Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
April 28, 2023
Chorus Worldwide Games
LCB Game Studio
There’s something magical about narratives that focus on a group of teenagers embarking on several weeks of summer holidays. Expectations are high, the sun is ever present and warm, the air is rife with the possibility for adventure. Varney Lake, the new narrative game that is the follow-up to 22s’ Mothmen 1966, features three teenagers’ experiences during the summer of 1954. A shroud of innocence hangs over the heads of the three protagonists, Jimmy, Christine and Doug, as they spend their summer days thinking of ways to buy the abandoned drive-in theatre and trying to dodge the town’s bully. However, when they save the life of the vampire Liszt, their lives are propelled into a series of mysterious and gloomy events.
Mothmen and Varney Lake are part of a three game series that developers LCB Game Studio have dubbed “Pixel Pulp.” Each game follows paranormal investigator Lou Hill through three different cases. Varney Lake includes Hill in flashforward scenes from the Autumn of 1981, where he meets the now adult Christine and Jimmy in a diner to discuss the events of their last summer at at the titular location. The story is arranged into different chapters that are either set in the world of 1954 or the rainy noir world of 1981, with each chapter is also seen from Lou, Christine or Jimmy’s point of view. The narrative slowly pieces together throughout the gameplay with the main focus being on what actually occurred that summer and why Hill is so interested in the events that took place.
With the game only taking around two hours to complete, there is only so much a narrative can do to truly bring you into its world. The game’s dubbed genre, “Pixel Pulp” is referencing Pulp Fiction, not the popular movie but the colorful, bombastic, fast-paced magazines popular in the 1920s-1950s in the US. Though the game’s narrative does set itself up to be exciting with whispers of evolving character arcs, snappy dialogue and twists and turns, the narrative decisions it makes means it falls flat on a lot of story elements.
This is mainly because it doesn’t use its two hours wisely. For example, the game spends a few minutes having the three teens walk across a bridge. It’s an okay scene, which you get to control elements of, but those few minutes could have been used to create something that gave more of a glimpse into the history of the character’s friendships. More time was needed to flesh out their connection and also, the setting of Varney Lake itself. I thought that, due to the game’s name, the setting would be an additional character and that we would be provided with more about the area and its relationship to the teens. Instead Varney Lake is more of a backdrop, which is a shame as it held a lot of possibilities for further integration with other elements of the game.
What also had protentional were the mini games included. It was fun and charming to see the games that nerdy Doug had invented, but it quickly became frustrating when I was unable to work out how to play them. The instructions were quickly stated and not in a way that was easy to understand. Clunky gameplay was then presented that seemed to be more complicated than it needed to be. There was no way of going back and hearing the instructions again either so I had to try my best to work out what the game wanted me to do.
“Varney Lake reminds me of the graphics found in home computer games I used to play as a kid…”
What it lacks in gameplay and narrative however, it makes up for in the way it looks and sounds. Varney Lake reminds me of the graphics found in home computer games I used to play as a kid, with the warm and striking greenie blue colour palette, the appearing text along the screen and your mouse click controlling the pace of the narrative and the artwork. There’s something that makes me feel safe in the presence of these games. Maybe because they remind me of a time before the popularity of hyper-realistic graphics, before the internet, before socials.
It was also the time before voice acting was the norm and therefore the developers had to rely on the electronic beeps and bops that they could make to conjure up what the game’s world sounded like. LCB Game Studio employs the use of sound in a fun, sometimes cheeky manner that brings some light moments to a game that is quite serious in tone. The sound of the text typing across the screen, the shifting noises during the mini games and sound effects the characters make are endearing and adds to the overall 80s vintage vibes that it’s striving for. Although it doesn’t achieve much in way of narrative excitement, the look of the game and the atmosphere it creates due to its stunning art style makes it one I would recommend for those who love pixel art.
- Pixel art truly scratches the nostalgia itch and looks amazing
- Audio really captures the 80s retro vibes
- Mini game mechanics aren't explained well enough and are clanky
- Story doesn't really go anywhere
- Character development is lacking
- The world of Varney Lake doesn't provide enough magic
Varney Lake tries to be a compelling thriller that obviously wants to keep its players guessing. The narrative lacked in its ability to keep me entertained and wanting to know what actually happened during that summer. What kept me interested was the way it looked, sounded and made me feel. It pulls off the “pixel” elements but very much fails to live up to the exciting, suspenseful narrative of the pulp fiction genre. If you’re into game and audio design, or love the pixel artstyle , you may be able to forgive this, but if you’re looking for a narrative that will have you clicking your mouse for more, best look elsewhere.