Monday, September 25, 2017

Shelter 2

Why do game developers so often forget they're supposed to be developing games and not movies? Two years ago I praised the small independent game Shelter, a... badger simulator, of all things, for its beautiful and original atmosphere so refreshingly well integrated into gameplay that even a stodgy, sour old snarler like me could get emotionally attached to mothering my cubs. While very linear and lacking replay value, it delivered a unique experience more than worth its indie title bargain bin asking price, one of those rare little gems you find yourself playing breathlessly through the night. Shelter 2 has a smidge more replay value. It's also taken me four tries to get into it despite the warm and fuzzy anticipation incited by its predecessor.

I had originally planned to word this post a bit more harshly, but in the course of trying to snap some screenshots for the purposes of condemnation I wound up enjoying the game more than I had to date. To do so, you must largely ignore the cheesy fluff tacked onto the Shelter 1 formula in lieu of production values. Ignore the stupid little two-sentence text interludes which rather disrupt and intrude upon your lynxy life rather than illustrate it. Ignore also the cheesy fantasy-themed prologue/epilogue blathering about your lynx following the stars (they're just breadcrumb trails like in any other game, ok?) Ignore that either of these "features" could've been much more seamlessly integrated into the right-click scent overlay. I can only assume the project lead wanted to justify the added expenditure of hiring more official writers. Ignore the unbearably romantic moonlit soiree in which you meet your new beau at the end of each playthrough. Sniffing out a new mate, if anything, should've been handled via sniffing.

That scent overlay itself (highlighting prey and zone transitions when you right-click) shows the half-assed implementation of new features, as it's not only missing the applications above but the logical extension of tracking scents. Despite a complete lack of programming knowledge, I'll go out on a limb and guess it would've been trivial to make prey drop blobs of "scent" every so often which fade over time, creating de facto gradients by which to track them, instead of just seeing them highlighted in bright red from across the map. At the very least this functionality could've been prioritized over the nonsensical implementation of "collections" of items for which you're expected to comb all the various maps. Yeah, 'cause that's what lynx life is all about: collecting sticks and leaves as keepsakes. I'm a lean, mean, hunting machine shaped by evolution for pouncing on backs, snapping necks, sheltering my young and... scrapbooking. Oy...

The distinctive artistic style employed by both Shelter games is still lovely, and more immersive than that of projects with a hundred times the budget. I'd find it hard to overstate the emotive impact of the deceptively minimalist but highly fluid construction-paper visuals and moody soundtrack, and everything you as a player do in that world takes on the bittersweet air of an ancient ballad.

If only there were more to do!

Sure, most of the elements from Shelter 1 seem included, but most of them are so toned down, pared down and dumbed down that it takes a couple of cat lives just to realize they're there at all. You can still shake the odd tree (for bird nests, not apples) but they're few and far between. There's a natural disaster (mudslide and/or flood; forum chatter just calls it "the blob") but you can safely and calmly amble away from it and just watch it dissipate from high ground. Every once in a while something will screech and snatch one of your young; that I can only assume is the eagle, but as it happens so quickly and without warning as to always take place off-camera, it carries none of the tension and player involvement of the original swooping terror. In contrast, wolf attacks might be a threat if only their dramatic buildup weren't overemphasized, giving you ample time to reach cover. With the "mountains" DLC you can run into a bear, but getting mauled by it is fixed as easily as snatching up one measly gopher meal. Even sneaking has been taken out of player control: the game now crouches your character when it deems fit.

In fact the rarity, inevitability or triviality of all other activities leaves chasing down small prey as the single defining endeavor of Shelter 2, but while sprinting across the landscape trying to intersect the path of a zig-zagging bunny has its charm, this wears thin after a few hundred repetitions, especially given their completely predictable movements in an open field. Even this is hopelessly trivialized by the sheer abundance of prey, so thick that on several occasions I've caught a rabbit or gopher by accident, tripping over it while chasing its neighbor. Your kittens run no danger of starving.

The expanded maps and more freeform movements allow for a larger dose of the simple pleasures of exploration: discover clifftop shortcuts, a meteorite crater, a mammoth corpse (and it's in a perfectly logical spot too) walk the ice over frozen rivers or listen to the wind blowing in off the seashore. Too bad most will never play even the one or two hours needed to sight-see any of that, since Shelter 2's bunny-chasing smorgasbord utterly fails to engage the player, to provide any sort of challenge or tension or tragedy. That survival horror element of natural competition I praised in the original is wholly lacking in the sequel. Though a much less egregious offender than Defense Grid 2Dreamfall or Trine 2, I can't help but notice the same tendency in Shelter 2 toward preening, cinematic passivity detracting from actual gameplay. Does this stem from a lack of inspiration, Hollywood envy, a snobbish art major resentment of an interactive medium or a cynical attempt to justify hiring more artists and "writers" bleeding customers for a bloated, overbuilt product?

Is this nothing but the old bait and switch profiteering? I can't help but notice these titles are all sequels.


edit, fifteen minutes later:
Turns out if you're quick enough to turn around when you hear the eagle screeching, you can catch it trying to flutter off with one of your kittens, and a successful pounce will not only save the kit but bring down the predator for the young'uns to feast on its flesh. Turnabout is fair play.

So, yeah, I'll give 'em this one. Works out beautifully.
For those of you who, like me, were put off by this game's weaker elements or unjustifiable yammering about constellations and romantic... cats... try to skip over that and give it another chance or three. There's some quality buried under there.
Did I mention that eagle kill went down atop a mountain plateau under the shimmering veils of the northern lights?

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