As the aurora borealis shimmers in the night sky above, you’re the only human for hundreds miles around, all alone but for the adorable pack of huskies protecting you on your journey. The Red Lantern is unlike anything else I’ve played this year, mixing the randomly generated elements of roguelites with more traditionally focused narrative beats on top of focus on survival. It’s a mix that works with spectacular effect, creating an emotional journey that gripped me from start to finish.
Right from the off, The Red Lantern tasks players with choosing their team of dogs to take on the journey through Alaska. There are eight dogs, all with very distinct looks and personalities. Those personalities change the way your journey plays out, as each dog reacts to the game’s random encounters in different ways. One dog may be aggressive, while another is nervous around specific animals. Keeping this in mind when choosing your team will improve your chances of making it through the harsh wilderness.
Day-to-day life in the Alaskan Bush is treacherous. At any point you can find yourself attacked by a bear, a moose, or even a wolverine. When the wildlife isn’t trying to kill you, you must balance hunger, sleep and your health. Players are equipped with a gun, although there is only a limited amount of ammo available per turn, so you have to manage your shots carefully. Shoot too often or too soon, and you will probably starve later on in your run as you find yourself unable to hunt.
Fortunately, The Red Lantern makes progress with each subsequent run easier by allowing players to carry over special items found in the world. With each death, progress is reset, the protagonist waking up as though they’ve had a nightmare about their Alaskan journey. Should you find a fishing rod, the protagonist will wake up and now remember that they need to pack a fishing rod for their journey. It’s a creative way of carrying progress across runs, one that fits both the gameplay and the narrative.
Throughout your journey, you will come across many random encounters. There are apparently close to 100 types of encounters to experience, although I probably saw around 40 of them during my time with the game. Anything from being attacked by a wolf to finding an abandoned house can happen during your journey and experiencing these encounters really is a lot of fun. It makes Alaska feel real and adds purpose to your journey. Rather than simply having you travel from A to B, you explore Alaska and live off it.
Between journeys, players can set up camps and rest with the dogs. It’s during this downtime that you feed them and yourself before getting some sleep and using a med pack should you or your pack be injured. If you spend too long travelling the wilds, you will end up tired which limits how much food you can eat, and should your or the dogs’ hunger bars deplete, you will find your run ending.
The Red Lantern is all about survival and managing your health, but I never felt like those systems got in the way. Great care has been taken to ensure the game is well-balanced, and it shows as I constantly wanted to just take one more run rather than turning in for the night.
The Red Lantern tells the tale of a young woman looking for something new in her life. With her past put behind her, she looks to start a new one in the Alaskan Bush, surrounded by her pack of loyal dogs. Voice actor Ashley Burch (best known as Aloy of Horizon Zero Dawn) voices the protagonist, lending her exceptional voice talent to the role and really bringing the character to life. I’d have liked to see a little more depth in the backstory, but the moment to moment interactions between you and the dogs are heartwarming.
In a year that’s completely changed the way we live, there’s an almost cathartic feeling while playing The Red Lantern. Much like the protagonist’s story, this is a year in which we’ve all faced unknown events and adapted to new careers or lifestyles. The Red Lantern offers something actual life can’t though, which is a light (literally) at the end of the tunnel.
Much like the dogs who run throughout Alaska, The Red Lantern looks and plays wonderfully. Each one of the dogs is filled with character thanks to their unique designs, and Alaska looks as unforgiving and glacial as I imagine it would be. The PC version has the benefit of offering a higher frame rate, so I could enjoy the game at a solid 144fps throughout.