As a young baby gamer, I flocked toward anything game-y I could get my hands on. Simple handheld Tiger Electronics games, shows on TV that prompted any amount of interaction, and the thing I gravitated toward the most... choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) books.
If reading a traditional book is the equivalent of watching a movie unfold in your brain, reading a choose-your-own-adventure book is playing a video game.
While people have always proposed visual novels to be the video game equivalent of those books, I've never quite found a game that captured the choose-your-own-adventure vibes. The feeling of sitting in the back of the classroom, flipping through the pages of the exclusive new Goosebumps CYOA, and feeling the actual goosebumps of narrowly getting the heroes out of a dangerous situation.
And just as I thought my journey may never be fulfilled, I flipped a page and found Varney Lake, the latest in LCB Game Studio's Pixel Pulp series, waiting for me on the other side.
Just the Facts
Developer: LCB Game Studio
Publisher: Chorus Worldwide Games
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on
Release Date: April 28, 2023
Review key provided by Stride PR.
Varney Lake is the second entry in the Pixel Pulps series from LCB Game Studio, a two-person team with the right credentials to make their dream of a pulp fiction game series a reality. Made up of novelist Nico Saraintaris and artist Fernando Martinez Ruppel, LCB Game Studio's brand of storytelling is lightweight in all the right ways.
That same mentality bleeds into their design philosophy for the Pixel Pulps series. They opt for a brisk 1-2 hour runtime for each new entry and an old-school 1980s PC game aesthetic that completely embraces the technical limitations of the era.
The Pixel Pulps world is one where cryptids walk amongst humans and it's not an entirely mind-shattering experience to run into one. Books are written about these entities, kids spend summers with them, and there's even mention of "The Great Cryptid Wars." It's a compelling setting, one ripe for fun storytelling potential. And Varney Lake wastes no time spotlighting that fact.
It tells a story that lands somewhere between a Stephen King novella, those beloved Goosebumps books, and an X-Files episode.
It's 1954. Setting: Middle of nowhere. Three teens, Jimmy, Christine, and Doug, make up the Only Child Club. With nothing to do, they lay out three simple goals for their summer: Raise $100 to buy a drive-in movie theater, catch the elusive Albino Tarpon down at the lake, and share a moment of friendship cohesion by seeing Mount Rushmore in the clouds together.
Their dreams get a fairly swift kick in the pants early on, though, as an encounter with a real-life vampire upends their entire summer, even if they don't realize it right away.
Nearly thirty years later, an over-the-hill author named Lou has tracked down Jimmy and Christine — now fully grown and forever changed by what happened that summer — to tell their story and use their information to help fill out a deeper conspiracy about a vampire community that has sprung up in the area.
Varney Lake's narrative jumps between the 1950s and 1980s as its story unfolds, building the tension of what happened between these kids and the vampire beautifully as each new flashback fills out their world, but knowingly crawls toward some horrifying crescendo that neither Jimmy nor Christine seems ready to face.
While Varney Lake is focused on the summer these kids shared, Lou's story seems to be the framing web for the entire Pixel Pulps series. His books and investigations serve as the basis of each new entry and tie together the series.
So, each new story in the Pixel Pulps series is simultaneously standalone and interconnected, as a greater mystery builds out around these short pieces of horror, and an ever-growing cast of monsters forms. The first game, Mothmen 1966, introduces — yep, you guessed it. This one's got the vampires covered. The next looks to tackle perhaps the greatest beast of all: religious cults.
I'm glad to report that hopping in wherever you can works beautifully here, as Saraintaris's writing gives you just enough exposition to feel like you know what's going on, but you are never overwhelmed. The writing is tight even as it delivers suspense.
Above all, it's approachable in the same way as any of their inspirations are — pulpy dime store novels, or, to my mind, Goosebumps. The narrative centers around relatable and grounded characters and their genuine reactions to the horrors unfolding around them. It's nostalgic and charming in its focus on kids who were more worried about building up the courage to talk to a girl than the vampire standing in front of them with fangs deep in a deer.
Let's be clear, though: While we're making comparisons to Goosebumps, the tone is definitely less "creepy clowns chuckle while you try to escape your evil principal's clutches" and more "a fucking monster leaves you scarred for life as you reckon with the mistakes of your childhood... but also a goat man is hanging out."
