The Red Lantern Review
Developer: Timberline Studio | Publisher: Timberline Studio | Genre: Adventure, Simulation | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC | Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Who among us hasn’t dreamt of grabbing the reigns of an arctic dog sled and conquering the frigid wilds? Probably lots of folks, but for those whose interest that scenario piques, read on.
The Red Lantern is a dog-sledding simulation that incorporates elements of survival sims, rogue-lites, and interactive narratives into a wonky-if-heartfelt adventure. When it works, it is a lovely and ambitious diversion, though its many flaws drag it down into muddier snows that make it hard to recommend to anyone other than the most devoutly yearning sled captain.
In The Red Lantern, you are an aspiring Alaskan musher on your way to conquer the frozen wilds. You’ve left your life behind to chip away at your dream, and a persistent narrator is there to constantly remind you of this fact.
You initially hop into your van and find some dogs to pull you along – an effective opening that lets you choose your puppy pack. Each dog has their advantages, but you’ll need to trust your gut and try them out in order to find out which puppy pile is best for your sled. A particular dog might be good at chasing away predators or finding a spot to set a trap. In the end, they are all good pups.
As you hop into your sled and set off on your arctic journey in earnest, it quickly becomes apparent that you don’t have a tremendous amount of agency as a musher. You move ever-forward, but always on-rails, as your dogs pull you along in a floaty and somewhat unsatisfying manner while the lovely scenery rolls by. You are periodically prompted to go either left or right, “Haw” or “Gee” in musher-speak. You follow along on your map and try to make your way to the other side of it, where a titular red lantern lays waiting for you in the icy cabin-of-your-dreams.
But dreams can turn deadly, as they most-certainly will on your first adventures. The driving force of The Red Lantern lies in keeping your musher and pups alive. You begin with two respective hunger meters, each half full. As you pass trail markers, your pup’s energy depletes, and as you stop for encounters, your musher’s does the same.
Encounters are the other primary moments of agency, wherein you spot something on or off the trail and decide whether or not to investigate it. More often-than-not, said something is an animal that you need to go and hunt, though it is sometimes an abandoned cabin, tree to chop, lost bullets, a fishing hole or other area of wilderness interest, all chance encounters in true rogue-lite fashion.
All of this plays into the main gameplay element of simply surviving. While you can get mauled through unfortunate encounters like bear attacks, most of your time will be spent trying to keep your hunger meters full. Successful hunts yield meat, which you feed your dogs and cook for yourself at camps. You are also maintaining a supply of wood and medical kits, but really it’s all about keeping those bellies full – starvation is the greatest threat.
The hunting mechanic at play that much of this hinges upon is a frustrating mini-game that borders on a cruelty. An inexplicable glowing circle floats while an inexplicable floaty comet ping pongs across your screen with little logic. If the floaty comet crosses through the floaty circle, you shoot. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about as fun as a snowball in the face.
If and when you do expire, you will wake up safe and sound in your van again, all of it a dream, your over-active subconscious prepping you for the encounter to come. With each playthrough your aspiring musher will have learned some lessons that arrive in the form of two types of upgrades: either deciding to start with more supplies, or having found a useful tool that you now pack. All of this strains logic and feels arbitrary.
The gameplay loop mirrors that of many rogue-lites before it, but ultimately it just feels empty. You must fail in order to increase your inventory; it isn’t a reward for an accomplishment, it’s simply the accumulation of time and runs and deaths. When you find tools like the axe or adorable doggie boots, these incredibly useful upgrades are now permanent, but also feel like bits of timed luck. When you begin your first run, it feels basically impossible to get through the map, and after a few runs and enough of these arbitrary upgrades, you can do it. But it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment; the reward-system isn’t set up to connect your decisions and actions to what you receive, and it all leaves you cold.
In tandem with your journey of survival, a narrative also unfolds as largely told via the protagonist’s voice-over, which grows old fast. The story is fine on its face but tonally inconsistent, often not connecting with the action in front of you. And while most of the narration work is fine-to-good, it is also often repeated, prompting gratitude at your ability to adjust its requisite volume.
But what about the dogs? Thankfully, the answer is yes, you can pet them, and they look cute while you do so. However, here too is another reminder of the problems with this adventure – petting your doggos, like so much in this game, doesn’t really seem to matter at all. Left or right? Kill the caribou or spare it? Rub the puppy belly or just get back on your sled? There are glimmers of strategy within a few decisions, but then you’ll be killed arbitrarily by a bear. And then eventually you’ll have done enough runs to get to the other side.
To its credit, The Red Lantern features an attractive art style that highlights chilly landscapes and beautiful northern skies. But even that can get a bit tedious, as it is subjected to hiccups, pop-ins, frame drops, and odd moments of collisions. Little glitches also popped in around the audio here and there.
While this adventure is a rough ride, it’s clear that this game was made with an avalanche of heart, and if you can look past the glitches it does look good while it does look good in action. The developers were trying to craft a unique narrative experience, and it’s commendable that they held a warm perspective and tread into new spaces. It feels more like a robust choose-your-own-adventure with ill-conceived survival sim aspects, but for some it might even become a relaxing and easy-going diversion. Unfortunately, it just isn’t a very fun game.
The Red Lantern tries to be many things – a narrative adventure, a gripping rogue-lite, and a survival simulation all at once. Unfortunately, the sum of these mashed together parts doesn’t equal a strong experience. While visually enjoyable and interesting enough to run through, it’s hard to recommend this adventure, particularly at its asking price.
All that said, if the mere premise sends your heart soaring like an aspiring musher of the north, there’s nothing else like The Red Lantern out there, and all of the dogs in it are good dogs, indeed.