Haven’t we all dreamed at some point of abandoning our humdrum life in search of something more? In Timberline Studio’s rogue-lite narrative indie, The Red Lantern, the female protagonist who is simply referred to as the Musher, decides to act on that impulse. Ever since she was a little girl she has dreamed of having a dog sledding team, but as life is want to do, those dreams were quickly squashed in favor of trying to be “realistic” and pursuing a safer career option. Years later, she decides to leave her life in the city to pursue those dreams and live her life in the Alaskan wilderness.
Through the game’s mix of narrative and resource management, we’ll get to live through her adventure and make some tough calls in the thick of danger. Out in the wilderness, it’s man and pup versus nature, and you’ll have to pay special attention to your resources if you want to make it out here on the tundra.
Into the Unknown
The Red Lantern is the name of a lodge, currently occupied by the Musher’s longtime friend and veteran dogsledder and it is our ultimate end goal as the player. We’ll have to travel through the harsh, frozen wilderness and survive off of the land if we want to make it to our new home. First, however, we’ll need a team of pups.
There are eight dogs that the Musher can choose from on her way to the dropoff, and each of them have their own stories and personalities. You can only choose five dogs for your sledding team, and I felt personally attacked when the voice actress for the Musher commented something along the lines of, “I don’t think I can turn down any dog” since I immediately chose the first five dogs. Don’t come at me; each baby was deserving of love. In the end, my sled team consisted of Slayer, Iggy, Fin, Barkley, and Chomper.
Enjoy the Ride
Once the dogs were all lined up and the journey began, there were a few mechanics that I took note of immediately.
Hop on the train-err, sled
Firstly, most of the trip is out of your hands. You aren’t really in control of where the sled goes and how it moves. There are certain points along the trail that you can instruct the dogs “Haw!” or “Gee!” to turn left and right, but this serves as an indicator for what events you’re going to encounter on the road and how much you want to explore. While the Musher is mushing, you can look around at the environment as it passes by and get your bearings by looking at the crudely drawn diner map.
Hunger Meter, Smunger Meter
Secondly, every encounter costs hunger. Both the Musher and her dogs have a hunger gauge that can be refilled after you eat a meal when you make camp. Sometimes, you’ll come across smaller, less threatening events that will let your pups get in a quick meal in the form of bullying ptarmigans. No eggs for us, but the pups will get in a good snack and it serves as a nice distraction.
Maybe a few more snacks
Thirdly, trail markers act as literal milestones in your journey. This is where The Red Lantern rogue-lite elements come into play. If you cross a trail marker and your hunger meter is going to deplete for either the Musher or the dogs, the run ends, and you wake up from a nightmare in your truck, back on the way to the first dropoff.
You don’t have to pick your sled team again, instead, the Musher “learns” from her nightmares and decides to pack a few more necessities than she had thought prior before the next run. This scenario will also play out if you ended up dying due to an attack on the trail or other event.
If you came across unlockables on the trail like an axe for cutting birch, flint to light the campfire, or a trap to catch food, you will now have access to those at the beginning of your next run. The Musher never packs enough bullets, though. You can never have enough bullets. Exploring for resources is critical, especially in the first run, because you’ll need to find those permanent unlocks if you want to make it to the other side of the wilderness.
A Musher’s Monologue
The first few rides have a heavier weight to them, as you don’t know what you’re getting your pups into, and you have very limited resources. The story is fresh, and I rather enjoyed listening to the voice actress monologue her inner thoughts to the player and the dogs. She has a fairly emotive voice, that conveyed just the right amount of feeling without pushing too hard or going over the top. The way that the Musher speaks to the dogs felt especially realistic, and even though I had to listen to the dialogue repeat a few times over when I was forced to restart, I didn’t mind it as much because I enjoyed listening to her voice.