It's dark, still a bit goofy, but definitely not childish.
Varney Lake's story is familiar in a deeply comforting way. With its CGA graphics, limited color palette, and pin-prick soundtrack of beeps and boops, it feels like some strange '80s PC game you'd find on your uncle's office computer. Like the weird game you never heard of, found hidden on some cursed floppy disc hidden in a dusty box in the basement. Basically, the kind of thing a future Pixel Pulps game would be about.
The audiovisual experience is harsh at times, but so deeply respected in its authenticity. The game presents simply, with one key image for each scene occupying the middle of the screen and simple lines of text popping up underneath as you go.
Character portraits, both for who's in control at the time and who's talking, are the only other visuals against a black void. It helps you tunnel in on what's there and makes the simple pixel art incredibly effective.
The layered shading and perspective, communicated through a limited color palette, truly showcases the depths of Ruppel's artistic talent.
At times, it can be a lot to look at or hear — shrill is the adjective that comes to mind as a descriptor for some of the game's sights and sounds — but it's hard to discredit the talent needed to make these limitations work in favor of a story-focused thriller game. And shrill definitely helps when you're looking to unnerve your audience. Most of the actual playing experience is exactly what you'd expect from visual novel fare: Light dialogue decision-making and a few fun little minigames.
The efforts of the artists at LCB Game Studio made Varney Lake simultaneously thrive in spite of and because of its limitations.
One of the things that actually disappointed me a bit in Varney Lake's brand of visual novel is its genuine illusion of choice. No matter what you do, the only thing you really have a hand in changing is what the kids spend their summer doing, something that has no real branching effect on the larger narrative. And with a slightly wonky pace, featuring 10+ chapter breaks across the light 1-2 hour runtime, you'd hope there was a bit more going on behind the scenes.
After playing through a handful of times to attempt to see all the minigames the game has to offer, something made easy by the game's fast-forward tools, I only saw tiny changes in the overall run-through. The game might have felt a bit more involved had it fully embraced the CYOA experience — making decisions a minefield that could end your run but ultimately let you hop right back into the adventure.
Instead, you're treated to a fairly straightforward experience with some decisions adding one or two unique scenes to the overall adventure.
Where choice fails, a good minigame will always prevail. Especially fishin'. A game's always good if it lets you go fishin'.
Varney Lake's minigames are basic but presented in an interesting way. As the kids try to accomplish their goals for the summer, you'll be treated to one of a few different minigames, depending on what you focus on for each route. You've got a unique game of solitaire, classic matchstick puzzles — "you can only move two match sticks to make four squares!" — an interesting little game of dice, a timing-based cloud gazing game, and the beautiful aforementioned fishing.
Since the game emulates the early heyday of PC gaming, everything is controlled via menus. Pick up a matchstick and hit menu options to move it left one spot at a time. Hit a menu option to put your line out for fish, wait for the sign of a bite, and hit another button to start reeling it in. When it aligns just right above you, call out the shape you see in the sky from a list of items in a menu. It's weird how enjoyable these minigames were despite the frustrating self-inflicted limitations.
My favorite of the bunch was the Dice Race minigame, something Doug makes up to make money off of kids hanging around the general store. It's about sliding a die around a rectangle grid, trying to pick up a pebble and get to the finish line before your opponent. You can only pick up said pebble or leave the race if a particular number is facing up on your die. For such an active time-driven minigame, overcoming the challenge of only being to manipulate the die via a menu is more fun than expected.
And that's a great note about the experience on the whole.
With all the modern innovations we've made in gaming and storytelling, to imagine going back to PC gaming in the '80s — an era defined by games shoehorning themselves onto devices made for anything other than gaming — made me initially hesitant. But the efforts of the artists at LCB Game Studio made Varney Lake simultaneously thrive in spite of and because of its limitations.
The Pixel Pulps series is one to keep an eye on. I can't wait to see this world filled out and certainly wouldn't say no to more installments. If you're looking for some new ways to get your chills and enjoy dabbling in nostalgic pulpy horror, don't skip Varney Lake.