Setting can define many of the best roguelike games. Between the treacherous tunnels of Spelunky or the recently realized underworld of Hades, any run-based game’s atmosphere is pivotal to engagement. In the unique and fascinating world of The Red Lantern, the developers at Timberline Studios have chosen to put the player behind a dog sled deep inside Alaska’s vast wilderness. Through the eyes of an amateur musher, you and your trusty team of hand-picked dogs must find a way to survive the brutal ecosystem and find a way home. The Musher must learn to properly manage her supplies to survive the many different encounters that await her. You will also have to decide which paths to take and make choices that could result in the death of either yourself or one of your trusty companions.
Story – Frozen Roads, Take Me Home
During our time in the tundra, we take control of The Musher, a young woman trying to find her place in the world. After struggling to find happiness during her young adult life, she decides to abandon her current path to pursue her childhood dream of dog racing. Fortunately, she knows someone who can provide the proper cabin she needs to begin her training. The only thing she needs to do now is to assemble her team and find her way to the isolated cabin.
To start the journey, The Musher is accompanied only by Chomper. Chomper is recently adopted and appears to have motivated our protagonist to begin her search for adventure. When the two city-slickers finally arrive in Alaska, they both know that they need more dogs with actual sledding experience to join them. Luckily, she is aware of eight dogs in the area that are up for adoption. You only have room on your sled for four more, so you must choose between the unique canines to create a dream team. There were a couple of dogs that I tearfully had to turn down, but that was because their stories didn’t match up with the narrative I wanted to tell. I chose the team that spoke to me the most and despite a few bad nuts ended up caring for each hound equally.
Once you have made the tough choice of picking which dogs will join you on your journey, The Red Lantern puts the story’s fate into the player’s hands. You will have many choices to make along the way, with each decision bringing you closer to either success or death. Decisions such as when to hunt and when to sleep will weigh heavily on each run you play. It will be a brutal adventure, but one worth taking.
Gameplay – The Sled Hits The Snow
The first decision in the game is by far the most important. Deciding which of the eight unique and adorable dogs will join your team is no easy task. Each dog has its own personality and behaviors that will either help or distract you from your journey. Igloo, for example, is very protective of her team and will often defend them against predators. Gale, on the other hand, is very hyper and unfocused, leading to many unfortunate encounters with porcupines. The game randomizes the dogs’ appearance at the beginning of the game, and you only have one chance to decide if you are going to recruit them for the team.
Once you have assembled your canine crew, the game will truly begin. The Red Lantern is a game on rails, which means you won’t have the option to explore freely. Instead, you must issue commands to your team to choose where to go next. When confronted with an option, the player must select either “Haw” to go left or “Gee” to go right. Between each of these decisions, you will come across one of many different encounters. An encounter can be as simple as ripping bark off a tree for tinder or stumbling across grazing deer. Other encounters will have the player weighing the risk and reward factor of using ammunition for hunting. Between these situations, The Musher can set-up camp to rest, feed the team, and of course, pet every single dog as much as they like.
A Cold Loop
The player’s goal is to travel from the left side of the map to the right side alive. You are tasked with managing four important items: food, bullets, tinder, and med packs. Bullets are used for hunting food for yourself and your team. The dogs have no issue with eating the food raw, but you are a bit pickier. To keep her fed, you must use tinder for the fire to cook the meat before ingesting. Finally, med packs are important for keeping everyone alive. You and your team are both vulnerable to the elements and wildlife, and you may have to choose wisely on who to use the packs on. If either The Musher or the dogs grow too tired or hungry, the light dims, and we have failed our quest.
As with many roguelike games, The Red Lantern explains why we are stuck in a loop with an interesting narrative. Every time that The Musher dies or fails during a run, she wakes up with a gasp in the same van she was in during the beginning of the game. Failed runs are written off as nightmares that she is having. This mechanic allows the player to discover new items or encounters during a run and then have The Musher remember what they saw during their dream. One example of this is when we stumbled upon an ax during a run and decided to use it to increase the amount of tinder we got from trees. After an untimely demise, she woke up and proclaimed that she just realized she would need an ax for this journey. Every subsequent run started with the ax in her inventory and made every trek after a bit easier.
The Red Lantern does an excellent job making every loop a little bit easier after unlocking new tools and load-outs. Each of the early runs would fill me with excitement and curiosity for what was waiting for me on the next run. Unfortunately, around the fifth or sixth time, the loop begins to feel a bit stale. Other games like The Outer Wilds can make the beginning of a run feel fresh and exciting; this roguelike becomes predictable. One of the snow dogs mentioned earlier, Gale, has a habit of chasing porcupines. In the first four runs of the game, I saw the same porcupine encounter every time. It became one of many encounters in the early game that are seen repeatedly. Most encounters will offer you two or three different ways to interact with it, but after exhausting all of those, they started to feel more and more predictable.
Graphics and Audio – A Bright Spot
While it is not the best looking game of the year, Timberline Studios has perfectly recreated Alaska’s mysterious atmosphere. During the day, the snowy horizons look gorgeous and inviting. But as it slowly gets darker outside, you begin to lose your sight of what’s around you. Glowing eyes emerge from the shadows as you continue your way forward without knowing what’s behind the next corner. We get a marvelous view of the sky during the night cycle and can even see the stunning Aurora Borealis.
The Musher is the only voiced character in the game and is wonderfully performed by Ashley Burch. Burch does a fantastic job conveying everything the player should feel at any given moment. Whether it’s the sound of joy and curiosity as she begins her new adventure or the shakiness in her voice after a confrontation with a predator. Burch can seamlessly bridge the gap between the player and the character, helping anyone playing as the protagonist feel more engaged with any given moment. The game also features a great score to accompany you on your journey.
The Red Lantern was reviewed for PC.