The original Shelter was a poetic, intense journey through the life of a momma badger and her journey to find safety for her cubs. It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with a game, relentless and beautiful in its raw exploration of the brutality of nature, and one that I felt stood alone without need of a sequel. To its credit, Might & Delight’s Shelter 2 has arrived full of big ideas and drastic departures from the first; an artistic and emotional feast of burgeoning ambition and creativity. I only wish it had been aware enough to know when to stop the flood.
Shelter was a focused, clearly laid out story of one mother and her love for her cubs. It’s themes of protection and vulnerability were what drove the experience forward and fostered the relationship between you and your badger babies, making the potential death of them a terrifying prospect.
Shetler 2 in contrast is about nurturing and training your underlings to prepare them for life on their own. Playing now as a Lynx, you become the predator you previously ran from, hunting other animals and traversing a huge expanse of land so as to bring up your cubs ready to fend for themselves. It’s a change relevant not solely to how you play, but also to the relationship between you and those you need to take care of.
With the absence of any physical threats, the only danger to your cubs is your own negligence, as until they’re grown and able to hunt themselves they depend on you for food and guidance. From the beginning Shelter 2 seems intensely devoted to creating unique bonds between you and your cubs, each distinctly colored and named in contrast to the indistinguishable badger cubs of the first game, and sets you in a position of needing to care for each individually. There are always more mouths to feed than there is food, requiring you pay attention and be sure to feed everyone equally or else breed favoritism which often ends in a cubs death.
Death is something that’s far less likely to happen in Shelter 2 given the lack of predators or environmental hazards, but it’s no less heart wrenching when it does happen. And even for those that do survive, once they grew and became capable, I found myself abandoned and without a purpose. My lynx’s entire life to that point was to care for her cubs, so what was I to do now I was alone and approaching the end? The sense of pointlessness I took on at that point was overwhelming and taxing. I was free to go where I wanted, gorge myself on a kill, but there was no meaning in it. Whether through death or abandonment, losing that connection to another life in Shelter 2 meant something to me, in ways I couldn’t make sense of and hadn’t felt before.
SHELTER 2 IS A CELEBRATION OF LIFE
But more than an examination on a mother’s loneliness and presumed loss of purpose without a child to care for, Shelter 2 feels like a celebration of life and the joy of sending someone into the world capable of caring for themselves. The ending scene had me in tears not over sadness as the first game did, but joy for the future of the animals I’d journeyed with. It’s a brief but immensely impactful few minutes that finally helped me make sense of my mixed feeling on everything that came before.
However it feels disingenuous to forget those elements, as for how much the ending meant to me, and how incredible many of the moments leading up to it were, they were effectively bookends for the core of the game. It’s this core that I found so troubling, because it seems to so entirely pull away from what makes Shelter so affecting. As far as I can make sense of it, Shelter 2 feels a need to show how it’s more of a “game” than the first.
Hunting and surviving are now centered around very traditional mechanical sets: chase the highlighted prey, eat them and watch your hunger meter rise; fill out your map and collect shiny doodads for your journal. They’re elements the first game had, but the emphasis how now been put onto them in ways I found distracting and unneeded. I wanted to bond with my cubs and teach them how to hunt, but I was constantly being prompted and urged to partake in more binary, game-y tasks which frankly aren’t very good.
The world is huge but there’s nothing to do within it; a gorgeous set which you can see and run through but otherwise are unable to interact with. Hunting is tedious and repetitive, as rabbits and elk are your only prey and catching them only requires running fast enough to automatically chomp them in two. Beneath the parts that make Shelter 2 so wonderful I found these pieces easy to ignore, but pulled to the forefront as they are for most of the game I was bored and feeling as if there was something missing. What was the point of the world if there was nothing in it? Why is hunting such a prominent element of the game when it’s so limited in scope?
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moments which really spoke to me in Shelter 2, like getting caught in a sandstorm and frantically looking for my cubs, or stumbling upon a giant herd of elk as my cubs were beginning to starve. But Might & Delight has greatly deluded them by placing them under the weight of mechanics which never grow past their primitive first impression, and too much time searching for something which doesn’t exist in its huge world. I appreciate the risks which were taken with Shelter 2 and how much it avoids attempting to repeat the experience of the first game. I only wish it had been confident enough in what Shelter has always been – bold and elegant and personal – instead of trying to crib from games it couldn’t hope to match.