Unlikely as it seemed just 18 months ago, Bethesda has become a major third-party supporter for Nintendo. When Skyrim was first glimpsed in the Switch reveal trailer, many assumed that a quick rejig of a six-year-old game was something of a polite gesture on Bethesda’s part, yet they followed it with the brilliant DOOM, and we’ll have Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus in our hands before the end of the month. Conversion wizards Panic Button have teased another Bethesda title in the works, and with the recent announcement of Fallout 76, there are hopes we’ll be seeing another ‘impossible’ port before long.
In the meantime, 2015’s Fallout Shelter has become the first game in the series on a Nintendo platform, although it’s probably not the Fallout you’re looking for – free-to-play with countdown timers sped up via microtransactions. Don’t let that put you off, though; resource management is shot through with the series' dry humour and atompunk aesthetic, and the F2P elements aren’t too intrusive.
As the title suggests, you are the overseer of a post-apocalyptic fallout shelter. Survivors turn up on the doorstep and must be assigned roles based on their attributes. The series’ SPECIAL stats return – Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. These dictate which job potential inhabitants are best suited to: strong individuals should be put to work on the power generator; intelligent dwellers are better off in science/med labs. Appropriate delegation is critical to efficient production and morale. Optional tooltips guide you through the basics, although colour coding might have helped to make skills more readable.
Joy-Cons can be used but the game is designed around touch or mouse controls. Harvesting resources and levelling-up your inhabitants with a tap earns you currency (bottle caps) which finances expansions to the bunker. New facilities gradually unlock enabling you to train your people in specific skills and improve productivity, which in turn attracts outsiders to your underground hotspot. Ultimately, you’ll be weighing the pros and cons of prospective candidates – if they don’t bring something new to the table, best send them packing.
Power generation, food production and water filtration must be balanced to keep your vault operational, and consumption meters appear at the top of the screen. These are topped-up by tapping the respective room once their timers reach zero. It’s possible to ‘rush’ production, with success/failure rates giving as a percentage. Failure results in fires or roach infestations – other micro-catastrophes will occur periodically, including bandit attacks.
It's when disaster strikes that frustrations arise on Switch. The game certainly functions on the small screen, but it’s crying out for the larger real estate of a tablet. Docking the console makes everything bigger, but you’re forced to use the cumbersome pad controls – a pointer would have offered the best of both worlds. In handheld mode, pinch-zoom works as you’d expect and you can double-tap rooms to get a better view. However, the frame cuts off the ends of wide rooms and dwellers run off screen as you’re trying to select them.
Switch’s touch support provides some great gameplay opportunities if they’re tailored to the platform, but it doesn’t make a fantastic tablet. Dragging dwellers into different rooms is a hit-and-miss affair, mainly because they’re so small on the screen. Plummeting health bars and ticking timers exacerbate the situation. Inhabitants are 2D, but the bunker is presented as a 3D diorama so scrolling means dwellers in back corners are often obscured and navigation feels finicky.
Visually, Vault Boy’s animated art style translates nicely and sound design is also strong, from the satisfying jangling of acquired caps to level-up jingles. There’s plenty of the series’ humour in the writing and scenarios, too. As well as recruiting souls from the wasteland, you play social engineer by dragging fertile dwellers into the living quarters and encouraging them to get along famously. You’ll know you’re on the right track when they start doing a little grandma jig. The game has its tongue firmly in its cheek, although it’s a shame to see pregnant women running hysterically at the first sight of a roach invasion.
You’ll find or craft stat-altering weapons and outfits which enable you to send dwellers into the wasteland on reconnaissance quests and track their exploits via text updates. Once you unlock the Overseer Office, you can follow these quests. Bottles of Nuka-Cola are used to hasten journeys – these are found in the field, as rewards for completing quests, or in special lunchboxes (Fallout Shelter’s version of loot crates). As microtransactions go, the system is relatively unobtrusive here. If you’ve got more money than time they’re certainly tempting, but the game does provide resources over time so it’s still enjoyable provided you’re not in a rush.
The timer-based gameplay is made to be dipped into a few times a day, and while this works on Switch, it was evidently designed with other devices in mind. Yes, touch functionality exists, but the experience on Switch doesn’t compare with dedicated phones or tablets, and if being able to play on the bus isn’t a concern, the PC version would be better still. Fallout Shelter is handsomely presented with a nice resource management loop that’s worthy of investigation, but it’s tough to recommend this version if you've got access to other platforms.