A visit to a local vacation spot goes awry for a group of friends in Varney Lake, a game that brings the adventure genre back in time. Way back.
That old familiar feeling
Retro-style gaming is becoming an increasingly voluminous sub-genre. Many games today see release that imitate the style of titles from the late 80s to early-2000s. Of course that’s done by various means like filters, use of polygons to build characters (rather than render them as an independent object), and so on.
Varney Lake, developed by LCB game studio, takes its devotion to the past to the extreme. It provides a game that emulates well its inspirations in the form of a late 80s/extremely early 90s, pre-CD ROM game. That, and with more than a bit of Choose Your Own Adventure books thrown in.
Even if the result does feel a touch uneven, it’s an intriguing idea.
A tale with fangs
Varney Lake follows two narrative strands. The first centers on the summer of 1954, in the titular lakeside town, and follows Jimmy, his friend (on whom he has a very unsubtle crush) Christine, and Christine’s younger cousin Doug.
They’re spending their summer in a Stranger Things-esque group calling themselves ‘The Only Child Club,’ whiling away their summer both humouring Doug’s efforts to invent new games, and fixating on their quixotic goal of buying the local drive-in movie theatre. After rescuing a vampire from certain death, the group now finds itself with a new opportunity (for ill or for good).
Then there’s the time-jump. Picking up twenty-seven years later, Jimmy and Christine recount this story to Lou, a down on his luck paranormal investigator. And apparently, he may have some information about what happened to Doug after that strange summer…
The characters are sharply written and deep. This is the area the game excels at, because if the story or characters were thin and uninteresting the narrative would collapse. I did want to find out what would happen to them, and discover if there was any way to prevent them from their worst fates.
There’s retro, and then there’s retro
Visually, Varney Lake strongly imitates the limited colour palette and simple visuals (in addition to the simplistic audio effects) of an Apple II, or really any of the galaxy of home microcomputers of decades ago. You get blue, green, purple, and yellow, and that’s it.
In addition, the game also affords dramatically simplified controls. You won’t be guiding your characters through the world, as much as making choices from a list of possibilities. This should serve as a reminder that the visual novels of today rely on techniques considerably older than younger players might think (and that the much maligned ‘walking simulator’ would have been a breath of fresh air to gamers who spent their playtime up until then restricted to one menu after another).
Missing: gameplay. Maybe
I must confess that the game’s commitment to anachronistic fidelity does mean that the minigames that comprise much of the character-based gameplay suffers. Rather than offering direct feedback, like a game of today, Varney Lake forces players to make every move in a more stilted fashion, one after another.
When it comes to games like Doug’s variation of solitaire, that’s not so bad. In rhythm-based sections though, it can become frustrating to keep selecting the ‘move up’ or ‘move down’ buttons in time. The devotion to conceit undermines the gameplay experience.
And where that’s concerned, Varney Lake is structured like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, with different outcomes based on your choices. I found that restricts the experience somewhat, meaning that you can railroad yourself into the same outcome over and over again. Admittedly, that does make you want to go back and re-experience the game, but knowing which choices are important and which are not is more opaque than it needs to be.
Even with the added challenge and motivation of trying to make the best choices, at times I did wonder if the meat of the game was being hidden from me. You can’t bury the treasure ten feet deep and then wonder why nobody can find it.
Unlike the novels that inspired Varney Lake, there’s no way of cheating by skipping ahead and finding out what the best path is.
All things considered, Varney Lake is a fascinating throwback to actual retro gaming. Nothing is being grafted into an early mode of play, like a de-make, but a revival of a type of game that arguably went extinct over thirty years ago. You’re being asked to adjust to its style of gaming, true, but that just might reward the intrepid as much as intrigue the nostalgic.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for this review
Release Date: April 28th, 2023
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), PS5, Xbox One, Switch, and PC
Publisher: Chorus Worldwide
Developer: LCB Game Studio
MSRP: $9.99 USD
Echos of an era long-gone
Premise - 75%
Presentation - 77%
Gameplay - 60%
Varney Lake is a standout in the realm of the throwback game, as it's much more 'retro' than most. It is a true recreation of a title from a genre that was a kind of precursor to the adventure games that most PC gamers in particular know well. While it's pretty neat in its own right, that nonetheless might be a turn-off for some. Varney Lake's well done presentation, gives way to primitive gameplay that just doesn't feel weighty enough in the present age. If you're into classic gaming, especially PC gaming, then you might want to give it a chance. If not though, you might be better off not dipping your toe in this Lake's retro-waters.