It’s always the way. You go to the trouble of having a family - then boom! - a nuclear holocaust comes along and forces you underground in an attempt to survive. Now the humdrum of daily life is replaced by a constant need to search the fallout-ridden surface for food and fuel while ensuring your loved ones don’t fall ill or die of radiation poisoning. In other words, life post-apocalypse can be a real drag.
That is Sheltered in an irradiated nutshell. It’s resource management, character caretaking and turn-based combat all in the same melting pot. Think a The Last of Us-themed expansion pack for The Sims. With four randomly generated survivors and a family pet - which you can customise right down to the key personality traits before each run begins - it’s up to you to keep them all alive as long as possible. And you probably won’t - it’s that kind of game - so you’ll have to make plenty of brutal decisions along the way.
Those decisions form the crux of the game’s gameplay loop. There are no good choices to be made here, and every path comes with a sacrifice of its own. The generator that keeps your 2D pixel art shelter running needs fuel, but in order to gather enough to keep it ticking (and the parts to upgrade it) you’ll need to task one or more of your survivors with an adventure on the outside. However, doing so will reduce the amount of water in your tank; you never know what you might find. Perhaps an abandoned warehouse with a can of petrol, or a wasteland filled with zombies. Everything is a trade.
Combat, when encountered, is rudimentary at best, resolving itself to a simple turn-based affair that lacks much flair or personality. Other survivors may attack your shelter, and you’re likely to encounter anything from bandits to bears out in the wilds, but it’s easily one of Sheltered’s weakest aspects. However, your real battle is with that ever looming need to risk resources in the hope of gathering more. But, considering the layout of the overworld is randomly generated with every new game (and the fact you can only travel so far due to the size of the water canister you carry around) you can sometimes end up in a wasteland void of anything worth salvaging. By which point your family has already died a painful death.
That design flaw aside, there’s a palpable sense of brutal reality to contend with should you be willing to invest. Each survivor needs to wash, sleep, eat and go to the toilet and leaving one of these requirements unmet could risk them deteriorating as a result. Take too long to treat a case of radiation poisoning contracted from an adventure on the surface and that family member will perish in a pool of their own fluids. It’s a game that doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of its concept, but it can sometimes do itself a disservice, too.
There’s no dialogue exchanged between characters in the main Survival mode, and when coupled with the facelessness of their pixel art it becomes all too easy to lose that sense of attachment Sheltered clearly wants you to possess. Compared to the way This War of Mine: Complete Edition - a game with a similar apocalyptic setting - deftly juggles many heartbreaking story beats, it can often feel like you’re managing an ant farm rather than a living breathing shelter full of survivors. You can even recruit other people to your group as you expand and upgrade your shelter, creating a more ruthless version of Fallout Shelter.
Still, whether you grow close to your bedraggled nuclear family or not, there’s still an addictive quality to its constant need to juggle systems. Your survivors will complete tasks you assign them, and you’ll need to switch between searching for signals on the radio transmitter (which will lead you to a new survivor/potential new occupant should you be willing to divide your water, oxygen and food further still), upgrading tool benches and shelter doors, and simply ensuring each survivor is well fed/rested/toileted.
The control scheme is still an awkward fit for a controller - even a good two years after its initial PC release, it’s no less obvious that Sheltered is best played with a mouse and keyboard. However, that doesn’t mean developer Unicube hasn’t made a decent effort to make it work, and having the ability to apply automation to each survivor by clicking the left stick and speeding up time with ‘ZR’ really helps you maintain some semblance of control. A more robust tutorial wouldn’t have gone amiss, but its lack of real support is, at the very least, fitting for a game all about staving off an inevitable slow death.
If you like Fallout Shelter and you want something with a few less smiles and a few more painful deaths, Sheltered will tickle that morbid itch. Managing its multitude of interconnected systems requires a deft touch, and while its difficulty isn’t for the faint of heart, there’s a real sense of accomplishment in keeping your growing troupe of survivors alive for days on end. While not as effective as other forays into the well-trodden post-apocalypse, as well as being a victim of its own procedural generation at times, there’s still a morbid curiosity to its pixel art survivalism.