I remember as a child watching Iron Will and being fascinated by the Iditarod races. The idea of a man and his dogs against the elements flying across Alaskan snow captivated me. It’s such a cool real life thing, but we don’t find a ton of it in the media in 2020. While it may be late in the year (and almost poetically around the first cold snaps in my area) a little known indie in The Red Lantern has resurrected those old feelings of yesteryear with its chilling narrative of a dog sled journey. With those fond memories in tow, I’ve taken on the challenge of braving the wilderness to tell you how Red Lantern shakes out.
The game opens to you and your dog Chomper driving down a snowy road in search of a sled dog team. See, you are ready to escape from it all and move to the middle of nowhere, and I really mean nowhere. But to get there you’re going to need to assemble your dog-vengers. It’s a neat but not time-consuming process as you have eight stops to make, each with a new dog with a different personality to choose from. The game builds this to make you think rather than just pick, as Noodle for instance has the ability to lead and help you make decisions. This even shows up in encounters and in your choices as different dogs interact in each event.
Once you’ve picked four additional dogs to go with Chomper, you’re ready to get underway. The game may follow a narrative like What Remains Of Edith Finch, but the gameplay functions along the lines of a survival game. It’s not as in-depth as something like Ark: Survival Evolved, but you’re definitely going to have to pay attention or you won’t make it. There are two meters that are of utmost importance, your dog’s stamina and yours. Your dog’s stamina depletes as you pass trail markers, but yours is a bit more interesting. Your stamina meter decreases based on your encounters, and that is where the core of the gameplay lies.
In the middle of most every trail marker you will have an encounter. It may be finding an abandoned house or campsite, could be an animal available for you to attempt to hunt, but there is almost always something. You do have the choice to engage, and that will cost you a segment of said meter. If you want to keep yours and the dogs full, that requires food and this is where one of the main survival elements come in.
You start with a couple of certain inventory items, meat, birchwood kindling, bullets, and a medkit. What you have should be used sparingly, but it’s decently easy to manage if you pay attention. The interesting thing is there is absolutely no way you’re going to make it through in your first run. I quickly ran out of food and couldn’t continue on. The game does end your run in a safe way, so don’t feel like you’re going to be scarred for life watching your dogs pass on.
Here is where the crux of everything lies. Once you “die”, you wake up as if you simply had a nightmare. Depending on how your run goes certain objectives may be crossed off, like encountering a wolverine or seeing a frozen caribou. You also have a chance to “remember” to bring more inventory items on your trip, and if you find tools in the wild those become permanent. I remember coming across a firestarter and not having to use stamina to find birchwood made my run much easier.
While I love this Groundhog Day-like system for a rogue-lite game, it did lessen the impact of each run. There are almost no consequences for me, besides having to restart. With the game focused on a narrative, this is a fun way to foster exploration and explain away upgrades, but takes away the stress of your decisions. I would’ve appreciated more of a feeling of urgency in making choices, and I think the game whiffs that a bit here.
This also leads into our next problem, repetition. I played about 6 runs before I finished the story, and by the fourth one I was a bit exhausted by it. I think Red Lantern plays just fine and the continual runs feel unique, but some players may be turned off having to start at the beginning constantly.
While it may be repetitive, that doesn’t diminish how attached I became to the character and the dogs. The Musher spends a lot of time talking to herself, about how she wants a better life. With how 2020 has been for a lot of people this is almost a fantasy we would welcome, being able to get away from everything and live in the middle of nowhere. She might be struggling along and learning as she goes, but it humanizes her and I relate to her more so because of it. There’s one moment in particular where you go to hunt a caribou and it walks straight up to you, and you have to make a choice as to whether to kill it or just enjoy the moment. The developers do a wonderful job of having you empathize in that emotional conflict with the ensuing dialogue, and continue it in nearly every moment you hunt and beyond.
With the dogs, isn’t it obvious? Our culture is so obsessed with petting the good doggo, and boy did they get me with that here. Given I was able to choose which ones were with me they felt even more like family. When you decide it’s time to rest, the campsite gives you plenty of options to rest and eat, but the one I loved the most was being able to pet each dog. There is a lot of the same dialogue here, but c’mon, you get to pet the dogs! In the end that’s all that matters.
One thing that really impressed me was the environment you get to explore. The snow covered tundra is incredibly pretty, and it accentuates the art style chosen for this game. You don’t actually navigate besides telling your dogs to go left or right. This leads you to many different areas, whether you choose to sled across a frozen lake or through a forest. The cool thing is you have a ton of places on the map to explore, and going one specific way isn’t required. Even finishing my final run I had finally come across the fishing pole tool, and I feel like I still was missing out on more. I know for a fact the journal The Musher writes different experiences in had plenty of empty spaces, so continual runs will be necessary to find everything.
The Red Lantern
The Red Lantern is a great experience. I love my dog sled team and playing the runs again and again only reinforced that. But I’m not sure the roguelite style stays fresh all the way through, and it can get a bit tiring and repetitive. In the end, The Red Lantern is not going to win a lot of awards for what it does and is, but it’s a unique take on the walking simulator genre that honestly has gotten stale and oversaturated.