When I first got my hands on The Red Lantern earlier this year at PAX East 2020, I knew something special was buried in the snowy paths ahead. The team at Timberline Studios embarked on a journey to deliver a narrative driven rogue-lite, focused on the notion of letting go of the present in order to grasp onto your dreams of the past as you look towards the future. After giving The Red Lantern one of our Best In Show awards at PAX East 2020, the question that remains now is if this journey warrants mushing through or is this adventure all bark and no bite?
The premise of The Red Lantern is rather straightforward– you play as The Musher, who decides to change her life path and pursue her childhood dream of dogsledding across the Alaskan wilderness and settling down in a new way of life. At the start, you and your best pup Chomper will stop by various owners looking to adopt four dog companions, all with their own personalities and traits that can change how your runs across the snowy tundra play out. Along the journey, The Musher will constantly reflect aloud on her journey, her struggles, triumphs, and uncertainties. As you trek across the unknown landscape, facing perils with platitudes and bullets, overcoming obstacles, and making decisions until you fail for the last time and reach your destination.
The Red Lantern is riddled with self-reflection that sparked honest conversation within myself as I played and traveled along with my five dog companions. I won’t go into specifics, because I feel as though revealing these things could diminish their value to anyone who intends to play, but some of the self-doubt and triumph that are wonderfully written and acted left their pawprints on my heart and mind. Which brings me to the importance of the voice acting in a game like The Red Lantern and how it can’t be understated. There is one speaking character, so aside from the writing being penned exquisitely, Ashly Burch delivers a believable character brimming with emotion that makes talking to her dogs sound just as you would if those furry friends were your only companion. I talk to my cat, Navi, all the time without being secluded from contacting others so I know what that genuine type of conversation is supposed to sound like and they nailed it.
Throughout the trip, the gameplay is mainly composed of timed decision making and resource management. Each time you reach a new trail marker you’ll need to decide which way to travel forward and every time you encounter an animal or other point of interest you’ll have to choose whether or not to engage with them. These two main gameplay functions are regulated by a separate hunger system for The Musher and the dogs. Each time you pass a trail marker, the dogs will lose one bar of their meter, and when you choose to do an action as The Musher she loses one bar of her meter. Add into account other effects such as tiredness, becoming cold, or being injured and the management and survival aspects of The Red Lantern become as apparent as blood splattered across snow. Allowing either of these meters to run out before replenishing them with food will result in failing the run.
Once you understand the basics of the systems The Red Lantern uses them to govern the player and forces you into choosing your routes and actions carefully. Planning your expeditions more tactfully by deciding when to take risks and push your pack to the limit or when to play it safe and camp become paramount to the success of your run. The rogue-lite aspects come into play by allowing your starting supplies on your packing list on subsequent runs to be impacted by things you discovered on previous runs. This led me to truly never feel like an ended run was a waste when I acquired another bullet to start or a tool that would make harvesting food or materials easier.
These aspects of The Red Lantern felt balanced but could be difficult if I chose poorly, although I never felt like the game was cheating me when I failed a run. There is of course a level of randomness with not knowing what dangers await and choosing the same paths in subsequent runs not having the same outcomes, but I felt as though once I was better at managing my resources and unlocked better starting equipment that any folly was of my own doing, mostly. I also think what it ultimately showed was that the decision making in The Red Lantern was always meaningful and impactful and choosing your actions wisely was the only true path forward— something good survival games thrive on and something that you may not have expected from this particular game.
Another aspect on the rotating rogue-lite nature of the game is that not every encounter bore the same results, sometimes an animal may attack you or try and steal supplies, while other times they may trigger different visual scenes or dialogue from The Musher. These types of encounters can be noted in the game’s Journal so if you wanted to look for all of the nuggets of content buried within you’d have more of a reason to replay even after you cleared your first run. Replayability in a game of this nature and length is a bonus.
The art design and graphical fidelity aren’t the shiniest out there nor do they need to be, but the stylized art style was never an eyesore and the constant fluctuations in the sky grabbed my attention more than once. The music in The Red Lantern was as pleasing as the fire crackling in the dead of night at the campsite. The chilled pianos laced with ambient noise and light percussion were a fantastic backbone to this narrative excursion, while also helping the game excel in other ways. Good sound design is when emotion can be conveyed through the score and The Red Lantern does just that, specifically during the hunting scenes where I would constantly ask myself, “do I need to do this?” knowing damn well that if I didn’t shoot this moose that my run would end because of starvation, but even knowing the stakes I was willing to question the decision. That’s powerful, hard to replicate.
Although I truly enjoyed my time with The Red Lantern not every aspect of the game is as special and unique as a falling snowflake. For a game with an impactful narrative, well-written, and expertly acted there were a few lines of dialogue that would come up often that started to wear out their welcome. Being a rogue-lite where multiple attempts on the same gameplay paths and having a focus on survival and management that circulated around completing similar strings of gameplay it would’ve been nice for certain repeated tasks to have varying dialogue or for certain scenes of a new run to have rotated dialogue as well so it didn’t feel as though I was treading the same exact waters even though the decision making between runs was varied. In no way gamebreaking or a dissuasion but worth mentioning.
The Red Lantern won’t be a game for everyone, but that’s okay because it doesn’t need to be, but if a narrative focused rogue-lite littered with survival laden decision making that carries weight sounds like a game you have a voracity for then you may want to pull up a seat at the table and grab a plate. I think what the story does isn’t necessarily this elaborate construction of imagination but a grounded tale that even though it has a specific setting and plot, it can be applied to other people’s lives, goals, and fears even with the removal of the main story pieces. You won’t see me selling off all of my amiibo and moving to Alaska with six dogs in this lifetime– heck I’m a cat person– but the figurative and literal struggles and triumphs that The Musher plows through resonated with me on different human levels because the story underneath was authentic, or at least felt real enough that I could glean a morsel of meat off of those bones and apply it to my own strife.
The Red Lantern is available on October 22nd, 2020 for Nintendo Switch and PC. We reviewed The Red Lantern on the Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the developer.
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