By Andrew Dodson on March 9, 2015 at 10:50pm
Being a mother lynx is stressful.
"Shelter 2" was developed by game studio Might and Delight and is the sequel (sorta) to the first "Shelter" game which came out in 2013. In "Shelter," the player controls a mother badger who must keep her litter of cubs alive. "Shelter 2" follows that same recipe, but this time around, the player controls a lynx.
Right off the bat, "Shelter 2" starts off much more dramatically than the first game. The cubs have not yet been born, and the player is immediately thrust into a survival situation where they have control of a very pregnant lynx being hunted by wolves on a cold, stormy night. This part is essentially a very fast-paced tutorial - there are wolves right behind you, and you have to learn how to run, move and jump very quickly. Luckily, the controls are very simple.
That is the big thing about Might and Delight's "Shelter" games. It isn't about points or learning new moves or getting power-ups or combos. They are very simple. You are a lynx, and you can do lynx things.
If you do lynx things poorly, you will die.
In the first "Shelter," the game starts with the badger cubs having already been born and you just lead them out of the den. In "Shelter 2," you help guide (sort of) the lynx to a safe den and then, and the next morning, the cubs are born. You are also given the ability to name the four newborns, which is an action that you couldn't take in the original game. As silly as it sounds, naming the cubs gave me an instant emotional connection with the lynx family. I wanted these animals to survive, whereas in "Shelter," I didn't feel all that attached to the badgers.
Another big different between the two games, is that "Shelter 2" feels much bigger and is a lot less linear. You are given huge areas of land to explore, and you can go any direction that you want, which is in contrast with the first game.
As you bring food back to the newborn cubs in the den, they grow stronger and start following you into the wilderness. From this point forward, the game is very much about exploration. You simply choose a direction and go - there isn't a good or bad path. Might and Delight were very focused on making game that simulated the simplicity of nature: All you have to do is survive. You do that by moving forward, and occasionally chasing down a rabbit or deer to feed your cubs.
It is mostly deceptively easy. I say mostly because there were a few times while playing, where I simply couldn't find any food. I'd look and look, never straying far from the four little lynxes that were struggling to keep up but all I could find was a field mouse and that isn't nearly enough meat for all of them. At this point, it was night and a thunderstorm was picking up. One of my cubs collapsed from hunger and started crying out. I turned around and picked her up, eager to find more fertile hunting grounds. Then another cub collapsed. I put the two little ones together, and started running into the forest, desperate to find a rabbit or a frog....or anything. I could hear them both meow-ing pathetically behind me as I raced into the night.
I caught a fat, white rabbit and rushed it back, but I had taken too long. One of the cubs had died of starvation. Within the first twenty minutes or so of playing, I had already lost one of the cubs. It was much more emotionally devastating than I'd like to admit. I felt like a failure. I had to stop playing for a while, and I considered restarting the game entirely. But, in the end, I pushed forward with my game and my three remaining cubs.
As you explore the vast world, and become more successful at hunting, your cubs start to grow and at one point, they mature into adolescents. At this stage, they still follow you around and depend on you for most of their food, but they are much faster and a lot less helpless (they'll even grab their own food on occasion). There was something very cool about stalking up on a herd of deer with your teenage lynx children crouched up right next to you.
The game progresses by echoing the seasons, and towards the "endgame," your now mature lynx cubs will slowly leave you - venturing off into the wilderness to form their own families. I really appreciated this aspect of the game, as I felt that it provided a nice cap on that whole "circle of life" vibe that the game provides. At this point, "worn and weary" (as the game puts it), Mother Lynx returns to Rest.
I would be remiss not to mention the gorgeous hand-drawn style that the entire game is rendered in. From the moment you start playing, the game looks like a moving, patchwork painting. The colors are soft and blend nicely into one another, There was more than one occasion where I made it to the top of a rock, and got to behold an entire meadow with mountains in the distance and all I could do was say: "...wow." I've heard some complaints that the patchwork style makes it hard to see things, but I did not feel that way. Everything just looks nice, and in the instances where a rabbit was blending into it's surroundings too well, you were able to use your lynx senses (smell and hearing) to pick out hidden prey.
As far as downsides of the game, it is very short - I completed my first run-through in just about an hour. I don't really see this as a bad thing though, as the game provides you a story that you literally live through and, at the end, it feels meaningful. There are a number of collectibles in the game (in the form of golden leaves and twigs and such), and while I found a few, they really weren't a driving force for me.
Another thing I didn't like was the lack of real threats. You start the game being chased by a pack of wolves, so I assumed that wolves would be a major predator - but they really weren't. I encountered a pack once, and while it was super intense moment and I ran away as fast as I could with my cubs, the wolf pack kind of just ran right by me and into the distance. They didn't really chase us or do anything threatening at all. I was almost disappointed because I was totally ready to fight some wolves if they tried to eat one of my cubs. The lack of threat makes the game much less intense, because without the possibility of wolf attacks, the lynx really feels like the alpha predator in "Shelter 2."
I enjoyed my experience playing "Shelter 2," but it is also a game that I'm not sure I need to play again. At the end of the game, you have the option of starting another playthrough as one of your cubs (now mature and pregnant) and continuing the in-game family tree and see how many generations you can take this lynx family. Maybe I'll get the urge one day to get some collectibles, and I'll take another lynx family out on a journey, but for right now, I enjoyed the experience and I don't really need another one.
Overall, Might and Delight have provided us another gorgeous life-simulator with "Shelter 2." The game is short, but it tells the story that it wants to tell: The life of Mother Lynx and her cubs. With "Shelter 2," MIght and Delight nail both sides of Nature - the beautiful simplicity of it all and the raw, unforgiving unknown that drives us to survive. If you're a fan of artistic gaming experiences and sneaking up on rabbits before tearing them to shreds so you can feed your young, then "Shelter 2" is definitely a title you should look into.