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PAX East Hands-On: ‘The Red Lantern’ and ‘Unmemory’

PAX East 2020 has started in earnest and with it the start of a bevy of coverage on the event from your friendly neighborhood stomper of Goombas. I got my hands on a number of games today but there were two in particular that have left a lasting impression on me that I wanted to talk about first and foremost. A game about learning how to read the conditions of frozen tundra and a game about reading… period.

The Red Lantern

Not to be confused as a relative of the DC superhero, The Red Lantern puts you in the shoes of a nameless musher as she seeks escape into the snowy Alaskan wilderness after her life in the city took a downward turn. Of course, you can’t be a musher without dogs and I had five loveable canines pulling my sled in this highly promising resource management, rogue-lite.

Travel on the sled happens more-or-less automatically, with your loyal companions pulling you along a path on their own. Occasionally you’ll order them to take a left or right branch at a fork but an exploration game this is not. Instead, it’s the random events along the way that make for an exciting journey.

In my demo, I encountered caribou I could hunt for food, abandoned cabins to search for materials, and owls to follow among many other events. All of these actions are carried out via contextual menus and have numerous different outcomes. For the caribou, I could’ve tried to shoot it which had a chance to miss and use up a precious bullet, or I could approach it and risk a kick to the face for a chance to pet it. There was a palpable sense that things could go wrong at any time, creating for a tense survival environment. Food is shared between yourself and the dogs and choosing how to divvy it up already made for some tough decision making.

Despite that tension, though, there’s something oddly therapeutic about The Red Lantern that makes it calming to play. The distinct lack of music and subdued color palettes create an intimate atmosphere between the musher, the dogs, and the player. That sense of solitude is amplified by the musher talking up a storm either to herself or her dogs. The performance by Ashly Burch (Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn) hits all the playful notes of a person who has long moved past feeling awkward from talking to themself so much. Her exasperated and sarcastic remarks are especially on-point when her puppies get up to any antics.

There will be eight dogs in the final game and each of them has their unique quirks, personalities, and strengths. There was a point where my lead dog, Chomper, got distracted by a pesky squirrel and attempted to dart after the little bugger on his own, sled pack be damned. Some dogs frolic in the snow on breaks while others stand at attention; it’s small details like these that show how developer Timberline Studios is acutely aware of how no two dogs are the same and why people grow so attached to them (which I certainly already have). I was told these canines’ personalities will be fleshed out more in their individual stories that also increase their abilities and skills, but unfortunately, that wasn’t shown in this demo. 

While the demo was short and I wasn’t able to get a terrific sense of how long-term progression will work, I walked away feeling extremely hopeful for The Red Lantern. It’s a title I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on ever since its announcement during last March’s Nindies Direct and it did not disappoint. Dog lovers and survivalist enthusiasts take note when it releases for Switch, Xbox One, and Epic Game Store later this year.

Unmemory

Text-based adventure games and visual novels have been around the video game scene almost since the dawn of the medium itself. Those games normally have some sort of, well, visual element to them, though. Enter Unmemory, a game coming to Android and iOS devices that looks like reading an e-book and plays like one too.

Unmemory

Part of the charm of Unmemory is figuring out how the heck it plays in the first place because there isn’t quite anything like it. That also makes it a bit hard to describe in text despite the game itself being mostly text. Prose is laid out on the screen for you to scroll through and read at your leisure, painting the mental image of a man waking up in an unfamiliar apartment room with no recollection of how he got there or why he has dried bloodstains on his body.

As I scrolled down and continued reading I came to a gap in the text. The story mentions how the protagonist “peeks through the curtains”, so I “expanded” the gap with my two fingers like zooming in on a webpage and was treated to an image of the outside of the apartment; this caused a knocking sound to start up that prompted me to peer through a peephole below another chunk of text. Unmemory never tells you its controls and instead relies on the contextual clues like this example, expecting the player to at least be somewhat already familiar with common touch commands.

Progress isn’t strictly in the form of scrolling down the screen, either, as clues and events sometimes made me realize I had to refer back to earlier texts and cues and view them in a new light to move forward. It’s akin to your position on a page being the position of your avatar in a more traditional investigation type game. These clues begin to pile up, though, and you’ll have to use a physical pen and paper in the real world to keep track of them all which adds a certain sense of agency that made me feel more directly involved in the game.

Unmemory note taking
The scribblings of a madman as I tried to figure out how the heck to open a certain safe

This is a different kind of puzzle-solving that I haven’t really encountered in any other game before. You have to really change the way you’d normally go about reading to wrap your head around what the game is trying to guide you to do and that led me to getting stumped on more than one occasion. Like any good puzzle game, though, that made figuring out the solution all the more satisfying. It truly is incredible how Unmemory has made the act of reading the core gameplay itself. It’s something best experienced for one’s self, though, and I can’t wait to sit down by a fireplace and dig into the full version when it comes out later this year.

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