Sheltered 2 is one of those base-building, resource-gathering, strategy RPG survival sims that have become their own sub-genre in the last few years. Your Fallout Shelters. Your This War of Mines.
It’s also the best kind of sequel: one that makes the precursor look like its prototype. A first draft. A beer mat sketch. The original game’s pixelated ‘Indie Games R Us’ art style has been unceremoniously jettisoned. In its place, a nice little 3D engine chucking out ripped shirts, flaked paint, and ominous skies, all smeared with grime and film grain. It’s no The Last of Us, but that’s the gist.
Because it’s a video game, something bad has ended civilisation. It is no longer possible to simply buy a sofa or a can of soup, activities so mundane as to erase the thousands of years of struggle our ancestors went through to make them so. The party’s over, so everything is arduous and annoying again.
If you want to get wood, you have to do it the old-fashioned way – raid an abandoned petrol station, find an old crate, spend four hours dragging it back to your bunker, and recycle it at your workbench. Possibly in the dark. Then have a pee, and boil some broccoli. Cry about that time you ate Steve. Fix the shower. Read a self-help book about charisma. Sheltered 2‘s vision of life after the apocalypse is just that; life. People doing stuff, most of it mundane.
And it’s utterly compelling.
Every new game starts with three survivors – a faction leader and two lackeys, appearance and stats decided by the player – finding an abandoned bunker in the middle of a randomly generated map. You’ll spend most of your time in the bunker itself, setting tasks for your wee folk and managing their precious little lives. They’ll cook, clean, craft consumables, build conveniences, and keep up with the endless maintenance that every conceivable piece of equipment requires. The big bad in this game isn’t raiders, it’s entropy. Also poor mental health. But mostly stuff breaking.
Raiders do put in an appearance, though. At any moment your vault door can be breached by baddies. Some are out for blood. Most are just after your food or water. In the vast majority of cases, the game gives you a chance to avoid combat. It’s perfectly possible to just let a robber take what they want. Once, with most of my crew away on an expedition and my faction leader sleeping off a long night of harvesting broccoli, a stranger spent several in-game hours blow-torching their way into the base in order to steal precisely two bottles of water (several hundred were available). My wee guy snored through the whole affair, and went about his day. Didn’t even seem perturbed about having to repair a gigantic steel door.
Another time, out in the world, my expedition team got into a nasty fight with a rival faction, barely survived the encounter, and limped home bleeding with no bandages or first aid kits. I set my guy back at the base onto crafting medical supplies so he could be ready to patch up my crew the moment they returned. In the blind panic of this, I failed to note that the base’s oxygen filter was about to break down. Which it did, right at the moment my party arrived home.
Bleeding and oxygen deprivation both have a status effect of -2hp per second. I couldn’t figure out why none of my now bandaged crew would stop dying. It wasn’t blood loss. They were suffocating. I lost two guys before I realised. The remaining three managed to repair the fault, then cooked and ate the deceased. They ended up with food poisoning and trauma so severe that they wouldn’t even accept commands. The situation descended into a chaotic spiral of crying and vomiting. It was such a harrowing disaster that it became somehow hilarious. Thus ended my first playthrough.
The game is full of brilliant emergent moments like this. It’s often tense, often arresting, sometimes even funny. And once in a while, all three at once.
Maintaining a constant supply of food, water, and power necessitates exploring the world map and foraging locations for resources, but doing this effectively takes at least three people off the homestead and risks a random encounter with hostile strangers, or butting up against one of the rival factions in the world. Again, alternatives to combat are possible. Desirable, even. Any fight you get into can end the game, so the smart money is usually on offering to trade goods, or fleeing.
Sometimes, though, you can’t talk your way out of it, and so you must engage with Sheltered 2’s combat. Groan.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine. It works. But it’s a menu-driven turn-based combat system with action points and dice rolls, and not a particularly noteworthy one. You’ve fought these fights a thousand times before. Thankfully, mercifully, it isn’t the focus of the game, and it’s quite possible to go for tens of minutes without having to murder anyone.
You’d think that The Sims style micro-management of little computer people, right down to their ablutions, would detract from the wider concern of building a new wasteland faction into a force that dominates its rivals. But it’s arguably the whole point. If Sheltered 2 is saying anything (and I’m not sure it’s trying to), it’s that human struggle has to have a goal and the goal is being able to flush the toilet.
Sheltered 2 really is a great sequel. Every surviving feature and mechanic of the original game is expanded and improved upon. Its new additions, like the tile-based world map and the faction system, add a welcome context and richness to the first game’s activities.
However, aside from the minging C64 graphics, the most striking difference between the two games is that the word “family” is omitted from Sheltered 2’s character creator. Your survivors are no longer a team of two adults, two children, and a beloved pet. As a result, permadeath (not optional) lacks the same emotional heft. You’re not guiding a nuclear family through the apocalypse so much as you’re playing manager to a load of scruffy employees.
Maybe it’s fair to say that Sheltered was a better piece of art. But Sheltered 2 is a better game.
Sheltered 2 releases for PC on September 21. We reviewed the PC version.