The official website for this game does not work, and the author's website seems to be entirely offline. It's not playable using Wayback Machine either, as it was a PHP game relying on a server backend.
Fortunately, the author released the source code of the game. I downloaded the code and was able to run the game on my own computer, with some modifications. My repository for this game is here (the hardest part was actually finding and downloading the images). You can try it out, if you have php installed.
While writing this review I discovered that this game was not lost after all; there is a playable version online at https://aof.guzh.me/, with a Chinese translation. This link didn't work when I first discovered the game, which was why I downloaded the source code.
Now, about the game itself: this reminds me of the Choice of Games style, although with more randomness, something like an open world, a lot more opportunities to die, and a more DnD-like stat system. So not really like CoG at all. I know it's supposed to be more akin to pen-and-paper gamebooks, but I'm not familiar with gamebooks (CoG might have also been gamebook-inspired). The basic structure of the game is adventuring in various hub locations (in a city, in the wilderness, in the ocean) with randomly chosen events/storylets in each location. There is a large number of random events, with moods ranging from comedy to tragedy to horror, and I still have not nearly discovered them all (the total word count might be over 100k). Despite the variety of events, there can be a lot of repetition at the hubs; you often find yourself back at the main city after a random event in the ocean.
From the links provided in the game and the author's blog, it seems that the author has put a great deal of thought into fantasy worldbuilding. But sometimes that didn't quite come through in the game itself. I enjoyed the moment-to-moment writing and the variety of situations in the game, but the scenes felt disconnected. The game doesn't really have a through-plot, or a critical path that the player can follow to reach an ending (I did reach some endings, but that was a while ago and I don't remember them). Even so, I think the game provides an interesting world to explore and a space to play around in.
I enjoyed the artwork, which include classical public-domain paintings, modern fantasy illustrations, sketches, and some CGI.
Anya Johanna DeNiro wrote an excellent review/retrospective of the game at Sub-Q.
Update: Half of this review is now outdated because the complete version of Bee for dendry has been released. I still agree with this review, and if anything have gained a new appreciation for Bee from having taken a small part in its development. There are a lot of intricacies in how the story is told, and how it uses the medium of interactive fiction. Bee is amazing and I recommend it for anyone interested in narrative design or just a meaningful slice-of-life story.
I had the good fortune of being able to play Bee before Varytale disappeared from the internet. It was one of the first pieces of IF I played/read, and was part of what made me fall in love with interactive fiction. Unfortunately, Bee in its original form is no longer online; the Dendry version is playable only up to a point. Even so, I think it is well worth playing in its current form.
Comparing the original Varytale version to the Dendry version that is currently online, it is apparent that there is a lot missing. Dendry does not have the visible stat display or character lists, which makes the choice process almost akin to fumbling in the dark. The only indicator of time are the occasional Christmas, Easter, and Halloween events. In addition, the Dendry version does not have the ending scenes (I checked the code; the endings are not present), so instead of ending with the final spelling bee, the story just fizzles out once a certain time has been reached.
Still, I think the Dendry version should be played, if only to experience Emily Short's writing. The scenes that do exist are excellently written, and you can get up to the first spelling bee with zero issues. Also, since the code is available, it is theoretically possible to fix at least some of the problems, like adding stat displays back in...
There's already been a lot said about Bee's story in the reviews here. It really resonated with me, as someone who competed in academic competitions when I was younger. The protagonist has a sense of alienation from both her own family and from the broader American culture as a whole, and she has trouble relating to others and uses spelling as a coping mechanism. Through the player's choices, she can become rebellious, or participate in the spelling bee to the fullest, going all the way to the nationals before getting runner-up (this scene is not in the Dendry version). Even as the player subtly molds her personality, the current of alienation always remains.
The primary way the story is structured is through the progression of time. At each "turn", the player is given a choice of three randomly chosen storylets, each of which is a mini-CYOA scene. Some storylets have higher priority than others, and most are dependent on either a specific time of year or on certain stats. A lot of storylets repeat, especially the spelling practice scenes, which does get kind of tiresome after a while.
Dendry itself has probably become my favorite HTML interactive fiction framework, and my recent game, which was kind of/very inspired by Bee, happens to use Dendry.
RIP Varytale :(