There’s Snowplace Like Home
HIGH Petting! All! The! doggos!
LOW Dying of starvation twice in a row, with no hope of collecting food.
WTF Getting the sled stuck in an infinite loop.
For many who grew up in the ‘80s, memories of playing The Oregon Trail rank among the classic moments of childhood gaming. The educational title by MECC saw the player moving one’s family on a caravan through the United States in the 19th century, balancing resources and (mostly) trying to keep everyone from dying of dysentery. The Red Lantern aims for a similar experience, only, this time, in Alaska.
Timberline Studio describes their work with words like “rogue-lite” and “narrative driven”, which suggests that multiple runs are required to see everything, but also that story should be central.
Unfortunately, The Red Lantern doesn’t feature a rich or deep narrative, but rather a string of repetitive monologues that the main character, voiced by Ashly Burch, repeats to herself to keep a grip on her sanity. She – an unnamed “musher” – is on a trip through Alaska to reach a friend’s cabin, and to maybe find a better life. It is a realtime expedition played in a first person perspective.
The player can pick out their dogs before departing for Alaska: , and each one has a different personality and skills which will – sometimes – affect encounters and random events. Once a team is chosen, the core gameplay is letting the sled run its course automatically while, waiting for something to happen and going choosing HAW! or GEE! to make the dogs turn left or right.
Unfortunately, The Red Lantern stumbles where a good roguelike needs to succeed by causing the player to fail most of their runs through no fault of their own.
A main challenge for the player will be finding enough food to feed themselves and the team of sled dogs, but achieving perfect shots while hunting moose or rabbits doesn’t guarantee the musher will actually get food. Realistic? Sure, but it does not translate into an entertaining experience for the player. Missing what looked like a perfectly aligned shot, with a limited number of bullets, means probably starving to death in a matter of minutes. Again, through no fault of the player.
Another key aspect in good roguelikes is the ability to keep multiple runs fresh by randomizing elements or offering unlocks as a player progresses. Sadly, multiple runs don’t seem to offer much, which makes calling it a “rogue-lite” a bit misleading. If a run is unsuccessful, the musher will ‘wake up’ from a nightmare and decide to bring more and better supplies the next time. So, the early runs suggest that she was planning to take a trip through the frozen Alaska wilderness with minimal food reserves, and not even a lighter or an ax, even though they were already in her van? It doesn’t make much sense.
While The Red Lantern’s design seems to be malfunctional, at least the Alaskian landscape looks pretty impressive. One would wish to be able to pause in order to admire the beautiful sunsets and dawns, but the game as a whole doesn’t really seem to be designed to let the player admire the surroundings. I also wished Timberline would have let the player freely explore the icily beautiful Alaskan locations, but alas, it is not possible to pause and drive the sled freely around the wilderness.
In addition to the issues I had with its design, The Red Lantern is also plagued by technical problems. Before being notified of the 1.06 patch, my sled got infinitely stuck in a loop once, just a couple of minutes away from my final destination. Since installing the 1.06 patch, the loop didn’t happen again, but new problems cropped up like the volume randomly being lowered to 0. Graphical issues also abound, with textures clipping through one another and dogs having strange distortions on their faces.
I hoped The Red Lantern would grow on me with subsequent playthroughs, but, unfortunately the opposite was true due to the technical problems, design issues and repetitive dialogue. Those looking for a trip through Alaska or wanting to revisit bittersweet memories of traveling to Oregon, might want to check it out, but anyone on the hunt for a narrative-driven roguelite should skip it.
— Damiano Gerli
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Timberline Studio. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on Switch. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: The game is rated T for Teen by the ESRB for Language and Violence. This is pretty mild stuff overall. The player might shoot an animal for food (if they’re lucky) and there’s an option in the menu to prevent any of the dogs from dying for any reason.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is subtitled but the subtitles are quite small and not resizeable. (See examples above.)
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. Most actions are performed with the use of the A and B buttons, occasionally firing the rifle with the ZR button. The left and right stick are only used to look around.
Years later, he got the idea that he was the most Sega-knowledgeable person in the world, so he opened a website in 1997, The Genesis Temple.
He's a sucker for great stories in gaming, he loves adventure and indie titles, but he never shies away from action and triple-A RPGs.
Damiano's been writing about videogames for 20 years, with no plans to stop. Say hi to him on Twitter at @damgentemp, or on his blog https://genesistemple.com (now dedicated to the history of video game design).