Shelter 2 Review: IAmA Terrible Mother and My Babies Abandoned Me
"The beauty of nature goes hand in hand with its unforgiving rawness."
A departure from the meditative adventure of a mother badger inching through the comfort of small forest paths and the inherent dangers of wide-open spaces, indie studio Might and Delight's latest title Shelter 2 follows the life of a mother lynx at the comparative top of her food chain.
Comparative, of course, because there are still dangers out in the wild - even for one of the fiercest predators in the forest, particularly when she is pregnant and alone.
"Mother Lynx is pregnant and searching for a den. But the night is cold, and fearsome predators have caught her scent."
The original Shelter relied solely on the gaming experience to carry the weight of the wordless narrative. Shelter 2 uses a combination of Shelter's learn-by-doing framework and the free children's book Might & Delight released called "The Circle" - splicing short children's story fragments between segments of gameplay.
In some ways, you might argue that this tutorial strategy takes away from the truly immersive feel of the first Shelter - but the bits of storybook are never overbearing and are few and far in between.
As a mother lynx unburdened with the terror of open spaces, the world is your oyster. You are strong, powerful, and fast.
In fact, I would go so far as to say the time-out for story fits in rather well to help the player adjust from the single, almost rail-roaded escort quest of the first game into a much more expansive adventure.
You don't find out in which direction you're heading towards simply because you see a piece of fruit off in the distance, you are given both a rough map and a "sense" skill that allows you to pick out both prey and necessary landmarks off in the distance.
Bring up the map with 'M'.
The world has grown bigger, and as a mother lynx unburdened with the terror of open spaces, the world is your oyster. You are strong, powerful, and fast. You can run for days! In fact, the seasons change around you - the snow melts away beneath your paws, spring greens fades to autumn russets, but the story stays the same.
You have somewhere you need to be... and you have to care for your kittens while you get there.
So as you race to catch up with fiendishly sneaky rabbits and other fleet-footed prey like a furred whirlwind, you also realize that your powers of speeding after them are finite and they can get away - easily too, especially if you haven't crept up close enough before they startle away.
I discovered that you don't really need to pay strict attention to the pinpoint location of your brood - you can call them to you, and even if left alone they will always come running after you as their little legs struggle to keep up. There are no predators that actively hunt your kittens as they grow up. In fact, as they develop, your children grow strong enough to take down and devour small prey all on their own. That's a proud feeling.
If you fail to feed them, however, they will lag behind and soon topple over, piteously wailing and waiting to die - unless you run down something just in time. Most of the small animals that you catch are too small for all five of you to devour at once so you the search for sustenance is constant, and the fear of losing your babies is ever-present.
In Shelter 2, you are capable of picking up your worn-out kitten in your mouth and carrying it while you keep moving far enough to find more food worth hunting - for a time. These babies do not remain static as in the first game - in fact, they don't remain babies for very long.
What do you do when they have grown too big for you to carry, and there is no food to be found?
The race to run down enough prey takes on an urgency that I rarely feel in a game, and sometimes that growing sense of desperation culminates in a grim chime of music - you've failed and your baby has died.
There is nothing left to do but to watch their poor little body sink away into the long grass, gather your remaining children around you, and set off again to continue your journey.
When I first wrote about my badger adventures in the first Shelter game, I warned readers that if you named your babies, it would end in heartbreak.
(see the official review for Shelter: Shelter Makes Me Feel Like a Terrible Mother)
In Shelter 2, they named my babies for me.
These names are largely meaningless since they don't really appear again within the game context after they are born (and if you like, you can change them to whatever you want a la Oregon Trail). However, in the game's efforts to inject more replayability into this title, you have the option of starting a new game after the one you've just finished as one of the surviving lynxes in the next generation in your family tree.
This is a neat addition that I liked a great deal more than Might & Delight's other efforts to increase player playtime and game replayability - like the collectibles.
The environments are littered with a number of shiny things that you can poke with your nose and pick up into your magical spiritual inventory of dead animal trophies and flashy rocks with which to decorate your cave.
Normally a fan of side-questing and hunting out hidden things in off-paths, I find the concept of sitting around waiting for the bits of animal to disappear so that I can collect the shiny little skull slightly absurd. I found myself peeved as I stopped to pick up feathers and sparkling rocks that are not visible with your Sense skill, but largely found through hard searching and blind luck.
The only other disappointment I had in this game was the music - which is rather unfortunate in this case because, in and of itself, the music is lovely.
Sweet, poignant, and simple - but it lacks the gravity and significance of the music in the first Shelter. As such, the music remains firmly in the background of your notice as you play, easily forgettable except for a few, perfect moments where utter silence is far more poignant than the strings.
In the final tally...
This is a beautiful game. While I may not like all of the changes they have made to the original Shelter format, this game represents a very organic evolution from one to the next, with just enough change to keep from tiring out a theme.
Shelter 2 retains the power of pulling you into the adventure - you aren't simply playing a mother lynx, you are playing yourself as a lynx. Your impatience and your actions have consequences. And when your children leave you to lead their own lives as wild, solitary animals, you find peace at the end, in perhaps the only way you can.