The Alaska Trail
There was a brief moment in my childhood when I was obsessed with the Iditarod. The appeal of this type of competition, just a guy and his dogs traveling through the snowy wilderness of Alaska, appealed to a younger version of me. My obsession with it caused Iron Will to find its way into my family's VCR almost every week.
Like most things I loved growing up, the call of nature eventually stopped talking to me. I moved past childish notions of becoming a world-class dog sled racer and set myself more realistic goals, like becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. I had even forgotten how often I watched this movie in the 90s until a little The Red Lantern trailer popped up on my YouTube feed and reminded me that, oh yeah, I'm still a bit obsessed with it.
La lanterne rouge (Nintendo Switch [reviewed], PC)
Developer: Timberline Studio
Publisher: Timberline Studio
Released: October 22, 2022
MSRP: $ 24,99
If you've read Timberline Studio's description of The Red Lantern as a "story-driven, rogue, survival game" and aren't quite sure what they mean by that, they say basically it's The Oregon Trail but in Alaska. Players take on the role of the unnamed Musher who begins his new life in the scenic wilderness of the 49th US state after failing to find his purpose in San Francisco. Her dog Chomper and four other dogs that you choose to guide her to her new home will join her in this quest for discovery.
The Yukon wilderness is not kind to an unprepared newcomer, so choosing the right dogs can mean the difference between arriving at your destination safely or starving to become food for the wolves. As you meet each dog and accept or reject them on your team, you will get a good idea of how they will help you on your journey. Some dogs are good trackers, some are big and intimidating, and some have powerful noses that pick up elusive scents. Each dog has its advantages, but you will also discover disadvantages, depending on the random events you encounter during your journey.
Like The Oregon Trail, The Red Lantern is a largely passive experience. The Musher will monologize his thoughts and feelings about this sudden change in his life as the dogs lead the sled along randomly generated paths. Player input is only required to choose to go left or right at a road junction, enter an event or encounter, or tend to your dogs and Musher each time you install the camp. For everything else, you can just sit back and enjoy the beautiful scenery that Timberline Studio has designed.
Your first attempts in the wild will ultimately result in failure, except for those who pull the luckiest random encounters from the start. Failure is rooted in the heart of the experience as each failed execution is a daydream in the Musher's mind. Her experiences in these dreams will change the way she packs for her next errand. So if you find an ax in the wild on a failed run, it's sure to pack an ax at the start of the next one. It dawned on me an hour into my trip to her new home that she had everything she needed to be successful in her van. She is incredibly ignorant and unprepared for the realities she is about to face.
There are many ways to die in the wild, but the most common death during my attempts was starvation. The Musher and her dogs each start with half-full stomachs, but each time your dogs pass a point marker, they drop a notch on their hunger meter. The same thing happens to the Musher whenever she engages in a random encounter. Food tends to go fast when dining at camp, so constant hunting is a necessity here. You might not like shooting a deer in the face when he's blissfully unaware of his fate, but you have to do it to survive. But don't worry, the Musher will make you feel terrible about it.
One thing I was looking for in The Red Lantern was moments of silent introspection as I glided along the snowy paths before me. But calm isn't really in Musher's vocabulary. She talks a lot: to herself, to the dogs, to the animals she meets. And while Ashly Burch does a great job of pouring emotion into the Musher's lyrics, around the fourth or fifth time I hear the same lines at camp, the same worried monologue halfway through the trip, and the same comments. about how this hole in the ice would make a great place for fishing (if I only brought a rod), I just want her to stop talking and admire the beauty of her new home. Landscapes, surprisingly, are something she never really talks about in all of her personal conversations. More variety in what she has to say would make each subsequent performance a little more enjoyable.
The game could also use a few tweaks to the way it plays out. Each leg of the journey, labeled at the start and end with a point marker, is randomly generated. Some of those legs are quite long, especially if the Musher has a lot of dialogue she needs to get out. Others are short, so short you can complete a random event, get back on his sled, and before the dogs even have a chance to reach full speed, reach the end of the leg and set up camp. We're talking seconds here, and that type of wham-bam-thank-you-madam rhythm undermines the deeper nature of its journey.
Even when my descents seem ephemeral to me, I enjoy hitting the trails again and again. There are a lot of events to see and different outcomes depending on the choices you make. There are also different results depending on the dogs on your team. An example I have come across is the attack of the wolf. With my original team, every time I encountered this wolf in the wild, it would attack the Musher, leaving her injured and in need of bandages at the next camp stop. But on my second save file that had a different set of dogs, one of the pups came to the Musher's rescue when the wolf jumped in his way. This alone is enough to allow me to have multiple save files, something I rarely do with any of my games.
It's always relaxing when a video game can connect me with the experiences of my youth, and The Red Lantern does just that. It can be mind-blowing at times, and it can also be pretty mundane, but Musher's journey to his new home has enough beauty, adventure, and lovable dogs that I just don't want to stop petting that every trip to worth it.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]