Stranger Things 3: The Game Review: A Great Companion for Fans
Chances are good that you're watching Stranger Things 3 this week. If not, chances are pretty good that you aren't because you've already finished the eight-episode season.
For the biggest fans, the fleeting binge may not feel like enough, but luckily it doesn't have to be this season. Stranger Things 3: The Game, developed by BonusXP and published by Netflix's burgeoning gaming division, is a fun retro take on the popular show's third season.
By including the expansive main cast as playable characters, giving players all of Hawkins to explore, and combining old-school charm with modern accessibility, Stranger Things 3: The Game makes for a great companion to the TV series.
If you haven't watched the show's third season yet, you should do that first, as the game adaptation mostly tells the same story. It does make some very gaming-specific alterations, however, like offering many side missions and a lot more combat than the show makes time for. It's designed for co-op too, so while you can switch to any character you want, you'll always have a buddy handy as either AI or someone next to you on the couch.
Outside of those sorts of changes, it adheres very closely to the show, including even precise dialogue segments taken right from episodes. It's clear BonusXP didn't just have the plot outlines but had seen the whole season, and that sort of approach feels as nostalgic as the series. Tie-in games like this are disappointingly few and far between nowadays, but Stranger Things 3 makes a case for their resurgence.
The artwork isn't exactly period-accurate. The show takes place in 1985 while the game, though retro-styled, looks more like a project from 1993 or so. For fans who don't like retro games and lack the nostalgia no matter how far into the annals of console history a game goes, ST3 thankfully modernizes the 16-bit open-world hubs with conveniences like fast travel, improved waypointing, and much more forgiving checkpoints. Controls are smartly set up too. With several characters offering unique abilities, the game wisely swaps to them automatically when you need them, and at any point, you can swap to whichever character you'd like, or even move back and forth between your last two like a favorites menu.
What remains intact from the era of games which ST3 mimics are very difficult boss battles. Usually how to defeat them is spelled out well enough to not frustrate, but there's a difference between knowing how to beat an enemy and executing that plan. In BonusXP's tie-in, the latter can be a real obstacle some times, just like the old days.
Even then, a few late-game bosses don't as clearly spell out the tactics needed, which is a harsh reminder of how games used to be and how far we've come from such annoyances. Every major battle from the season appears here as a boss, and they get harder as you go.
When you're not fighting bosses, combat can still be more than mindless button-mashing, even if it's not as trying as the bosses. Controlling crowds of flayed rats, armed Russians, and spillovers from the Upside Down involves some smart thinking and pairing of the right heroes while using their moves in effective ways. You recharge energy for devastating special moves by drinking New Coke, because even the game couldn't escape the influence of product placement.
For the biggest fans, it's not going to be just playing as favorite characters that is so exciting: it's getting to live in Hawkins as those characters. The overworld plays host to several good-sized hubs, like the suburbs, the Starport Mall, Hopper's woods, and more, and many of those have hidden areas which act as puzzle and combat dungeons, thus expanding the size of each area even more.
It's a thrill to go sightseeing to Joyce's general store, or Billy's pool, or especially the Hawkins Lab which has hosted so many classic moments. The game brilliantly takes you on a tour of every corner of every street and into every home and store by the end.
Getting familiar with the map really rewards you with a sense of place in the once quaint, always fictional town. You'll feel like a resident, or more accurately, 12 residents.
All the kids, younger and older, as well as Joyce and Hopper, are playable, and most of them are faithful avatars to their TV counterparts. With a few of them, it seems like BonusXP didn't quite know how to make them fighters, so their move sets end up feeling foreign, like they don't quite capture who they are. Nancy uses scissors, apparently because she's an office clerk. Why Max's normal attack is a high kick is another confusing example, though others, like Steve's ice cream cone lobbing or Eleven's Jedi powers, are welcome and powerful.
All of this comes while the series' unforgettable music plays in the background to perfectly set the stage, even as the game purposely withholds some flair that would be possible with a more modern approach.
- Features 12 playable characters and every sight you'd want to see in Hawkins
- Combat is fun against goons and a proper challenge against bosses
- Music and the open-world go a long way to make you feel like you're a part of Hawkins
- A few boss battles are needlessly obtuse
- Some characters' abilities seem out of left-field
If you like neither retro games nor Stranger Things, you're probably safe skipping this one, but for anyone who likes either and everyone who likes both — likely a great number of people — Stranger Things 3: The Game is a fun homage to the old school and a proper tie-in game that will hopefully bring about more similar projects.
The TV series appeals to a wide age range and the game surely will too. Bring someone skilled for the boss battles and this will be a frustration-free extension of your season three binge.
[Note: A copy of Stranger Things 3: The Game was provided by BonusXP for the purpose of this review.]