The Best Will Fall And The Rest Will Follow
HIGH Finding another tree to headbutt before the herd dies.
LOW Finding out that I don’t really care if the herd dies.
WTF Most of the commands don’t seem to do anything at all.
The Shelter series is an exceptional case in the often-peculiar world of independent gaming. At its core it’s a wildlife simulator, but it’s also a meditative exercise reflecting on the role of motherhood. The first two Shelter entries showcased developer Might and Delight’s ability to weave magic into simple gameplay mechanics that wonderfully immersed the player into a role that might feel familiar to humans, yet still distant. Unfortunately, this third iteration seems to have lost the magic.
Shelter 3 asks the player to control in real time an elephant leading a herd, via third person view, tasked with finding a new home as they venture into the savannah, risking starvation or being eaten by predators. While this sounded interesting to me initially, what it boiled down to was walking around, grabbing food, reaching a destination, and repeating it all the next day.
I wish I could say that there was more substance to Shelter 3, but the other mechanics seem half-baked, at best. For example, the theme of motherhood is still present via a small baby elephant walking alongside the herd. The only interaction for the player will be pressing a button to “groom,” but the animation is unclear and players can rest assured that nothing will happen if the mother forgets about the baby altogether. There’s also a button to rally the herd, but this seems mostly useless? Apparently it’s to be used in case of predator attack, but nothing really happens.
The devs say that “wisdom, empathy and leadership play an important role in your survival”, so it’s disheartening to discover that the only mechanic that seems to matter is the stamina/food meter. Food is mostly obtained by headbutting trees and eating the fruits that fall down. Moss can also be foraged, but that seems to add almost nothing. If the herd fails to find enough food of substance, one member of the herd will fall dead. At that point, the meter will become half-replenished and the player can continue.
Reaching the end of Shelter 3 is a matter of keeping some elephants in the herd alive, reaching and indicated destination on the map and… that’s it. Unfortunately, navigation — the main part of the experience — is frustrating.
Exploration takes the player through repetitive environments, and these seems to be intended to invite a reflective, introspective mood, but this vibe is disrupted by predators ready to decimate the herd and starvation around every corner. There’s also an inkling of overall narrative that links the days together but it’s too generic and vague to be interesting. There are no unlocks or achievements at the end, so there seems to be little point in replay.
Graphically, at least, Shelter 3 still looks unique with its mixture of low polygon models and surreal textures. However, the soundtrack is the standout of the entire affair, sounding like something that would be appropriate on a journey through the savannah, but with a hint of free jazz and a sprinkle of organic sounds that fit the overall tone.
Shelter 3 is hard to recommend, both to fans of the series and newcomers. At best, it plays like an half-finished, repetitive experiment that can be easily completed in an hour. Anyone interested in what the series brings to the table should instead try either of the previous titles for a more accomplished, realized adventure.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Might and Delight. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 2 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game is not rated by the ESRB, but it contains only moderate violence when the elephants are attacked, and features no blood at all. I would recommend it to anyone.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game features subtitles for all cutscenes, but audio cues are used when the elephants call each other or express emotions (the icons sometimes show up, other times don’t). In my view, the game is not fully accessible.
Controls: the controls are fully remappable and use WASD scheme for movement and the mouse for the main interactions with the herd (left click to call the herd and right click for any other actions).