Pets, Pets, Pets
Did I mention that you can pet the dogs? You can take your time before making or packing up camp to pet each and every dog, and if there was an event that featured them that day, the Musher will have a special moment with them where they can develop their relationship more and reveal details about the dog’s personality and growth.
I especially enjoyed this with my good girl, Fin. Fin has a sniffer that routinely gets her into trouble with skunks, but can also come in handy once she learns to avoid them. At first, she doesn’t want to be touched, but as you spend time with her, she steals your beanie because she finds your scent comforting. Later, she finally lets you pet her and becomes very fond of her owner.
The Harsh Events of the Tundra
There are over a hundred unique events to experience in The Red Lantern, and each has the potential to reveal more about every sled dog’s story. As you encounter these events, you’ll quickly learn that they’re not all positive. Depending on the time of day and what path you take, you could run into encounters that greatly injure the Musher or her dogs. In that case, you had better hope that you have enough food for bait, medkits to heal the injury, or bullets to drive the threat away. But like I said, in my case, I never used a medkit on myself, and always saved it for my pups.
There is only one thing we say to death.
If you’re dreading getting attached to and losing your dogs, there is an option to toggle off their deaths. For my run, I kept this toggled on, because I felt like I needed to experience the very real threat of danger to appreciate the journey. None of my pups died because I made sure to keep at least one bullet and medkit in the sled at all times in case of an emergency, even if it meant the Musher had to deal with a wound. When my beautiful, brave Iggy got injured and saved our team from a musk ox, I was able to patch up the wound with the medkit at camp and finish out our run with everyone alive and well.
Bone to Pick
Earlier this year, I posted an article about Dogs as a Plot Device in Media, and I think The Red Lantern is a good example of a few points I mentioned in that article. When a game is actually based on the animals and includes them in the narrative, it feels more meaningful, and like they weren’t just shoehorned in to gain empathy. Here, the story is obviously centered around the Musher and her journey to find herself, but it’s also about how the dogs conquer their fears and learn to work together as a team. Slayer, for instance, is very skittish of elk, and at first, doesn’t want anything to do with them. However, over time, you can help her overcome this fear by trusting in her and showing her that as a team, you can do anything.
My opinion on the option to turn off death for the dogs is…complicated. The Red Lantern is about the harsh realities of nature and trying to survive by the skin of your teeth. The Musher knew that going out there, and is the primary reason that she took a gun and bullets. She knew that there would be danger and that they might not all make it to the lodge-but still, they had to try. To offer the ability to toggle death cheapens the overall theme of the story and takes away a level of realism from what would have otherwise been a pretty effective way to pull in the player. You spend time with these dogs, get to know and love them, pet them, feed them, and to have them sacrifice themselves for you is absolutely heartbreaking.
On the other side, no one wants to really deal with that realism. When I figured out that the option was there, my heart dropped into my stomach, because I didn’t want to have to deal with the reality of getting attached to these little furry characters, only to lose them. For those that can’t, or don’t want to handle that heartbreak, the toggle is still there. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter much because it’s just an option. You don’t have to enable/disable it, but it still gave me the slight impression that they might have gone back on what they initially intended for the game to be.
I genuinely loved playing through The Red Lantern, and bonding with my sled team. The art style for it is charming and beautiful at times, with a lovely soundtrack that effectively adds to the atmosphere of being lost in the frozen wilderness. My first completed run-through of the game took me about 2 hours and 30 minutes to reach. I didn’t fill out my journal or see every event, but if you’d like to, you can do just that after finishing the game. There are still plenty of adventures and scenarios to discover with your pups, and even more dangerous challenges to face.
I was a bit disappointed with the ending because I think I was hoping that there was a twist or something more meaningful to find at the lodge. With that said, I still enjoyed the theme and gameplay and loved seeing how the relationships with the sled dogs played out and progressed on the journey. Currently, you can find the PC version of The Red Lantern on Epic Games for $24.99, as well as on the Switch.
A copy of The Red Lantern was provided for the purpose of this review.