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Sheltered Beta First Impressions

First impressions from a promising roguelike with an endearing focus on character and self-made stories.

Sheltered is a roguelike survival game developed by Unicube. I Kickstarted this game back in July 2014 and just got my Beta access. Unicube is a small (read: two guys and a part time audio guy) indie studio and Sheltered is their first game. This appears to be a game of passion for this small group of developers and they constantly are pushing new content updates and swiftly releasing patches when players find bugs.

The premise of the game is simple: your family is holed up in a fallout shelter following a nuclear war that wiped out most of civilization and you have to utilize the skills and attributes of your family members to survive. The premise may be simple, but the application is anything but. A simpler game would have been pleased to let you manage food and water supplies and maybe deal with encounters in the wasteland. Sheltered gives you that and more, all the while daring you to let your attention slip for even a second.

Retro Despair

Graphically, the game is attractive, crafted in classic 16-bit style with a definite emphasis on the muted colors typical of the wasteland. However, the things that should capture your attention, such as water or food supplies, are colored bright blues and reds, making their importance obvious against the drab backdrop.

What's cozier than a pixelated bunker?

The sounds are also well-crafted and the music done by Ben Ridge is designed to induce the feelings of hopelessness and despair. The audio is exactly what I thought it should sound like, with the doors opening and closing with a satisfying *clunk* of finality. The controls are simple and intuitive. Left click to choose and move a family member, right click to interact. Simple. There are some response issues, with my people getting stuck even though I gave them a simple order, but I’m sure these will work themselves out as the game is developed further.

Right from the start, the game asks for emotional investment, allowing you to meticulously craft your pixelated family of two parents, two children, and a pet. However, refreshingly, the definition of family is very loose. Want a frat house of filthy men? Go for it. Want an adorable lesbian couple and their two adoptees? You got it. You are not locked into a traditional nuclear (ahem) family and this allows the player to craft delightful little stories for their bunker-bound family.

My Frat Boys

A Tale of Two Toilets

The gameplay is simple yet addictive. You have to manage various aspects of your family members including hunger, thirst, hygiene, and the all-too-important call of nature. Yes, you have to tell your post-apocalyptic parents to use the toilet.

This is where my only real gripe comes into play. The game is designed to be very micro-management intensive, but at times, it feels as though some of the atmosphere gets lost in the minutiae. It seems a little silly that I am worrying about dwindling water supplies at the same time as who gets to use the toilet next, especially when there is a whole great big, albeit irradiated, world above that is just begging for some human-produced fertilizer.

Snap Out of It, You Fool!

The trauma and stress metrics are interesting, however, I could find no obvious way in the early game to alleviate these realistic stressors. If I were stuck in a bunker with my family, I would talk to my siblings or parents to alleviate stress. However, there is no such option, often times leaving the most productive members of my small tribe catatonic and unable to take any actions. I complain, but the reality is, I found myself sitting at my computer an hour and a half lately, vaguely aware of my numb rear end as I pondered the fate of Barbara, who just became catatonic again and is becoming a serious drain on the Murphy’s food.

 Expeditions Or Die Rolling?

The expeditions are a necessary part of the game but it appears that a lot of it is based purely on chance. Will I come across some place I can loot? If I don’t, the water and gas mask (both in short supply) were wasted. During an expedition, you send a family member or two out to wander the wasteland. If you are lucky, there will be icons on the map, denoting places to loot. However, once these were pillaged for all they were worth, I found myself picking a random direction and hoping that my people found another one of these icons.

While this definitely ramps up the stress, it doesn’t seem realistic in a game that strives for 16-bit realism. In any post-apocalyptic world, an explorer will find something, be it an abandoned car or a dead body. The fact that my expeditioners come back completely empty handed if they don’t find a location is somewhat annoying and makes the expedition feel like a roll of the dice as opposed to something I can strategically plan.

Combat is similarly simple. Just click"attack" and watch your 16-bit survivor punch/whack/shoot the enemy. Very little in the way of strategy. That said, the bones of a great mechanic are there. It just needs a little more irradiated flesh on those bones.

"Jerry, use attack!" "Meh."

The End of It All?

While there are some fairly obvious missing features, I suddenly remember that the game is only in Beta. For a Beta game, it is incredibly well-polished and aside from a few minor inconveniences (although to a certain type of player, they could be considered features), it feels relatively complete. This is especially refreshing in a world where even big-budget AAA titles often get released unfinished, leaving us mourning what could have been.

The game’s strongest feature is certainly its willingness to let the player create their own narrative. This is the kind of game where the player is given a goal and a setting and told, “OK, make a story.” I like that. Throughout my play time, I found myself carefully writing little stories based on my family’s attributes. That kind of emotional investment will keep me coming back for more. All in all, I am excited for where the game is going and I look forward to receiving more content updates from Unicube.

Thanks for reading! 

Published Aug. 14th 2015

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