Shelter 3 takes the series in a new direction, as the developer Might and Delight promised. Still, its deliberate action though impactful also exacerbates long-standing issues in the series and introduces new ones.
Like its predecessors, Shelter 3 is a survival walking simulator where players must guide an animal and often their babies through a fight for survival. In the latest entry, Might and Delight ditch the open-world approach of Shelter 2 in favour of branching paths. Players guide an elephant family as the matriarch through a series of ordeals toward a mystical tree that appears in dream sequences.
There is some narrative present in these dreams, but it is rather cryptic until the end of the game. They also serve as a level select sequence to choose between two paths with the challenges outlined.
Though it is linear, it has an open world that is fully traversable regardless of the path you choose. But just navigating your way to the next landmark in Shelter 3 is not the only challenge. As the matriarch, you are responsible for nursing the elephant calves and finding fruit, water, and plants for the herd to replenish an ever decreasing stamina bar.
“Its patchwork origami art style is stunning but often makes navigation more difficult.”
To make it easier for players to parse out resources and landmarks from the landscape, Might and Delight added an Elephant sight ability. This highlights important elements, like fruit trees and waypoints. However, following trails of food or even waypoints can occasionally get you turned around, forcing you to retrace your steps. Overall the feature feels like a crutch for environments whose art style actively hinders traversal.
Players also encounter predators like alligators and lions that prey upon the herd if you are not careful. Some of the predator interactions are more opaque. For example, a lion requires you to stop at specific places to huddle together and prevent the death of calves. But, surprisingly, it is not the predators which create the tensest moments. It is the slow, ponderous movement that leads to Shelter 3’s greatest emotional heights and lowest frustration points.
“Each step I took was in time with an ever-beating drum.”
As the elephant, you can run, but this often quickly depletes your stamina bar, and food resources can be few and far between. This forces you to very slowly across the landscape. For some, this is a meditative and occasionally tense experience. However, for others, it might be a boring, frustrating slog. For myself, I fell somewhere in the middle.
About halfway through the game’s 2-hour runtime, I was given two paths. One that led through a dangerous lion-infested pass and another through a barren desert. Given my frustration with the lions, I opted for the desert, and it was in this section, I truly understood the design goals of Shelter 3. I stocked up on food and headed out into the sands.
Accompanied by the game’s excellent minimalist guitar-driven soundtrack, I slowly made my way around a large rock formation, sand billowed through the herd. Each step I took was in time with an ever-beating drum contrasted by the occasional chiming guitar chord. My stamina meter was quickly depleting, but using the elephant vision, I spotted a fruit tree at the foot of my next destination.
The bar was almost empty, which meant losing another of my herd, but with scarcely a sliver of stamina left, I punched through the sands and ran to the first tree. After eating my fill, I looked up to find myself in an oasis covered by a massive rock arch.
“I doubt I can forget my time with Shelter 3.”
Unfortunately, even these excellent sections cannot erase the occasional confusing treks that ended up leading me back the way I came or along other paths, losing precious stamina and even one of my herd in one instance. I also experienced three crashes, forcing me to repeat portions of the game.
But despite its issues and occasional bugs, I doubt I can forget my time with Shelter 3. For every moment of frustration was a feeling of loss after losing a calf to an alligator. For every visual glitch, I only had to take one look at the molten sun or dense bamboo forests to immediately immerse myself again. Though Shelter 3 is not for everyone and disappointed some fans, there is still great experience buried under some clunky design decisions. Shelter 3 is available on Steam for US$14.99.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC. The publisher provided the code.