Imagine inviting snow-capped mountains, an ever-evolving Alaska skyline, and the best canine companions a human could ever hope for. This is exactly what Timberline Studios The Red Lantern offers with its haunting, story-driven roguelite survival game. Even if survival games don’t usually attract you, The Red Lantern has some magic to replace the genre. The art style and narrative flow in a way that isn’t necessarily constrained by the mechanics or the usual attachments that survival games are usually associated with.
In this dog sledding adventure, you play as a woman who left city life to pursue her dreams of dog sledding to the mountain peaks of Alaska. At the beginning of the story, she visits several dogs with different personalities and unique abilities that will help later. As a dog lover, it’s too pure for this world to go through each area to meet the various canine companions, especially when learning the personality of each puppy. Whether you’re looking for a hunter to track down squirrels or just looking for a cuddle beetle that knows how to navigate the wild, every animal feels real which helps create a connection between you and every dog for that to create upcoming adventures.
The Red Lantern is a survival game, but you have less autonomy than you might expect. You have some freedom of choice in your dialogue decisions and actions – you decide when to rest and when to feed your animals – but in many ways the game plays out by itself. As you hit the slopes to sled, you have no direct control over your movement outside the queues of the base direction. Instead of feeling frustrating, this transfer of control makes the game feel therapeutic in a way that I find incredibly enjoyable. It gives you the freedom to enjoy the experience while enjoying the beauty of the world in general without panicking or worrying about your sled (and dogs) running into a massive ditch somewhere. From the color palette changes to the subtle shifts in the passing landscape, this trip is aesthetically pleasing from the start, and the ability to sit back and enjoy it makes the limited movement worth it.
The survival aspect arises from natural progress and resource management. Dog sledding is hard work, and each signpost passed means less energy for your canine friends who lead the cargo. You can rest in established campsites to regain energy and playfully interact with each dog, leaning against their personality. Barkley, for example, is an extremely loyal and protective animal, which means extra pets should always go to this little cutie when they get a chance.
Keeping an eye on how many bullets are left is key to hunting and protecting from wildlife, while medical kits for unforeseen injuries are vital. Running a run may give you the opportunity to request a drop in supplies or hunt an animal, but participating in these off-trail activities uses more energy. The more energy is used, the higher the risk for you and your animal companions. So keep an eye on the indicators in the corner of your screen.
The gauges for survival are easily accessible and constantly remind you of your in-game mortality. While this new adventure in the Alaskan wilderness is beautiful, it is far from safe and not all of these dangers are external. The problem with this, however, is that it is sometimes easy to assume that you have more time than you actually have, and that the randomly generated content can either aid or detract from the gaming experience.
Much of the interactions you see on the trail are due to luck, which adds another level of thrill to survival. Food is a valuable resource and supplies are scarce. So your success may depend on when you have the opportunity to stock up again. My first failed run after that first kick in the teeth was due to the fact that I tend to hesitate. Similar to “I’ll go to the nearest gas station to fill up my car” in the real world, I often made the same choices in the game. That choice will pay off sometimes, but not always. And if it doesn’t, this is another mission to flush the drain. This aspect of The Red Lantern doesn’t dominate the experience, but it does cause a lot of frustration, and having faith in luck increases the replayability potential.
Item management gets easier over time, but one piece of advice: don’t be afraid of failure. The first time you go on a trail with your assembled puppies is most likely going to fail due to the small number of supplies initially allocated. Don’t worry, this is a conscious attempt to show the importance of management in the game. So think of this first run as a tutorial rather than a reflection of your skills.
Another aspect of survival that is important to keep track of is temperature. It is possible that you and the dogs will starve or even freeze to death. Therefore, awareness of exhaustion is essential for successful runs. At first this thought overwhelmed me and I found myself obsessively following every meter to avoid accidental deaths. Fortunately, The Red Lantern has a feature on the main menu that allows you to choose whether the dogs stay alive no matter what. This is a great addition from the studio for those like me who get a little squeamish with animal violence in games.
Overall, The Red Lantern is a stunning game that offers both a calming and calming experience which, due to the more random nature of the mechanics, can induce some level of fear. Watching the counter drop and hope drop can sometimes feel like a slap in the gut, but at some point a rhythm is found and you relax around the campfire with a full stomach, warm fire and adorable furry friends who are more than make up for these drops in euphoria.