Review by Paul Egolf
Inspired by narrative games, Timberline Studios debut effort is a marvelous addition to the Nintendo Switch. Players who bask in the recent influx of roguelike games are sure to enjoy this quaint, succinct one of a kind dog sled adventure. Throw caution to the wind and set out across the Alaskan wilderness, one ‘Haw!’ and ‘Gee!’ at a time.
The story of The Red Lantern is told through first person narration, leaning on strong voice acting that conveys a wide range of emotions. While traversing the snowy terrain, events and encounters of varying types bring the narrator’s voice center stage. This narration is a critical part of the story telling element and it accompanies the visual experience quite nicely.
The first order of business is browsing several dog kennels in search of adopting members to add to the team. Each dog has its own unique personality and once the team is together, the adventure begins with the player at the handle of the dog sled looking out into the distance. Through forests, clearings, over frozen lakes and streams, and between snow drifts the sled is effortlessly pulled. The first person point-of-view allows for a generous field of vision which enhances an environment that is beautifully crafted and carefully lit as the day turns into night. What a delight it is to look up and see the northern lights shimmering on the horizon of the clear night sky.
The Red Lantern’s core mechanic revolves around taking actions toward survival, relying on satisfying hunger and energy meters that deplete at regular intervals. This demands attention towards finding a balance between exploration and self preservation, and this can be accomplished in a number of interesting and challenging ways. Gathering resources, eating, and resting are regular activities that are required, and it’s always fun building a campfire, cooking some food, or feeding the dogs. Tutorials are brief, as the mechanics are really meant to be learned in-game. These tutorials, better described as simple instructions, are just enough to give the player a taste of what’s expected to succeed, which ensures that the introduction doesn’t wear out its welcome.
While sledding, markers indicate a fork in the trail and the choice of directing the dogs to the right or left is given. If a decision isn’t made in time, the dogs will make the decision of which way to go. As a path is set across the sun washed tundra, encounters occur leading to events of numerous kinds; Fishing and hunting opportunities, discovering some natural oddity, or finding a tool. During these encounters and the actions taken subsequently, the story is made real through narration and we get a glimpse into the mind and heart of the adventurer. These events occur frequently and do well to show character development. Encounters are encouraged and are a necessary and vital part of the game experience. Many choices are to be made and various ways to proceed present themselves when an encounter occurs.
A failed attempt in The Red Lantern is not a total loss but more of a step toward ultimately reaching the goal. In roguelite fashion, at each subsequent journeys’ start there is the benefit of a boost, with more on hand supplies and the addition of any previously discovered items. An emphasis on second chances and new starts is clear and the way this cyclical element is woven into the story is very clever. A feeling of encouragement is felt on each failed run, always resulting in a learning experience.
Progress is tracked via a journal that is accessible through the main menu. Throughout the journey, the journal is filled in with notes of encounters and thoughts of self reflection. This journal, like other narrative elements in The Red Lantern, has a sweet and heartfelt touch. Serving as a benchmark, the journal shows lists of completed achievements and those yet to be fulfilled, encouraging the player to make one more trek.
A very enjoyable soundtrack comes across as somber and melancholy, but with ever present glints of hope. It provides a comforting backdrop to the desperation and consequence of an environment where the natural order of things is to kill or be killed. No sense of urgency is felt in the music, and nothing induces tension or suspense. The pleasantly soft music is a perfect juxtaposition to the looming threat of an animal attack or the inevitable running out of food and starving to death.
Timberline Studios set out to make a narrative driven game and do so spectacularly. The story is told beautifully and the rewarding gameplay provides this fun roguelite with plenty of charm. The Red Lantern is a wonderfully immersive experience and one that will not be soon forgotten.
- Runs very well docked and in handheld mode
- Options for controller adjustments and difficulty setting
- One of a kind dog sled gaming experience
- Load time to boot up the game
- The occasionally confusing and out of context dialogue