The original Shelter was a charming and surprisingly upsetting tale of survival and loss, as you guided your mother badger and her five cubs to safety as best you could. With Shelter 2, developer Might and Delight has shaken things up considerably, giving the player a bit more bite and a lot more freedom. But does it add up to a better game?
The story begins with a thrilling chase through the night, as your pregnant lynx is relentlessly pursued by a pack of hungry wolves. By the end of the night, she has found her way to a cosy little den and given birth to four ridiculously adorable cubs.
While this sequence feels like it’s setting the tone for the rest of the game, it is in fact the most peril you’re likely to see. Shelter was a game of constant threat, if not of dangerous predators than of starvation. This forced you to always keep moving, constantly having to decide whether to hurry to save time or go slow to avoid mistakes.
In Shelter 2, however, once you get out into the fields, you are the danger. The move from the mild-mannered badger to the carnivorous lynx means that instead of digging for roots and occasionally getting up the nerve to pounce on a nimble fox, you can pretty much just lay waste to the local animal population at your leisure.
To be fair, nabbing a rabbit feels pretty great, as they require quick reflexes to stay on their tail as you slowly gain on them. And the first time I brought down a deer and all four of my cubs dug in, I felt like I’d single-handedly saved Lynx Christmas. Even so, the general lack of danger coupled with the wholesale slaughter of defenceless animals ended up making me feel like a bit of a prick.
The lynx cubs require much less micro-management than the baby badgers did, as well. While sprinting will still leave them behind, they’ll do their best to catch up, instead of sitting helplessly where you left them. As they get older, they’ll start hunting prey for themselves as well; trust me, launching a five-lynx assault on a deer-filled clearing has a savage, almost Far Cry 3-esque pleasure to it.
Another big change in Shelter 2 is the open world approach, as opposed to the first game’s linear levels. On the one hand, the freedom to go wherever you like is a welcome change from being forced to sniff out the one correct path to the level’s end. On the other, having to navigate through predators, flooding rivers and forest fires is part of what made the first game feel like such an adventure.
Worse, this big open world is kind of empty. Sure, there are rodents to eat and trees to shake, but there’s little to differentiate one area from the next, nor any particular reason to explore beyond curiosity. Fortunately, the landscape changes as you progress through the seasons, with snow melting off in Spring, and the grass turning orange come Autumn. The world is still every bit as beautiful as Shelter’s was, but there just doesn’t seem to be as much in it.
Most frustrating of all, however, is Shelter 2’s refusal to explain what you should be doing, or how to do it. A quick contextual tutorial image is the only guidance you get, and these are just to explain the basic mechanics. Right-clicking next to dropped food will see the mother lynx eat it instead of the cubs, but never is it explained why you would need to do this (though after some experimentation, the answer seems to be that it temporarily improves her stamina). And the one time a predator did appear, it launched from nowhere and had no apparent way to be defeated or avoided.
Similarly, the world has a huge number of collectibles hidden around, but none of these seem to do anything; they just seem to be there to be collected. The game also tallies up the number of rabbit or deer skulls you’ve picked up over your various meals, but again, there’s no explanation as to why. I spent most of my time with this game feeling like I should be doing something or going somewhere, but having no idea what, and so just hunted to pass the time until the next season arrived.
Despite my gripes, as I played Shelter 2 I still felt myself becoming invested in this furry family, unconsciously adopting a motherly persona. However, while the first game had a similar effect on me in a tender, caring sort of way, here I found myself indignantly cursing Mr Lynx for leaving me to provide for his four kids while he went gallivanting across the savannah. And when my cubs came of age and went off to start their own families, I had a sad moment of wondering what I was supposed to do with my life now. But then I cried “Freedom!” and ate an entire deer.
It’s hard to say whether Shelter 2 is an improvement on the original. On the one hand, the tweaked mechanics make for a less frustrating time, but on the other, the lack of vulnerability takes away so much of what made Shelter resonate. The series’ name indicates a single-minded purpose, a far-off goal that if reached, will all but guarantee your cubs’ salvation. Shelter 2, however, all but ignores the idea of shelter, instead raising a family of Mongol-esque raiders who take what they want because it’s there to be had. For this reason, the original Shelter is still the definitive experience of the series.