Firstly, I love dogs. I mean, who doesn’t? They’re adorable, they’re loyal, and, most importantly, they’re man’s best friend. Give me a dog over a cat any day of the week, thank you very much. Secondly, I love snow. Living in the UK doesn’t bring with it near enough snow for my liking, with the idea of living in Canada or Alaska a personal (but probably unachievable) dream. Making snow angels… building snowmen… sledding… I want to do it ALL.
Those two things are the core elements in The Red Lantern, the narrative-driven survival adventure from the team at Timberline Studio that sees players leading their small troupe of doggies through the dangerous Alaskan wilderness. Whilst the concept alone was enough to have my totally invested in the journey from the get-go, its intriguing hands-off approach to survival kept me hooked in as I tried my best to live through the many hazards I encountered along the way.
The Red Lantern puts players in the role of a young woman (who is brilliantly voiced by Ashley Burch) who has decided to reinvigorate her otherwise ordinary life by moving out to Alaska in order to achieve her dream of looking after a group of doggies and partaking in dog sled racing. Come on, admit it… you’d be tempted to do it too, right? After adopting the dogs that best suit her ambitions, she heads out to her new cabin home (marked by a, you guessed it, red lantern) to begin the next chapter in her life.
Of course, things end up going wrong quite quickly and she soon finds herself lost in the cold and deadly Alaskan wilderness. Luckily, she has got her dogs to help her get back home, with their varied abilities (and a bit of luck) vital to her chances of surviving the harrowing escapade.
One of the first things that you’ll actually do in The Red Lantern is choose the dogs that you want to join you on your journey. With a selection of eight to pick between that bring with them their own special capabilities, you won’t want to take this decision lightly. Some of the dogs may be particularly good at tracking for example, making it easier to find resources out in the wild. Alternatively, another might be a protective sort, ensuring that you remain safe from any predators who may be looking at you as a fresh meal. Each brings with it something that’ll prove advantageous to you when fighting for survival, so putting together an effective team can really help boost your odds of success.
Oh, and just to warn you, some bring with them disadvantages too. Having a protective dog that can put up a fight is great for example, but not when they go out of their way to pick fights themselves…
It’d be easy to think that once you’ve got your dogs together that you would take the reins as you sled your way across the snowy fields in order to find your way home. However, The Red Lantern takes a different approach, with your fight for survival basically taking place on-rails with the dogs leading you through the adventure. That’s not to say that you won’t have some input in where you go though, with forks in the road giving you the chance to choose if you want to go ‘left’ or ‘right’ – for the most part though, you’ll take on the role of the passenger.
Now that might sound a little boring in design, and sure, if you prefer to go hands-on with your gaming experiences then The Red Lantern may not necessarily be for you. I found that it tied into the narrative-driven portions of the game perfectly though, with an element of suspense to be found as the protagonist narrates your journey with both her own observations at the daunting prospects of survival as well as the memories of her own life. There’s a heavy focus on storytelling here, with action few-and-far between outside of making the right decisions at the right time.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things to do during the journey though. You’ll have to manage both your dogs’ energy and the resources you require for survival, with different events randomly occurring that’ll offer you to opportunity to restock and then progress. As mentioned, your dogs abilities will prove imperative in these situations, whether it’s when helping you hunt down animals for food, gathering resources such as ammunition for your rifle or medical packs, or even fighting off other creatures if you find yourself attacked by a bear or wolves. Energy will be consumed during each of these events and, if you or your dogs’ levels drops too low, your journey will come to a swift and unfortunate end.
You know what? Don’t be surprised if those ‘ends’ happen on a regular basis. The Red Lantern has a gameplay loop that encourages player learning, with knowledge learned and items found during previous runs that’ll help you out on subsequent attempts. Completing a successful run shouldn’t take longer than thirty-to-forty minutes, but there’ll be plenty of time spent learning the mechanics and improving your chances of success through previous attempts.
It makes for an addictive gameplay loop, with the unpredictable nature of what might go down adding an air of freshness to each run you take. You can adopt different approaches to each event too, so you do have some control over the situation despite their random nature. However, that ‘random nature’ can also work against the game, with some causing failures that are out of the player’s control. You have to simply hope that you get the opportunity to uncover the resources required to set up a camp or to feed yourself, with no clear or certain way to find them… it’s pure luck. Believe me, it was pretty frustrating when I couldn’t set up camp due to a lack of resources and ended up freezing to death, ESPECIALLY since the game didn’t even give me the opportunity to find them in the first place.
Still, when everything clicks and you stumble across events that give you a fighting chance, The Red Lantern really shines. I’m not saying I need handholding in a game and a lot of failures were due to my own inexperience, but I can learn from those instances and at least I had SOME chance of survival – I may have died a lot of the time, but they were my favourite runs through the game because my fate was in my own hands. And believe me, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing yourself low on resources and on death’s door, only for one of your trusty doggies to find something you depserately need… it’s lovely.
It’s worth noting that The Red Lantern is a really pretty game too, with the picturesque Alaskan landscapes looking impressive on both the Switch’s handheld and docked modes. I’ll admit that I was a little concerned going in that it wouldn’t have the visual fidelity seen in the game’s earlier trailers, but it really delivered – even if there were a few jagged edges here and there. That being said, whilst it’s an attractive game, it did a few graphical hiccups here and there. Whilst there was nothing too severe, seeing objects cut through the environment or having the sled end up wandering off the map was a little peculiar. Fortunately, these issues are few and far between, but it’s still a little weird when they do occur.
The Red Lantern may not be for everyone, but its hands-off narrative driven survival escapade through the Alaskan wilderness certainly kept me entertained. Sure, the reliance on luck could prove frustrating at times and the graphical hiccups could be a little weird, but the tension that comes with your preparation and decision-making ensures that each attempt to survive brings with it plenty of thrills.
Plus, I love snow and lovely doggies… The Red Lantern delivers PLENTY as far as those aspects of the game are concerned.
Developer: Timberline Studio
Publisher: Timberline Studio
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC