When I see the term “Rogue-like” or “Rogue-Lite” I am filled with visions of Rogue Legacy, Dead Cells, The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky. These are quirky side or overhead scrolling action-adventure games with randomly generated stages or dungeons that can be played over and over again without being exactly the same each time. This type of game play was what I expected from reading the press release for The Red Lantern. Although I also envisioned Guy Gardner kicking alien ass in outer space. I can’t rightfully say I have ever played a dog sledding game before nor have I actually seen one until now. The Red Lantern places you in the boots of a young female protagonist who is eschewing the modern complexities of life for a cabin marked by the titular Red Lantern out in the middle of nowhere Alaska. To get there, she is putting together a dogsled team. A simple premise but the game delivers a bit more than it seems.
The game drops you in the first person view of a young lady driving her van through a snow covered road, narrating the life that led her to this path. With the company of her co-pilot Chomper, they are out to pick up 4 more sled dogs to add to the team. There are a total of 8 dogs to choose from, all with their own personality and skill set. One dog may be just good at running, while another may be good at tracking objects and animals in the wild and another good at fighting\defending the team from wild animals. As you meet them, the protagonist will talk to herself out loud (telling you the player) the information she got from kennel owners and from that you can determine what that dog will add to your team if you chose to take them in. Once your team is formed, The sled is packed with minimal supplies and armed with a badly drawn (on purpose) map and the adventure begins.
Once the travel starts, you do not have direct control of the dog sled. By glancing at the crudely drawn map, you can give directions to the dog sled team of left or right at each junction and letting the dogs carry you to the next experience. During the travel, you must contend with stamina, hunger and possible injury to both you and your doggo companions. If hunger levels get dangerous or stamina gets low you can stop and pitch camp to eat and rest. On your first run, you are stocked with only a meager amount of food and limited supplies to start a fire (Birchwood). Armed with 3 bullets in your rifle, you can hunt for food in a small mini-game on animal encounters, thus replenishing your food stocks. While the dogs can eat raw food, you, the human, cannot (or at least you shouldn't unless you wish to die of dysentery). So fire supplies to cook your meat is vital to have as well. If you run out of supplies and then run out of stamina and starve or get injured more than once, the run is over and the protagonist wakes up driving her van on the dark snow covered road (which leads to the question of, was the dog driving?) and the player notes what went wrong, acting like it was a nightmare and may make adjustments for the upcoming trip (packing extra food, bullets or birchwood) depending on what happened. This also applies to objects found on your run such as an axe for cutting firewood, a trap for trapping small animals while you rest and a flint for starting a fire just to name a few. On a failed run as these survival tools are found, they will be carried over to the next run. The nightmare of failure serving as a reminder to pack said tool. For completionists, there is an ongoing tally of achievements and experiences in the protagonists journal to aim for.
The dogs themselves are interactive characters. Being able to pet them at rest stops is nice (unless it is a dog that does not yet trust you) but depending on the encounters out in the wild, they have character building story beats. Speaking of encounters out in the wild, there is the alaskan beasiary to contend with. There are caribou, elk, owls, bears, wolves and so many more to see and encounter and possibly hunt. Some animals such as bears and wolves can attack and injure you or the dogs. Your medpacks can help but you do not get very many. Get injured twice without healing and it's ‘Run Over’. The dogs (Mostly Chomper) can hunt and devour some of the smaller animals if given the opportunity. A dog with tracking ability can lead you to supplies or injured animals and you can be presented with a moral dilemma, shoot the animal for food? Or help it and let it go? Each decision you make can alter your run. You can choose to continue your run with the same team on a failure or start a new run with an alternate team of dogs, again altering your experience with a different mix of personalities. No matter which you choose, the map doesn't change. Only the encounter of animals, abandoned cabins and items randomize. Despite only having one playable map, every run is enjoyable if you mix things up a little. After learning the little details, it is easy to play and does not punish you for failing a run. With a little bit of assistance, my 6 year-old was able to pick this up and enjoy it.
The landscape itself is a winter wonderland of snow capped mountains, trees and frozen lakes. The sky is a beautiful star littered expanse with some northern lights mixed in. Day and night come and go almost too quickly for being that far up north but the transition is nice and works seamlessly. The animals and graphics are well rendered with a distinct art style. While the visuals won’t wow most people, they do look good on the Switch. The sounds of the sled, dogs and wolves howling in the distance is very well done, this game is best experienced with headphones. The dialogue, while at times is repetitive, does make sense within the context of the character and the voice actress delivers her lines fantastically.
The Red Lantern is a game that presents you with great storytelling, a nice backdrop and several reasons to revisit the Alaskan tundra. As alluded to before, this game will inevitably draw a few Oregon Trail comparisons (for those of us old enough to remember it) and that would be selling The Red Lantern Short. While it does draw from the choose your own path and hunt for survival aspects, the dog sled element and the challenges of traversing Alaska add enough to set it apart without even talking about the difference in presentation. I only wish there were a little more rogue-like elements such as changing the map or randomizing the dog’s skills but those are minor nit-picks. This is a game worth experiencing a few times over and then some.
What I like:
- Petting doggos!
- Intuitive survival elements
- Good sound and graphic design
What I would improve:
- A more randomized map
- Oregon Trail (any system)
- Neo Scavenger (Steam)