of your clan, making life ever so slightly more palatable. Many of these items can in turn be upgraded, allowing you to, for example, accumulate more shelter members by improving your oxygen filter’s capacity. There is an enormous amount on offer here, and the game constantly gives you something to strive for. The game never descends into micromanaging tedium, as you will be constantly setting yourself new goals to achieve.
The plethora of crafting items do not magic themselves out of thin air however, and in order to obtain that shiny new poo bucket you’ve been coveting for the past 30 days you’ll have to gather the necessary resources to do so. Once again, the sheer variety of components on offer is staggering, even giving Fallout 4 a run for its money. Just like in the blockbuster RPG, items can be broken down for components, though the primary method of gathering these parts involves sending your family members out into the wasteland to scavenge them from the crumbling ruins of civilisation.
Exploration is initiated through the HAM radio, which contrary to belief is not a hotline to order up some succulent meaty products. From here you can choose up to two of your troupe of terrified survivors to send out into the world, as well as deciding what tools and weapons to fit them out with. Just like everything else in Sheltered, you must carefully decide the appropriate loadout, lest you risk losing them forever. Be warned however, exploring takes up valuable water resources, and doing so too often can set you in dire straits indeed. Yet occasionally you’ll have to make the terrible decision to ignore such issues, or risk the safety of the entire shelter. Such a moral conundrum is what empowers Sheltered, making it stand out as more than a simple by the numbers game. You will be constantly debating whether or not the risk is worth the reward, and if the lives of the few matter more than the lives or the many.
I was faced with many such moral decisions, yet the one which stands out the most concerned my delightful daughter Donna. I was forced to make an excruciating choice between either giving the last morsel of food to my dog Jasper, or to Donna. Both were close to starving, yet in the long run keeping the dog alive would be more beneficial for the survival effort. That and I believed my explorer would soon return with most tasty treats to satiated Donna’s hunger. The food never came, with the game firmly sticking a middle finger up at my poor survivors. My dear Donna died, and the dog survived. I felt terrible, and such a powerful emotional response is what makes Sheltered one of the most emotionally engrossing experiences I have ever played.
Sheltered is an outstanding fusion of high-quality gameplay with true emotional ambient storytelling. The combination of so many different elements ran the risk of convoluting the experience, yet the game masterly orchestrates every single part with immaculate efficiency. It is ruthless, and utterly unforgiving, especially for new players, yet amount of content on offer here is almost unfathomable. A true indie classic.