You can't really fail in your game when it comes to Zombies - it's the ultimate survival situation, there's very little description or story needed beyond 'OMG Zombies!' and you have a huge range of tropes and clichés that will be expected. But if you're a Bristol-based game developer called Chris Roberts, then you look at the genre zombie and decide that what the gaming genre really needs is... a collectible card game.
Version Reviewed: 188.8.131.52
It's an interesting choice of game mechanics, but it's one that works really well. Roberts has also labelled this a tower defence game, and while I can see where he's coming from on that one, I think he does the tactics a disservice here - because there's a lot more going on here than the 'build and wait' of a title like Plants vs Zombies.
Let's jump straight into a game to show what I mean. You'll see the cards laid out on the virtual table. Strung along the middle of the table are your barricades holding back the zombie attackers. These could be as simple as a wooden door and some sheet metal, to claymore bombs and blasting charges. The zombies will attack these first, and when breached they will take their place in that line, at which point they will be able to attack you directly, wear down your health, and ultimately kill you.
Unless on your turn you use your weapons, ammunition, and modifier cards to best use so that you kill them all before they kill you. Weapons available will be laid out just behind the barricades for you to use, although you will need to periodically reload them with ammunition.
All your equipment and actions will be determined by the cards. You can hold up to five in your hand, and these can be played at the correct times - weapons laid down during your turn for use, instant actions such as reload, or using melee weapons for the moments when the zombies are through the barricades. If it's not in your hand (or on the table) then you can't use it.
You're also limited in what you can do each turn - your survivors have a limited number of action points per turn, and each action uses up some of these. Run out of action points, and it's the end of your turn, and the computer controlled zombie player gets to take their bite of the action. If you find more survivors in your hand and play them onto the table you get more action points to play with, so a lot of the game is built around the stack of cards you play with.
Which is where the collectible element comes in. If this was just a random card game it would be a nice title, but wouldn't hold a huge amount of appeal due to the random nature. While there is still a random factor here, as any player of collectible card games will tell you, it's all about the deck construction - deciding which cards to put in, and which to leave out is often the key to victory. Shelter offers you the chance to find many cards while playing through the story based levels, and you can edit your playing deck of card both for your favourite style of play, but also to aid in the challenge you think will be ahead on one of three coarse level types.
When you start the game, Shelter will build your first deck for you with a good balance of basic cards. This gets you into the game quickly and lets you see how everything works without overwhelming you with choice. Just as you start to wonder what else the game is about, the ability to build your own decks is unlocked. This is also the point where you need to buy the full priced version... clever design here, although perhaps a bit too clever as it is such a key part of the game that you don't get to try out beforehand.
In terms of game mechanics and pace, Shelter is well put together. The card game is deliberately paced but does feel sufficiently oppressive and unrelenting to be properly 'zombie' while the game itself relies on more skill than luck, which I appreciate. The sound is also suitably chilling, with a downbeat end of the world slice of mood music, and the requisite amount of groaning from one side of the barricades and gunfire on the other.
And a final word goes to the graphics. They are simply fabulous. All grey and green, but if you want something to get over the horror of the post-apocalyptic landscape, that's the colour and tone you want. With illustrations on every card (and some quite freaky, much as I like the adrenaline rush effect, the card creeps me out), cut scenes and interstitial images bringing the landscape to life, Shelter looks the part, plays the part, and sounds the part.
If I wanted to be picky I would be looking at the menu and user interface - it does seem to lock up on occasion, and with the menu being driven by the selection of cards in a carousel the app struggled at points to tell the difference between a drag and a tap.
So there is a touch of frustration when starting to play a game, but I can put that aside for an inventive take on the collectible card game genre that captures the zeitgeist of Zombies, that plays well, and is a great illustration of indie gaming on smartphones.
Reviewed by Ewan Spence at