The Red Lantern Review

October 22, 2020
Also on: Switch, Xbox One
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If you need me, I’ll be in Alaska

Many of us have felt the call of the wild; dreamed of giving up the modern life and all its stresses and heading out into the wilderness, where the company you keep is furry and the landscape is desolate. The Red Lantern is a first-person, roguelite narrative adventure about just this. The female, player-controlled protagonist known only as “the Musher” gets in her van with her best friend and canine companion, Chomper, and sets out for Alaska.

The freedom of the wilderness.

The objective of the game is to find the Musher’s new wilderness home with only a crudely drawn map. Of course, to get there you will need a pack of dogs and a dogsled. But first you must pick your dogs, and the beginning of the game is spent going from kennel to kennel meeting the dogs that you must either accept to be part of your team or reject. They all have their own specific personalities, and creating a good combination is paramount to success in the frozen wastes. Some will protect you no matter what; some will get you into trouble. Along the way you can teach and learn from your furry companions, unlocking traits and abilities. For example, you teach one dog to bark instead of attack all the time, letting you scare off bigger animals.

Once you’ve got your team together, The Red Lantern throws you right into the game: go find your new home, marked by a red lantern hanging outside. You can steer your dogsled left and right, or let Chomper decide which direction to go in at each trail marker. And it’s at this point that the game’s heavy resource management elements kick in. You must manage both your own hunger and that of your dogs, indicated by notches on the HUD. Each time you pass a trail marker, your dogs lose one point of hunger; each time you decide to take on an “encounter,” the Musher loses one point of hunger — if either reaches zero, it’s game over.

Encounters are situations where you can stop the sled and view or hunt the wildlife and explore your surroundings. You must carefully manage your hunger; stopping too often will unnecessarily drain your hunger, but not stopping to gather food or supplies will also lead to your demise. Some of these encounters seem to be randomly generated, while others appear linked to the route you choose to take in-game. 

Resource management is the key to success.

You might be getting the impression that The Red Lantern is a little bit harsh in nature, and that’s because it is. The game is a contemplative experience. Your character muses while she steers the dog sled — “How do you know when you’ve found what you like?” to paraphrase one of her out-loud thoughts. But it also charts the naivete with which we are all blinded by. Sure, it sounds like a good idea to go back to basics, but The Red Lantern shows the brutality of nature. Your dogs can die (although there’s a setting to disable this), you have to hunt for food, and accidents happen. You become attached to your dogs, then see the barbarity as you unleash them to viciously tear apart cute ptarmigans so that you may save a rifle bullet. The game beautifully captures both the absolute majesty of the animal kingdom and its horrors all at once — you love your dogs, but you also watch them commit horrific acts. It’s not for the faint of heart. 

On my first run, I starved to death. I say on my first run because The Red Lantern is a roguelite game. Your goal is to reach a house with a red lantern hanging outside, but there’s no way you’ll make it on your first try. As you gain more experience in the wild — which is charted in your journal with things like “see a ptarmigan” and ticked off each time you reach an end-state — you start your next run with more resources and skills. This is done by a clever mechanic where you awaken in your van again, acting as if the whole thing was a dream that you then mull over to make you more aware of the dangers and pitfalls that await you. You might encounter animals that can be interacted with in a more advanced way, like a moose that can be petted. You might wonder how that would help in a survival game, when surely you’d just want its meat, but these interactions tick items off your journal list, and provide you with more resources in future runs, so it’s more of a long-term gain.

You have to set up camp in order to eat, sleep, heal you and your dogs, or cure one of the various status effects that ail you, such as hunger, tiredness and cold. Food can be given to the dogs raw, but you must cook it first to consume it, which means you need birch, which means you must have stopped to gather birch in a previous encounter. This leads you to strategically plan when and where you will stop, how much you will feed yourself versus your dogs, and how much to leave in case you don’t have any satisfactory encounters. It all comes full circle.

Living off the land means hunting.

Everything in your possession is displayed on your dogsled. Look down and physically see the one rifle bullet you have left or the hunks of meat strapped to the sled’s sides. The graphics are gorgeous, and take on a sort of cel-shaded quality. The warm hues of your sled contrast against the blinding white snow that stretches for miles, and The Red Lantern has a full day-night cycle, providing beautiful rich and red sunsets, and, alternatively, impenetrable darkness, pierced only by the glow of your torch. 

The Musher is played by one of the best voice actors in the industry — Ashly Burch, who brings the character to life with a performance that engulfs you fully into the world, with the worry or thoughtfulness of the situation tangible in her voice. Burch’s portrayal of the Musher carries the experience, and the voice acting was a crucial area that the game’s developer,  Timberline Studio, got so very right.

There are, however, some things about The Red Lantern that aren’t as great. The experience can get quite repetitive near the end. After a few runs, there isn’t much left in the moment-to-moment gameplay to surprise you, and you will keep running into the same encounters, which don’t vary all that much. The ending is also a little abrupt, leaving me wishing for a little more closure, and the fabled red lantern is a bit of a let down. This game is all about reflection, and translating that into the ending would have wrapped up the story nicely. The rest of the experience feels innovative and thoughtful, so it’s jarring that this part of the game doesn’t follow suit.

Stunning vistas are around every corner.

Despite its shortcomings, The Red Lantern is well worth spending the four to six hours it will take you to play through its “story mode” (although you can keep playing, trying different routes and unlocking new encounters). It’s about learning from experience, a lot like life, and reading between the lines of representation and reality. The layer upon layer of management, navigation, contemplation, is extremely compelling — even the route to the red lantern is a puzzle that must be completed in itself. 

Normally, I don’t gel well with roguelites, but I couldn’t stop playing The Red Lantern. Run after run, I would have a just-one-more-try moment. It’s a beautiful experience that anyone with a predisposition to travel, adventure and wanderlust should not miss. It takes a concept so common to many — escaping the rat race — and smashes you in the face with the brutality and reality of the wilderness, but also captures its serenity and majesty, too. 

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A couple of niggles can’t hold back this beautiful and brutal avante-garde experience.
Jesse Gregoire

Starting with the Sega Mega Drive, I’ve been playing those video game things for what seems like an eternity. Anything with a good narrative is my passion, but you can also find me clicking the heads in FPS games, living a second life in a sim, or looking for those elusive objects in adventure games. I’m still trying to workout what happened in Metal Gear Solid.