NOTE: This review will NOT contain Stranger Things 3 spoilers.
Netflix subscribers worldwide rejoiced a few months ago when the announcement of the new season of Stranger Things was revealed for release on America’s Independence Day, July 4th. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years, Stranger Things is a popular show from the Duffer Brothers that follows a group of nerdy kids as strange things (hence the name of the show) start happening in their hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. The children, in partnership with a paranoid mother and reluctant police chief, have to track down the mysterious demons that threaten their world before it’s too late. The show takes place in the mid 1980’s and is rich with pop culture references to the time period, including video games, music, movies, television, and popular tabletop RPG Dungeons and Dragons. It only makes sense that Netflix would license the show for a retro-inspired video game to accompany the new season with its highly anticipated debut. Instead of reinventing the story already displayed on the silver screen, developers BonusXP have provided a 16-bit entry into Hawkins that follows the story of the show with very little deviation, serving as a fun companion piece to an already exhilarating adventure.
Title: Stranger Things 3: The Game
Available On: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Android
Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 4, 2019
Game Provided By BonusXP for the Purpose of This Review
Before we continue with the review, one thing must be said: if you have not seen Stranger Things 3, I would NOT recommend playing the video game tie-in. The story of the video game follows the story of the show step for step; so much so that codes for the game were not released until the show had released in full in Netflix, so that the video game didn’t spoil the story. As you may imagine, much of the dialogue and nuance of the show is lost in the over-the-top SNES-style graphics of the video game. Many lines from the show are accompanied into the game with the expectation that you have also watched the corresponding season. Much of the backstory for the character interactions is removed for the sake of the game, and therefore the charm and emotional appeal of Stranger Things would be lost on someone unfamiliar with the Netflix series.
Much like the show, the video game is split into chapters that roughly correspond to chapters in the game. I had the benefit of playing the game simultaneously while watching the show, and played a chapter of the video game after each chapter of the Netflix series. I do feel that this enriched my appreciation for the game, and though it didn’t provide me any additional insight to the events of the TV show, it did flesh out areas and events of the show that I was particularly fond of and was glad to pilot through. This is my preferred and recommended playing method of Stranger Things 3: The Game – watch an episode, then play that chapter. Each chapter lasts roughly as long as (or slightly longer than) each episode.
As mentioned, Stranger Things 3: The Game resembles an SNES-era 16-bit over the top action adventure game, much like Zombies Ate My Neighbors or Ghoul Patrol. Many of the color palettes and graphical decisions feel updated and make use of improved hardware, so the graphical style doesn’t feel too dated and feels appropriate to the time period of the game (even though the SNES came out years after the setting of Stranger Things). Unfortunately, even with its presumably unintensive resource load, the game can run sluggish and occasionally loses some frames. Though infrequent, the drop in performance was noticeable and felt unnecessary considering the scope of the game.
The control scheme felt vastly improved compared to an SNES game, and made full use of the extra buttons and resources that modern consoles and computers have to offer. When played on Nintendo Switch, you will use all 4 buttons, the D-pad for extra options, both shoulder triggers, and both shoulder bumpers. Few games make such frequent use of every button on the controller, and having so many commands that were sometimes necessary in the heat of battle caused the occasional wrong input which ended in my death. Thankfully, autosave points are abundant and you never have to restart from far.
Quests revolve around events of the show, and often expand on the moments you’ve seen on screen. For example, prior to a character making it to their destination as seen in the series, you may have to collect the money or pass through a maze of enemies in order to get to that area. These small additions to the game are necessary to increase the action between the high-tension moments on the show, but also add a feeling that you are controlling the characters through their off-screen moments. There are a lot of areas to unlock, all of which you’ll be familiar with through the scenes you’ve seen. The areas themselves are expanded to increase play time, usually to the benefit of the game experience but also sometimes to its detriment; even mundane buildings can become overlong mazes filled with enemies. There are plenty of puzzles to progress through these mazes, most often involving switches, buttons, and doors, and though they are used repeatedly, I never got the feeling that they were overused. Mechanics change just enough between each stage to keep the puzzles slightly challenging, but never enough to become irritating.
My favorite function of the game revolved around the combat. Each character has a basic attack and a special ability that expends a limited energy resource. The basic attacks all function differently and require you to aim towards the enemies, but the game thankfully includes a helpful autolock function that focuses attacks on nearby foes. You can quickly switch between characters with the click of a shoulder button, and you will always have a sidekick with you. It didn’t take long for me to find a favorite duo of long-rage fire shooting with a support healer. And don’t worry about your favorite character not being present in a particular scene of the show; every unlocked character is playable every step of the way, continuity be damned.
While the licensing of characters and scenarios were used freely for purposes of the game, it appears that musical inclusion rights were a little harder to attain. The Stranger Things series has such a rich soundtrack of both licensed and original music, but the game fell drastically short with brief electric loops that did little to add to the atmosphere and were too frequently drowned out by loud sound effects. I must admit that for a property that places such importance on cultural relevance, I expected more from the audio tracks.
Stranger Things 3: The Game does little to add to the mythos of the Stranger Things universe, but still serves as a worthy companion piece to champions of the Netflix series. Fan service is high in the game and though it rehashes the story of the third season with each step, I didn’t grow weary of controlling the not-so-young-anymore children through their high-stakes adventure. A lot of the charm from the show’s dialogue is lost in the translation to gaming, but much of what you love about Stranger Things is still very much intact. Side quests and collectibles not mentioned in the show fill in the gaps that otherwise would have made the game feel lacking. This game is not a revolution of television tie-in gaming experiences, but offers enough content for the price point to satisfy even a casual watcher of the series.