Chow down, pups!
When I was growing up, I was a boy scout and my troop went on a camping trip every month. The first one I ever went on was to a shooting range in the middle of December, and it soured me on the idea of winter camping basically for the rest of my life. What I’m getting at is that I would rather die than go camping in the Alaskan wilderness, which kind of sucks because there’s a lot of beauty I’ll probably never explore. This is one of the main things that drew me to The Red Lantern, a resource-management game about taking a team of sled dogs through Alaska to find a new home. While a survival-style game with roguelike elements isn’t exactly what I had expected from the game’s initial reveal, I still found myself quite interested in where it was going.
In The Red Lantern, you play as a woman who has decided to leave her city life behind, adopt a team of dogs, and move out into the remote Alaskan wilderness to pursue her lifelong dream of competing in dog sled races. The game starts as you go to visit a selection of eight dogs with the intention of adopting five of them. Each dog has their own personality and skills that may trigger specific events or have specific uses on the trail. For example, Fin has a really good nose that can sometimes lead her to some good finds but also a penchant for sniffing out skunks, while Barkley has no problem defending his owner and getting into a fight even when that fight is with something he probably shouldn’t be fighting. The personalities of each pup shine through perfectly and you’ll likely find yourself attached to each member of your team to varying degrees.
Overall there isn’t much control given to the player in The Red Lantern. Once you get on the trail your dogs will pull the sled on their own and you’ll occasionally tell them whether to go left or right at forks. Every time you pass a trail marker the dogs’ energy will deplete by one, and if you pass a trail marker while they have no energy that run is over. Sometimes you will come across animals that you can try to hunt or small bits of supplies in the wild, but interacting with these events costs hunger and if you keep going for too long on an empty stomach your character will starve and freeze to death. Both meters can be refilled by camping and consuming food. Dogs can eat any meat you have raw and gain one bar of energy back for each piece given to them, but as humans can’t really eat raw meat in order to refill your hunger meter you have to start a fire and cook that food, with each piece restoring two bars. Your and your dogs’ maximum energy values can also decrease as time goes on if you don’t sleep every once and awhile while you camp, though sleeping costs one hunger as well.
At its core, The Red Lantern is entirely about resource management, as you have to keep track of and be cautious with your supply of bullets for your rifle, food, fire starters, and med kits. Your first run leaves you with a very small number of each of these things, leaving you needing to find more as you go. For this reason your first run will probably be unsuccessful, but once a run has failed you are sent back to your van and the whole thing is framed as you imagining the worst case scenario. This morbid daydream will lead to your character making herself more prepared, raising the number of survival tools she brings with her on the next run. You can also find tools such as an axe or a flint and steel while on the trail, which make surviving far easier. Once you’ve found these items out in the wild you will then have “remembered” to bring them with you from the start for any future runs.
For the most part this all comes together pretty satisfyingly, but there’s no escaping the fact that in a lot of ways The Red Lantern leaves your fate almost entirely up to the cruel mistress of RNG. Several of my runs ended in failure not because I had messed up and used too many resources but simply because I just hadn’t been lucky enough to encounter an animal to hunt or any birch to start a fire before I had starved or the dogs had gotten too tired. While this is realistic, the Alaskan wilderness is a dangerous place where survival has a lot to do with luck and preparedness, it still had me slightly frustrated for the first hour or so. More than a few times I felt like I had lost through no fault of my own, and that left a sour taste in my mouth for much of the beginning. Couple this with the fact that the game frequently experiences graphical glitches, such as the few times it had spawned me off the trail and the sled clipped through hills and snow dunes galore, and Red Lantern’s first impressions leave a bit to be desired.
Nevertheless, Red Lantern is still a relatively good game. There are worse ways to spend your time than on the trail with some good dogs, and the game is honestly a perfect fit for the Switch’s portability. The length of an average run is pretty perfect for pulling the game out of your bag on a lunch break, and outside of the graphical hiccups the game still runs very well in handheld mode. The main character, played by Ashly Burch, is incredibly relatable and is yet another great role for the esteemed voice actress. I got my first successful run after about three hours of playtime, which depending on what kind of player you are could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, though personally it felt a tad too short to me. Overall The Red Lantern is worth your time if you have an interest in the outdoors, a lust for adventure in the unknown, or just want to pet some fluffy sled dogs.