Varney Lake Review

Kids today are spoiled by incredible graphics, fast response times, great resolution and online play, whereas a lot of us who still game grew up with much more antiquated set-ups. In fact, many of us came of age during the Atari, NES and/or Super Nintendo generations, and spent many hours playing a lot of great 8, 16 and so-on bit games.

Thanks to indie developers, it’s possible to relive those days. Not through remakes, but through new games that are retro inspired. This trend began during the Xbox Live Arcade era, but has continued on through today’s Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, not to mention the eShop on Nintendo’s hardware. We’re talking games like Varney Lake, which harkens back to a much simpler time and wears that homage on its proverbial sleeve.

Coming to us from the same folks who developed Mothmen 1966, Varney Lake is an old-school game that isn’t point-and-click but also isn’t far off. It’s mostly dialogue driven, asking players to choose their actions wisely before pressing the A button on their chosen line of text. There’s also a lot to read as a result, because there’s nothing in the way of voice acting. It’s mostly just chiptunes, retro visuals and text.

This predominantly text-based adventure is set in the fictional region of Varney Lake in Anywhere, USA. There, three kids (ages 12, 13 and 15) have come together for another endless summer of fun. There’s two boys and one boy’s cousin, the latter of whom his friend has a crush on. They’re just having fun, avoiding bullies and trying to fill their days. Of course, this is the mid-50s, meaning that they’re outside and doing things as opposed to indoors. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a homebody. It’s just the way things were, as most kids played outside a lot back then.

The trio’s options include going to the general store, which is close to an asphalt playground on which kids play games, bet and sometimes do other things they’re not supposed to. They can also fish, which is prevalent in this game, play cards or go and stare at the clouds with hopes of seeing Mount Rushmore in the sky. In fact, this particular threesome has a bucket list. First, they want to collect $100 so that they can buy the local drive-in before they turn 18. Secondly, they’d like to catch a special fish. Then, lastly, their hope is to see Mount Rushmore in the sky. All things that are easier said than done, of course.

As players, we can help them achieve their goals by playing games for money, fishing in the local pond and looking at the clouds, although you’ll have to be really lucky if you hope to complete most of the bucket list. I have yet to over two play throughs. I did fish a ton, though, and caught some interesting things – like a fedora – but not the fabled, special fish. I also stared at clouds for quite some time. Needless to say, I seemingly did most of what this game offers, although I somehow missed its matchbox puzzles; perhaps due to the choices I made. Even though I changed things up the second time around, I also got the same bonus sequence after the ending credits.

In Varney Lake, fishing is handled by a meter-based system, in which pressing A will create bars within the vertical meter. The ever changing legend on the side will tell you which colour (green, white or red) will help you reel in a fish and which colour will hurt your chances, leading to a loss of it. You’ll need to keep an eye on this and be strategic, but it’s not too difficult, nor is hooking a fish to begin with.

There are a couple of other games to be played, both of which were created by one of the boys. The first is a Solitaire variant where you try to make a hand of 10 from the provided cards, while the first suit you pull up adds to your total and the opposite one detracts from it. It’s joined by a variant of hopscotch, which features racing, rolling dice and collecting pebbles. Getting good at these will help you do well in Varney Lake, and will also help to unlock trophies and achievements if they’re your thing.

After all of this, I still haven’t gotten to the horror at the heart of this game. Sorry about that.

You see, while they’re out exploring one day, the trio comes across a strange old man in a barn who’s hiding from the sun. You know where this is going, but I’ll still spell it out: He’s a vampire who’s trying to avoid being burned to a crisp, and when the kids help him he feels in their debt. What results is an interesting and kind of heartwarming, but also somewhat dark and disturbing, story in which the vampire tries to become part of the group. That’s all I’ll say.

Fast forward to some of the scenes that take place in the 80s, and you’ll embody someone different who’s asking them questions about meeting said bloodsucker. That man is writing a book, and he wants to learn more about it. He’s got secrets of his own, as well.

As you may have noticed, I wasn’t crazy about Mothmen 1966. I wanted to enjoy it more than I did, but respected the developers’ choices and efforts. There were simply things that held it back and kind of annoyed me when it came to the design of that game. Thankfully, Varney Lake is a pretty big improvement in all areas, and is easily my favourite of the two. It’s dated – by choice – and full of text, but it’s an interesting return to yesteryear that certain gamers should enjoy. Please recognize, though, that this is a niche title.

As mentioned above, the presentation is pretty basic. The action is shown in very dated and blocky graphics, which depict still images with slight movements, kind of like animated comics. The box doesn’t fill the screen, and nor does the text underneath. You simply pick and choose from dialogue and text options in order to proceed. Thus, some will find it boring; especially those who like fast-paced and competitive games. Older adults should enjoy it though, provided they’re fine with something different and retro.

Varney Lake is a definite improvement over its predecessor, and we look forward to seeing what this team has in store for its third effort.

This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.

Varney Lake is a nice trip down memory lane, which is reminiscent of days gone by, as well as Stephen King's IT. Check it out if you're in the mood for something different and a whole lot retro!
Reader Rating0 Votes
The Good Stuff
Stylishly retro, and it works
A better game than its predecessor, all around
Has more character and a more memorable story than its peer, and is easier to play
The Not-So-Good Stuff
Some of the new games can be challenging and a bit frustrating
It can be a tad finnicky
This is obviously a niche game made for a certain type of seasoned and mature gamer