Five minutes into The Red Lantern and you're facing an impossible choice, one that threatens to leave serious emotional scars. You have to pick the four dogs you want for your sledding team, and there are more good boys and girls than you have room for. Do you take a chance on an older dog? Risk giving a home to the one that seems more aloof? Worse, you're stopping at various potential adoptee homes on a road trip, so reject one and there's no changing your mind.
This should have been my first clue that The Red Lantern had the potential to nuke my psychological wellbeing. You play as a character called The Musher, determined to start a new life driving dogsleds in Alaska with your beloved pet pooch Chomper, and a bunch of new canine companions. After building your team of five dogs, it's up to you to bond with them, feed them, and protect them, as you make the journey across an unforgiving snowy landscape. This is less a racing game where you're taking tight corners in your sled, and more narrative-led. Situations pop up at different stages in the journey, and it's your call as to how you handle them.
Maybe it's a caribou charging into your path, do you want to admire it or hunt it? Hunting it could provide much-needed food for your four-legged family of five, but there's no guarantee that a single bullet will take it down, and ammunition is in short supply. This is Alaska, not Doom Eternal. You might miss those bullets when a wolf starts stalking you. Some dogs are great trackers - each one has its own personality and skills that you'll learn as you travel with them - and you can decide whether or not to let it follow its nose. Maybe it will get you a free meal, or maybe it will lead you into trouble.
Elk burgers for six, please
Ultimately the game is about managing your resources and your team of dogs, deciding whether to let them investigate, deciding which route you take, when to rest, and who needs healing or feeding. The biggest danger you'll face is starvation - you get the feeling The Musher wasn't super prepared for the realities of life so far from an Uber Eats dropoff point - which adds tension to every decision. The dog's energy meters - which can be refilled with food - drop as you pass markers on the route, and if they get down to nothing it's game over. You can stop and make camp to rest when you like, which is also a chance to pet, talk to and try and earn the trust of your team, but not stocking enough food means making the decision about who gets to eat and who doesn't. See what I mean? Emotional torture for everyone but sociopaths and cats.
Me and my team, well, we were a cautionary local Alaskan news report more than once. It's really trial and error and learning from mistakes. The developer Timberline Studios says there are over a hundred unique scenarios, routes are randomly generated and so different playthroughs didn't feel repetitive. The different personalities of the team I chose really changed the experience too, so replays never felt irritating. If I was in a philosophical mood I might say that the game has a lot to teach us in these weird times about isolation, perseverance, and finding comfort in the natural world, but maybe games about dogs just make me really happy.
Don't let the talk of wolves and starvation have you thinking this is bleaker than an HBO prestige series though, there are some beautiful moments. The art style beautifully captures the crisps Alaskan wilderness, and there are sights of gender wonder to stop and just gawk at as your team explores. The voice of the Musher is provided by Ashley Burch, a tone my brain now instantly recognizes like that of a distant but beloved cousin after her work on Life Is Strange and The Outer Worlds. Apart from the threat of imminent death, it's enough to make you consider spending the rest of lockdown researching thermal underwear and the price of Alaskan real estate.
Mercifully, the game also has an option in settings called "Dogs Always Live" so if you want to avoid having to call into work for compassionate leave you're covered.
The Red Lantern is available now on PC and Nintendo Switch.