The Red Lantern from Timberline Studio is a narrative survival game where you play as “the musher” — voiced by Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Life is Strange). You sled through the Alaskan bush with five of your husky companions. You must hunt, set up camp, and evade danger all while navigating the consistently changing frontier to find your way home.
The musher starts out with a van and her trusty husky, Chomper (from San Francisco). And she adopts four dogs along the way. It’s a survival game so you have to hunt for your food, rest, and feed your dogs and yourself. There are three meters that are shown as you are racing your dogs: their energy, the musher’s hunger, and her health. If the musher doesn’t feed herself, she can starve to death. Each time the musher or dogs “die,” you respawn back at her van where she has been imagining the “worst-case scenario” the entire time. It’s like the sequence of “this was all just a dream”.
The musher starts with a rifle, some meat, and camp equipment. As you progress through the game, you can acquire tree bark for fires, an ax, and other tools to help you survive the Alaskan wilderness.
Each dog that is a part of your sled team has different traits. Chomper is the leader of the pack and goes after anything in front of him. He can chase squirrels and birds and eat them for energy. Other dogs in the pack are scared of Caribou and large mammals.
There are several choices to make that impact your gameplay. You can choose to hunt anything you interact with (including squirrels, foxes, moose, caribou, and skunks) or you can choose to hunt large mammals for meat and leave the little ones alone. It can be something as simple as only hunting squirrels throughout the game. Any choice you make, you still have to hunt. Without meat for energy, you will die. The musher also has to protect her dogs. One of your dogs has the potential to die in the wilderness so be careful!
The Red Lantern is played in a first-person view and the dogs are controlled by commands “haw!” and “gee!” You don’t get to maneuver the sled dogs but the game slows down when the musher sees large mammals or other mysterious objects. You can choose to pursue them or not to pursue them. The graphics are great. As you ride throughout the Alaskan wilderness, the texture of the snow and trees come into view. The Northern Lights are visible at night too. They feel like part of your journey.
When you choose to set up camp, you have the option of cooking the meat you gathered or eating it raw. You can also rest for the day but you will lose fullness from not eating. The payoff is that the sled dogs will have more energy.
As I was playing The Red Lantern, I kept asking myself how I would handle these situations in the wilderness. I also noticed that I was taking care of the dogs more than the musher.
During my first playthrough at Pax East, I ended up starving the musher because I gave all of my food to the dogs. Lindsey Rostal, Timberline Studio’s Co-Founder and Narrative Designer, says she noticed a lot of players making the same decisions. It’s understandable. However, balancing the health of the dogs as well as the musher is pivotal to surviving the game.
The Red Lantern is essentially about finding yourself, which is something that I believe anyone can resonate with. The musher doesn’t have a name but I think that was intentional. You are putting yourself into the musher’s narrative and that makes the story more personal.
The best part about this game is that you get to pet the dogs.
The Red Lantern is coming to PC, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One sometime this year.