Surviving in a harsh winter environment was never my idea of a good video game, that is, until The Long Dark came around. I loved surviving in its post-apocalyptic winter. Every decision was life or death, and death can come to those who aren’t prepared. When I first saw The Red Lantern it gave me strong The Long Dark vibes, both because of its art style, and its challenge of surviving in a harsh cold environment. The dynamic of musher and sled dog further intrigued me, and while I’m glad to have played The Red Lantern, it turned out to be vastly different than I was expecting.
The Red Lantern is a survival game that’s all about resource management as you lead your sled dog across harsh, winter terrain. It’s played from a first person perspective, and has some rogue-lite elements, but it bears closer resemblance to The Oregon Trail than it does The Long Dark. You play as the Musher, setting off into her new wilderness home. To get there, she’ll have to brave said wilderness with a team of sled dogs. In The Red Lantern it’s about the bond you’ll make with your sled team as you keep them—and yourself—alive on your way to the house with the red lantern.
The first thing you’ll do in The Red Lantern is get your sled team together. There are several stops to make, and on each, you’ll get to meet a dog and learn about it. The different dogs’ personalities have an effect on the events you’ll encounter on your runs. If a dog is scared of elk, they may run away instead of letting you hunt. If a dog likes to fight, in the wilderness, you might see them act aggressive towards wolves.
Most of the gameplay in The Red Lantern consists of reacting to events. You take off, into the wilderness, with little initial prep, and a map drawn on a restaurant placeholder. As the Musher you don’t actually drive the sled, rather, you instruct your dogs whether to take a left or right turns when forks come up. Then, different events will pop-up: sometimes you’ll be able to investigate something interesting, other times you’ll be gathering wood or food. Dogs can die as a result of certain events, but you can also disable dog deaths—which I did. The Red Lantern did such a good job of endearing me to my team of sled dogs, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing even one.
There are four resources to manage in The Red Lantern: ammo, food, wood, medicine. You’ll also have to keep an eye on your hunger level, as well as the hunger level of your dogs. You’ll spend ammo for food, fire to cook food for yourself (your dogs can eat it raw), and medicine to tend to any injuries. If you or your dogs are in danger of starving, the meter will flash red. If you pass a trail marker while you or your dogs are in the red, your run ends. This isn’t a permanent death, however, as the Musher wakes back up in her car before the adventure, sometimes with new ideas on how to stay alive based on her “dream” of the previous runs. I a clever mechanic, each run is really just a dream—that is, until you finally make it.
They never quite say why the Musher decides to leave her home, but it’s not really necessary. Voiced by Ashley Burch, the Musher maintains a constant narrative. Burch’s talents allow this to be possible without being annoying—and manage to really make me feel for the Musher and her dog’s circumstances.
The Red Lantern is a solid game, but I can’t help but want more interactivity. Its weakest aspect is its core gameplay. The art, voice acting—everything else is phenomenal. But the core gameplay loop isn’t interactive enough, and very repetitive. Despite the claim of over 100 events on the Epic Games store page, I feel like I’ve seen each of them within the first few hours of gameplay. Instead of a resource management game that’s based on changing circumstances, I feel like I’m playing a choose your own adventure with random generators determining whether I’ll live or die. Not only that, but the Musher’s initial ill preparation forces you into failure. The Musher becomes more prepared for her runs the longer you play, and the more you encounter, but even making perfect decisions leads to failed runs until she “learns.”
I mostly played The Red Lantern on Nintendo Switch, and it’s a good fit on the handheld console. It runs well enough on the go and in docked mode. I did have some technical issues, mostly with the inverted Y option. While it’s not as important in The Red Lantern as it might be in a first person shooter, I’d still like to be able to invert my look and have it stick. As it is right now, the option exists, but it undoes itself after I fail a run. I have to completely quit out of the game and come back in to fix it. It’s a minor problem, but an annoying one.
While The Red Lantern may not be the epic adventure I was hoping for, it’s an incredible game. Ashley Burch does an amazing job as the Musher, and I bonded with my sled team faster than I ever fell for any pets in other games. There just isn’t enough in the gameplay loop to make me unconditionally recommend it—but if you’re at all interested in the concept, it might be worth checking out.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR
You can also catch us streaming games we’re reviewing and staff favorites at twitch.tv/bokor