2013’s mother-badger simulator Shelter received plentiful praise, including from me, but some people just weren’t satisfied. They wanted more freedom in their animal-parenting game. They didn’t want the linear story Might and Delight gave them; they wanted to roam the beautiful, harsh environment with their whelps and simply survive. In Shelter 2, we get exactly that - and the results present a convincing argument for the more curated approach of the first game.
In Shelter 2, you again play as a mother animal - this time a lynx - as she takes care of her cute, helpless kittens in an unforgiving wilderness. The painterly, patterned art style is just as pretty and the controls just as occasionally-clunky as in the first game - but its structure is vastly different. Gone are the tightly-controlled gameplay paths, in favour of sprawling, open maps. The episodic structure is replaced by a more systemic approach: you essentially take care of your kittens in this open world, catching food for them, watching them grow, and avoiding the occasional predator. (At least, I assume there are predators: despite audio/visual cues suggesting their presence, I never directly encountered any.)
In some ways, this approach works wonders: it’s a gentler take on parenting than the constant litany of threats presented by the first game. The constellation motifs, elegant seasonal shifts, and occasional narration cards are effective at conjuring atmosphere. But the game lacks direction. With only one vague objective, the game quickly becomes boring. It’s not clear how you progress through the game - occasionally time will jump forward, at seemingly arbitrary intervals - and you reach the end feeling as though you haven’t really done much. For a game that opens with storybook-style narration, there’s very little structure here.
Shelter 2 demonstrates the perils of the open-world format. People may have wanted more freedom after the first Shelter, but “freedom” doesn’t mean “no structure” - really, what people want is the illusion of freedom, with a firm structure to fall back on. In the first game, there was a sense of progress and achievement, and of variety in gameplay. Now, we’re faced with repetitive rabbit-hunting and the bane of all open-world games, meaningless collectibles. Why Might and Delight saw fit to fill their world with glowing trinkets is beyond me: it’s antithetical to the natural, almost spiritual themes, and “gamier” even than the stamina bar that has crept in at the bottom of the screen. It takes away from the emotional impact that defined the first game and could have defined this one.
And there is so much in here that could have got the waterworks going, if the actual gameplay wasn’t so puzzlingly shallow. You can name your kittens - an ill omen for anyone quick to tears. I named mine John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but quickly forgot which was which; when the first kitten died, accidentally malnourished and mewling softly in the snow, I didn’t even know which Beatlynx it was. So I’m a terrible mother in that respect, but in my defence, I did manage to raise the other three to adulthood.
The moment at which your kittens become fully grown and stop following you around is a powerful one, intensified by the subsequent loneliness of hunting rabbits entirely on your own. The ending sequence, which I won’t spoil, is phenomenal. Poetic and lyrical, it’s a sign of what the game could have been with a little more direction.
Maybe the aimlessness of it all is the point. Shelter 2 teaches us that as a parent, you bring your offspring into the world, nurture them until they leave, and then die. It’s a stark statement on parenthood, but one muddied by listless gameplay and arbitrary lurches in storytelling.
If your kittens survive a playthrough, you have the option to start a new game as one of them, with a litter of their own. It’s an interesting mechanic, reminiscent of games like Rogue Legacy, and theoretically you could expand your lynx family tree ad infinitum.
But I don’t know why you’d want to.