The Red Lantern is a resource management narrative game where you and your team of five sled dogs must survive the wilderness and find your way home. You play as The Musher as she sets out to build her dog sledding team and her new life.
Publisher: Timberline Studio
Reviewed on: PC
Also available for: Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Cast: Ashly Burch
Developer: Timberline Studio
Game Director, Writer: Lindsey Rostal
Tech Director, Tech Artist: Nathan Fulton
Lead Artist: John Juarez
The Red Lantern is an interesting rogue-like that combines survival elements with resource management to tell a story of adversity and overcoming life’s challenges. The game begins with a young woman driving en-route to the Alaskan bush and along the way, picking four pups to add to their sled-dog team. Chomper already sits alongside them in the van; a city-bred husky but still eager to begin this new adventure. The unnamed musher you play as tells the dog that they’re starting a new life out here. The city-life and doctor job didn’t turn out so well in San Franciso, but they’ve always dreamed of dog-sledding, so she’s out here to prove she can do it, but also make a childhood dream come true.
There’s a total of eight stops on the drive into the bush where you get to pick which other pups to add to your team. But you only need four, so you’ll be choosing to leave some of the pups behind. Each dog has their own skills and weaknesses. For example, I chose to adopt Fin, who has a habit of chasing the smell of skunks, but I hoped I could train him to chase better smells.
With your five-dogs gathered you set out into the wilderness with little more than what seems like an afternoon of researching on Youtube the terms for sled-dogs. “haw!” you yell telling the team to go left at the fork in the rode and “gee!” telling them to go right at the next. But soon the lack of preparation sets in. You’re out of food and no help in sight, so you pass out on the ice.
This is where the rogue-like elements come in. Each time you ‘die’ on the ice from starvation or something else you’ll simply awaken in your van just before the trip began. What you do bring back from each attempt is knowledge. As you play and interact with more things you’ll start being more prepared and packing extra meat, birch or bullets.
Your journey is kinda-on-rails and although I played The Red Lantern on PC, it’s most definitely more enjoyable with a controller in hand than leaning over your mouse and keyboard. Your sleigh-dogs move you forward and around obstacles automatically and it’s up to you to react to events that happen along the way and at times decide which direction to head in at a fork-in-the-road. Ultimately though, you’ll keep moving forward and towards the goal of the cabin at the end of the map.
As you move forward you’ll pass trail markers which break up the journey into blocks. Between each trail marker, one random event will occur, and the pups will lose one-bar of energy. You can also choose to camp at any point just before the next trail marker. This means the game does become predictable to a degree. You just end up relying on the RNG elements of the events to provide you with your need at the time.
When you start the game you’ll have three bullets for a rifle. If you pass a wild animal, be that a deer or a flock of birds, you can choose to stop and hunt them providing you with more meat. Another type of random event will see you spot an abandoned campsite and if you choose to scope it out you’ll find a bullet or two for your rifle. It’ll take you a couple of runs to work out what each event does and that’s when the resource management part of the game becomes important.
Hunting in The Red Lantern is rather confronting at first. Each animal you kill is presented as a majestic beast and it does feel like the game wants you to feel bad about killing them. Which I did. It’s just odd because there’s no other choice. You need to hunt to progress in the game. There’s no berry-foraging option.
Each action you make takes one-bar of energy off and when you become tired you’ll lose two bars per-action. So you need to set-up camp periodically to feed yourself and the pups. Birch lets you start a fire and cook the meat, although you can eat it cold and give yourself a cold bite. Sleeping will get rid of your tired status, but does count as an action and will remove one bar of energy.
Tracking the hunger of yourself, the pups and trying to hunt animals, scavenge for more ammo and find the time to sleep means your first couple of runs will make the journey seem impossible. Even with some extra materials packed you will still be struggling. It’s not until you come across a couple of keys items that you’ll see a major increase in your efficiency and progression. The first two of these items are an axe that lets you chop down birch with less cost on your energy and a fishing rod which lets you gather food when you spot a hole crossing sections of frozen lakes. There’s a couple of other items as well and by the time you’re reaching the cabin at the end of the game, you’ll be looking much more prepared than when you first left.
Unlike most rogue-likes where there’s also a fresh-feel to each run, The Red Lantern can quickly become rather repetitive. There’s only a limited number of events that can occur and after you’ve seen them all once, having to listen to the musher’s reaction can become an eye-roll. For instance, there’s a time when a wild-dog will run alongside you and the musher will say “just stay there,” but it comes in and attacks you. You can fight it off in a number of ways after that. Each time you run into that event it plays out exactly the same. The same dialogue is said by the musher, the same coloured dog, the same outcome. This can be applied to other events that occur. Adaptive dialogue to this scripted event and even randomly changing the colour of the dog at times could have kept the tension of the moment alive and it feeling exciting several times over. It goes from a scary event the first time it happens to just another moment after you’ve done it two or three times.