Five minutes into The Red Lantern and you face an impossible choice, one that threatens to leave serious emotional scars. You have to choose the four dogs you want for your sled team, and there are more good boys and girls than you have room for. Are you trying your luck with an older dog? Risk giving a roof to the one who seems the most distant? Worse still, you stop at various potential adoptive homes on a road trip, so reject one and you won’t change your mind.
This should have been my first clue that The Red Lantern had the potential to destroy my psychological well-being. You play as a character called The Musher, determined to start a new life driving dogsleds in Alaska with your beloved dog Chomper and a group of new canine companions. After building your team of five dogs, it’s up to you to bond with them, nurture them and protect them, while traversing an unforgiving snowy landscape. It’s less of a racing game where you take sharp turns in your sled, and more about storytelling. Situations arise at different stages of the journey, and it’s up to you how you handle them.
It may be a caribou coming your way, do you want to admire it or hunt it? Hunting it could provide much-needed food for your four-legged family of five, but there’s no guarantee a single bullet will take it down and ammo is scarce. This is Alaska, not Doom Eternal. You might miss those bullets when a wolf starts stalking you. Some dogs are excellent trackers – each has their own personality and skills that you’ll learn by traveling with them – and you can decide whether or not to let them follow their noses. Maybe it’ll get you a free meal, or maybe it’ll get you in trouble.
Moose burgers for six, please
Ultimately, the game is about managing your resources and your team of dogs, deciding whether to let them investigate, deciding which route you take, when to rest, and who needs care or food. The biggest danger you’ll face is starvation – you feel like The Musher wasn’t super prepared for the realities of life so far from an Uber Eats drop-off point – which adds tension to every decision. The dog’s energy meters – which can be replenished with food – decrease as you pass markers on the road, and if they reduce to nothing, it’s game over. You can stop and camp to rest whenever you want, which is also a chance to pet, talk, and try to earn your team’s trust, but not storing enough food means making the decision to know who can eat and who cannot eat. t. You know what I mean? Emotional torture for everyone except sociopaths and cats.
Me and my team, well, we’ve been a local Alaskan warning report more than once. It’s really trial and error and learning from mistakes. Developer Timberline Studios claims that there are over a hundred unique scenarios, the routes are randomly generated, so the different parts don’t feel repetitive. The different team personalities I chose also really changed the experience, so replays were never irritating. If I were in a philosophical mood, I could say that gaming has a lot to teach us in these strange times about isolation, perseverance, and comfort in the natural world, but maybe games about dogs really make you happy.
Don’t let the talk of wolves and famine make you think it’s darker than an HBO prestige series, there are some beautiful moments. The art style beautifully captures the Alaskan wilderness, and there are genre-bending wonders to stop and admire as your team explores. The Musher’s voice is provided by Ashley Burch, a tone my brain now instantly recognizes as that of a distant but beloved cousin after her work on Life Is Strange and The Outer Worlds. Besides the threat of imminent death, that’s enough to make you consider spending the rest of the lockdown researching thermal underwear and real estate prices in Alaska.
Luckily, the game also has an option in the settings called “Dogs Always Live”, so if you want to avoid having to call into work for compassionate leave, you’ve got it covered.
The Red Lantern is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.