Sheltered is a strategy game about ensuring that your family survives after a nuclear apocalypse. To be totally fair, it's about a lot more than that – resource management, adventuring, trading, etc – but you'll spend the majority of your time with this plucky indie not thinking about those things in the abstract, but thinking about them in very real terms. Unfortunately, you'll also spend the majority of your time lamenting some of its bizarre design choices.
Unicube's first effort is all about survival, meaning that your goal is to last for as many days as you can using what you begin with, as well as anything you can scavenge. As with most games of this type, your family needs water and food to survive. However, they also need to sleep, take showers, and go to the toilet. On top of that, they also have a proclivity to getting a little worked up when things are going wrong, so their stress levels have to be monitored. They also need to maintain their water systems, need clean air to breath, and need to perform upkeep on their generator.
Of course, all of these activities are dependent on depleting resources: your water and food stocks slowly deplete; your oxygen depletes; any and all building actions deplete your family members' energy levels; the durability of every single item in your shelter depletes after every use. The focus, then, becomes maintaining all the systems within your base.
However, the title doesn't play out entirely in the shelter. You can send a few of your family adventuring into the radioactive wilderness to scavenge for scraps, materials, and food. Should they find anything of interest, they'll call back to the base and alert you of what's going on. Oftentimes they'll stumble across empty building ripe for the looting, but occasionally they'll run into other people.
For the most part, these NPCs are either looking to trade or become a part of your colony. The former is fairly self-explanatory, while the latter forces you to choose between more manpower and less resources. Should the NPCs simply want to fight, there is a rudimentary combat system, which closely mirrors just about any turn-based RPG you've ever played.
In all these ways, complexity is generated not by one massive system, but rather the combination of many small simple systems that are indelibly intertwined. It's an elegant design, and one that has the potential to create truly memorable and heartbreaking stories. You'll almost certainly have to watch a member of your family slowly die at some point in the title, and you won't realise how horrific this can be until it happens.
These interlocking systems also mean that the game is, to put it simply, very hard. What's more, it isn't particularly interested in explaining how the relationships between those systems work. For the most part, it presents them to you, then expects you to do the all of the thinking yourself. This lack of explanation is somewhat refreshing in the age of tutorials which stretch for hours and hours.
While this difficulty often presents a satisfying and intriguing puzzle, it can also be hellishly frustrating. For instance, food – one of the title's more important resources – is very scarce early game. One of the best ways to procure it is to go on adventures. Going on adventures costs water from your storage, which means that you can only travel as far as the amount of water you can store in your base. This creates a bottleneck, limiting you to the few destinations in your immediate area. These destinations, however, are randomly generated each time you play, so can either be full of helpful resources, or full of items which don't become helpful until later in the game.
The solution, then, is to build more water storage, but this requires materials which are found by going on adventures. So if your random draw of adventure destinations is a bit shonky, you're left with the shockingly dull choice of whether to restart, or slam the game in fast-forward and watch as your family slowly dies. This may be a fantastically realistic rendering of what post-apocalyptic vault-dwelling is like, but it doesn't make for a tremendously satisfying or interesting experience.
Furthermore, it's often difficult to tell whether these problems are the result of poor player planning, or just bad luck; the game doesn't do a very good job of communicating mistakes that you've made.
With all that said, easily the most disappointing element of this strategic sojourn has nothing to do with its moment-to-moment mechanics, and everything to do with its controls. Put simply, this title was clearly designed to be played with a mouse and keyboard. The irritatingly small icons, the constant need to deftly move the cursor around the screen, and the myriad of minute decisions, mean that the entire affair can often be an exercise in frustration.
Indeed, despite the developers' admittedly admirable efforts, your first few hours with the title will inevitably be spent cursing its cumbersome controls. This is especially tiresome given the aforementioned high level of challenge: not only do you have to unpack an incredibly dense and complicated set of systems, you have to do it while grappling with a control scheme that is the digital equivalent of 'Stop hitting yourself'.
Thankfully, the title's understated presentation helps make ignoring these faults a bit easier. The gorgeously drab graphical style is complemented by a subtle soundtrack and clever sound design. It makes focusing on the drama and intensity of any given situation a much easier undertaking.
Sheltered is a complex strategy and resource management game which gets a lot of things right. Its presentation creates a palpable atmosphere, while its many relatively simple systems interlock in ways that are both thematically appropriate and mechanically interesting. Unfortunately, those same clever systems sometimes rely too heavily on luck, which – when combined with the title's abysmal controls – often make the entire experience more frustrating than its worth.