If I wanted to suddenly drop everything and start a new life off-the-grid, my ideal destination would not be the freezing cold dangers of the Alaskan wilderness. But the main protagonist in The Red Lantern (opens in new tab) feels a little differently. She's set on starting a new life in the icy tundra, hunting for food and living off the land with her five adorable sled dogs.
A reclusive life with plenty of puppers is starting to sound like an idea I can get on-board with, but the trip to her new cabin is a treacherous one and unfortunately, not everything goes to plan.
It might not look like it from the cute dogs and pretty screenshots, but you'll be dying a lot in The Red Lantern. It's a narrative adventure combined with a rogue-lite, and you'll be fending off whatever the Alaskan bush throws at you in an attempt at survival. Each run has a number of encounters where you'll need to select a decision from a group of actions, the outcome affecting your valuable resources.
Encounters can be anything from investigating an abandoned cabin to fending off a vicious bear attack, and when you're not fighting for your life or taking care of your five dogs, you'll need to balance hunger, sleep, and health to survive.
It sounds pretty brutal, but not all the encounters in The Red Lantern are life or death scenarios. There are plenty of opportunities to just enjoy the beauty of being in nature. Instead of reaching for your rifle when you spot a group of deer, you have the choice to quietly watch them instead. More often than not you won't have that luxury, but these moments act as a peaceful break in a treacherous journey. It's also a very pretty game, and you'll often be sledging through pink sunsets or gorgeous white snowscapes.
If you do find yourself in a bit of a pickle and end up meeting an unforgiving end, you'll begin at the start of the run from the comfort of your van, the protagonist waking up as if her previous journey was a nightmare. Runs in The Red Lantern get easier each time, as the protagonist will begin her journey with the special items from her previous ones, the game playing out like she had a vision and then remembered to pack it. It's a creative way to help cool the frustration of starting again.
The Red Lantern's rogue-lite elements mean that there are situations that lead to consequences for your dogs, but for those worried about the fate of their sled team, developers Timberline Studios have included a toggle option where you can turn off death for your dogs.
The Red Lantern's expeditions are a great balance of beautiful and treacherous, but the best feature by far are the dogs—and they are such good dogs. You handpick your team from a pool of adoptions at the beginning of the game, and each pup has its own personality. Some dogs love being in the snow, others have a great sense of smell, and some are just giant sweethearts.
Choosing a capable dog team is important as it affects your runs, so choosing a big dog like Bodega who loves snacking might seem counter-intuitive in a survival situation, but I couldn't pass up on those big eyes and fluffy coat.
Getting to know your companions is one of the best parts of the game, and seeing them begin to trust you over the course of a run is the best. My heart completely melted when Finn, a super shy puppy, started sleeping with my bobble hat because she felt comforted by the smell. Every time you set up camp you can spend some time giving each dog the ear ruffles and cuddles they deserve, and it's a chance to make sure each pup is well fed and bandage their injuries.
I've yet to complete the treacherous journey in The Red Lantern, but the game's branching paths, helpful progression, and loveable companions keep me returning to the icy Alaskan wastelands for one more shot.