Once up a time – well, to be more specific, a generation or so ago – licensed tie-in video games weren’t the sole domain of LEGO. Practically every film property had its own video game equivalent, usually doing nothing more than offering gamers an easy way to boost their gamerscore or trophy count. Of course, this was back when TV was cinema’s low-budget cousin, so gaming equivalents of your fave shows on the box were few and far between.
Nowadays, TV is big budget. Dragons and excessive nudity big budget. So we’re finally starting to see some of the small screen’s most popular licences make the jump into the world of interactive entertainment. And on paper, Stranger Things is one of the easiest translations. Set in the ’80s? Check. Jam-packed with nostalgia and pop culture references? Check. Plenty of monsters and splashes of horror? Check squared. In short, it’s got all the ingredients it needs to pull off a Stranger Things companion piece that actually justifies its existence.
Texas-based studio BonusXP isn’t *ahem* a stranger to the franchise either, having developed and released a game based on the first season for mobile. With a top-down pixel art style designed to evoke the early days of the NES, this arcade-brawler/RPG did a great job of combining the fantasy scenarios of the characters’ love of D&D with the horror story they found themselves in for real. Stranger Things 3: The Game is very much a natural evolution of this, with an updated aesthetic that’s more SNES-esque in presentation (we got more than a few flashbacks to the excellent Zombies Ate My Neighbors) and an expanded approach to questing and crafting.
The basic principle is the same, with the entire game recreating events from the third season alongside some cute storylines not featured in the show. If you haven’t watched the series yet and want to avoid spoilers, we suggest watching the whole thing before seeing it remade in sprite form. Being able to see the show recreated in an interactive guise will definitely appeal to those that are already crazy for this franchise, but questlines do start to get a little repetitive after a while with most missions boiling down to the likes of ‘find this key to open this door’ or ‘switch on this generator on to progress’.
You’ll start off playing as Mike and Lucas, but you’ll eventually meet more familiar faces and add them to your party. Only two can be present on screen at any one time, but you can switch between the two by pressing ‘Down’ on the D-pad or flick between all available party members via 'ZR' and 'ZL'. Each character has their own unique weapon and Special Ability, so it’s all about learning how best to combine their skills. Dustin, for instance, has a can of bug spray for a weapon, which is great for hitting an enemy both at distance and at close range. He also has the ability to hack locked doors and open keypad-sealed chests with a small QTE mini-game. As you progress through the story, you’ll unlock more characters with ever-more useful abilities.
The whole game can be played solo (with the AI controlling the other member of your team) or you can team up for some local co-op action. The buddy AI is competent enough, but most of the time it’ll just stand and keep launching its own basic attack until it falls or the enemy does. It makes for a great distraction, but it can become a bit of a pain when this tactic just ends up draining the health of your partner character. Playing in local co-op is much more enjoyable, and you can really take advantage of each character’s unique traits.
Nancy’s Scissor Slash makes her ideal for dealing critical damage when up close, while teaming her up with Lucas and his ranged Wrist-Rocket enables you to grief enemies before they even reach you. Some characters are a little more useful than others, but it’s fun to see Hopper, Eleven and the rest of the gang included. There are 12 characters to find and utilise in your party, which is a nice upgrade from the first game. You can also craft (or buy) Party Trinkets, which imbue your squad with passive abilities (such as increased attack or defence stats).
As varied as these characters are, combat itself rarely breaks away from the ‘hit enemies until they fall over’ template. You can block (and receive a brief attack boost as a result), and use specific abilities (such as Dustin’s exploding robots) to cause wider damage, but battles rarely feel any different than when you’re running around hitting boxes to find items and cash. Stranger Things really wants to be an arcade brawler in this regard, but it doesn’t do enough to elevate itself beyond these decades-old tropes.
Stranger Things 3: The Game isn’t going to set any gold standards for video game tie-ins, but it does a fine job of capturing all the elements that have made the TV show such a phenomenon. Exploring Hawkins and interacting with the wider cast is really going to appeal to fans of the franchise, but the repetitive quest designs and unremarkable combat can make it a bit of a slog if you’ve yet to catch the Stranger Things bug. Still, thanks to its appealing visuals, accessible gameplay and atmospheric synthwave soundtrack, there are arguably many worse ways to spend your summer.