Review: Varney Lake – Fangs For The Memories

Christine, Jimmy, and Doug are spending the summer of 1954 at the stunning Varney Lake. They’ll spend their days and nights fishing, watching the clouds, playing games, watching horror movies at the old drive-in, and…befriending a vampire? But all is not quite as it seems. In 1981, Lou, author and paranormal investigator, reaches out to the now-adult Jimmy and Christine to learn what truly happened that summer. This is Varney Lake, a heart-warming yet spine-chilling tale of unlikely friendships, memories both painful and sweet, and plenty of cheesy vampire puns.

Varney Lake is the second of the Pixel Pulps, a series of short visual novels developed by LCB Game Studio and published by Chorus Worldwide. It follows the 2022 release Mothman 1966, and features several returning characters from that game. All Pixel Pulps are inspired by a combination of classic horror film and fiction and the pixel art style of 1980s video games.

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Every scene with Liszt in it is a delight.

I previously played and reviewed Mothman 1966 and absolutely loved it, so I definitely had high hopes for Varney Lake – and it delivered! Varney Lake retains its predecessor’s fast-paced writing, unique aesthetics and generally creepy atmosphere and adds to it an even deeper and more fleshed-out story that features unique subversions of some of the tired, expected vampire tropes.

The central story of Varney Lake centers around friends Jimmy, Christine, and Doug and their growing bond with the vampire Liszt. The 1954 chapters were charming and genuine, with the dialog feeling true to how real kids would talk and tasks like catching a rare fish or seeing a cloud that looks like Mount Rushmore treated as epic quests. The 1981 segments had a darker, grimmer tone, dealing with the lingering aftershocks of the trio’s friendship with Liszt, and I felt that the two different tones balanced each other out quite well. I think the 1954 segments are particularly well-written – I loved the blend of heartwarming friendship with genuine horror. The focus on friends bonding while also delving deeper into the paranormal occurrences around them will probably endear many Stranger Things fans to this game. And that leads me into the absolute best thing about this game: Liszt.

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I love the “comic strip” like aesthetic of scenes like this.

Liszt is a fantastic character. He’s a centuries-old vampire who looks like a character from a black-and-white movie –  long dark hair, sallow face, glowing eyes – but he genuinely wants to befriend these kids and is so thankful to them for helping save him from sunlight at the beginning of Varney Lake. There’s something genuinely charming and likeable about the guy, from the Edward Gorey-esque horror stories he tells them to his attempt to connect with “the youth” by serving them (hopelessly flat, decades-old) soda. And his protectiveness towards the kids is the source of some of Varney Lake‘s most heart-warming moments. There are plenty of likeable characters in Varney Lake, but Liszt in particular is something special.

In addition to a compelling story, Varney Lake has some pretty fun gameplay. Although it’s a short game, with a full run-through clocking in at around two hours, there is still plenty of replay value in the form of achievements and Gallery images to unlock, repeatable puzzles, and secret scenes to view (and I do recommend getting those secret scenes – they are solid additions to the story that shed light on a few questions you may have after finishing the game). Varney Lake improved over its predecessor by having more tangible puzzle rewards in the form of the large image gallery, but I do still wish that there was a chapter select screen available after you finish the game; I don’t want to have to fill multiple save slots to have quick access to my favorite puzzles and mini-games!

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A fishing minigame that is actually a lot of fun? It’s more likely than you think!

As for the puzzles and mini-games themselves, I thought there was a pretty great variety. There are card games, dice games, matchstick puzzles, and even a fishing mini-game that I found myself enjoying, which is impressive (I’ve spent probably dozens of hours fishing in titles like Stardew Valley and Final Fantasy XV and find them generally more frustrating than fun). The one exception was the oddly-named “Gout Tourettes” (it makes sense in context, I promise!) game, which is quite clumsy as it involves you selecting directional inputs on screen rather than simply being able to use your computer’s built-in arrow keys.

In almost every area, Varney Lake was an improvement over its already-great predecessor. One I haven’t mentioned yet is the soundtrack. I took off some points during my review of Mothmen 1966 because the soundtrack mostly consisted of repetitive beeps. Varney Lake, fortunately, lowers the pitch of the beeps significantly and also adds in fun ambient sounds like rain, wind, and even sound effects when Liszt acts out one of his stories. I’d like to particularly shout out “And as the rivers flow, so does my day”, a song which fully captures the nostalgia of childhood summers and gives me serious Stand by Me vibes.

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I didn’t want the summer (or the game) to end…

Possibly my only note for Varney Lake is that it occupies a somewhat weird space between a solid standalone experience and a sequel that absolutely requires you to have played Mothmen 1966. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – again, Mothmen 1966 is great, and I encourage everyone reading this to play it if you haven’t already – but it is a little off-putting at a few moments. You can understand the plot of Varney Lake without having played Mothmen 1966, but you will miss a lot of lore and references and the presence of an entire character (Xantos) will not really have as much of an impact. In particular, Xantos’ POV chapter might feel a bit random and tonally off if you don’t know the character’s origin from the first Pixel Pulp. I’d love to see a bundled version of the Pulps someday – and since the developer is already working on the third one, Bahnsen Knights, a complete trilogy set would be extra amazing! Make it happen, LCB! 

Overall, Varney Lake is a wonderful experience that combines heart-warming nostalgia with chilling terror and does not overstay its welcome. I would recommend Varney Lake to any fans of horror games and classic horror films as well as any gamers looking for a fun twist on the usual vampire tale. Enjoy your summer at Varney Lake – and remember, things (and people) are not always as they seem!

Kate played Varney Lake on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher.

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