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Review: Stranger Things 3 (The Game) – a disappointing adaptation of the show

Maybe the Upside Down version is better?

stranger things 3 title screen game
Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

Developer BonusXP just released Stranger Things 3: The Game alongside season three of the critically acclaimed Netflix series of the same name. Nobody got review keys until the game came out, likely under strict licensing restrictions because the game mirrors the exact plot of the show.

So in order to prepare for this game, I marathoned the entire show first. I had only seen season one, so yes, I watched two seasons of this show this week. I loved the show. I can’t stand this game. Here’s why.

I usually end my reviews with my answer to an important question: Who is this game for? Regardless of whether or not I love or hate something, I think it’s part of my job to identify the potential audience. Most people are not me or even like me, so while a review score comes down to how I felt about a game more than it does from some objective reality, other people might still find a reason to like something I hated or hate something that I loved.

The thing is, I have no idea who this game is for.

stranger things 3 gameplay

Rats. Rats everywhere. (Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie)

Note: Stranger Things season three (episode one) spoilers are contained in this article. 

Mechanically, Stranger Things 3: The Game is an isometric action game that feels like Zombies Ate My Neighbors with discrete non-action zones, fighting with less satisfying combat, a few puzzles here and there, and some stilted story scenes. I’m struggling to even describe it, because there’s no coherent, core gameplay loop here. The core gameplay loop is “drag you through a rough interpretation of Stranger Things season three and waste most of your time with fetch quests you don’t care about and meaningless combat.”

Let me walk you through a scene comparison so you can see what I mean.

Stranger Things, the show

Mike, Will, Max, and Lucas are rushing through a mall, which we’ve never seen before, giving us a quick glimpse that the town has changed. They barge into the ice cream shop and we meet Robin, who calls out to Steve that his cadre of underage friends has shown up again.

Steve lets them into a back hallway, showing us the mall’s cavernous underside before they sneak out a side door into a movie theater. They sit down for a horror movie, during which Will later gets chills on the back of his neck and knows something is wrong. There’s a blackout that wipes out power for the whole town and the camera zooms out, giving us a sweeping aerial view of the region while dissonant, haunting music kicks in, before zooming back into the steelworks and taking us inside.

A cloud of debris swirls and begins to take the form of the Mind Flayer, our first glimpse that the stuff of nightmares has returned to Hawkins. We know the truth before anyone else does, Will suspects it, and the first seeds of suspense and terror are planted for the rest of the season to take root.

Stranger Things, the game

You start in the mall with control of Mike and Lucas. You try to get into a movie but the line is too long, so you get a waypoint for the ice cream shop. You meet Robin (well, you may meet Robin, because you can walk right past her), who tells you Steve is in the back. You talk to Steve about getting into the back hallway and he says he’s lost his keys, so you have to help him find them first.

You smash a bunch of cardboard boxes with a baseball bat and underneath one of them are Steve’s keys. He opens the door for you. You go into the hallways in the back and are blocked by an elevator whose power is off. You have to turn the power on, but some random NPC has the keys to do that and you have to do a rat killing quest to clear out a storage room first to get those keys.

You finish the quest, then you have to get to the power switch, but you have to solve a very simple pressure plate puzzle first. Then you have to go through a stealth room with a hostile-looking man carrying a crowbar, solve another pressure plate puzzle, fight more rats, fight one of the men who looks exactly like the one we just had to sneak by (undermining that sneaking experience), and then finally get into the movie, which you see none of.

You see a quick shot of a blackout, Robin calls Steve a dingus, and the town square blacks out. The screen fades to black and fades back in with you standing outside the movie, remarking on a blackout. You get a quest to make your way to Dustin’s house, then you follow waypoints and leave the mall.

What the fuck. 

So not only are we following the exact same plot with none of the important details, but we’re dilating time with busy work rat quests? And somehow, despite following the plot itself, we get none of the emotional impact of the show in this sequence.

Will isn’t even in this scene. Will, the critically important character to what this scene means, isn’t even in it. Not only that, but we don’t even see the Mind Flayer. We have no idea those two things are connected if we haven’t seen the show, which brings me back to my original question: Who is this game for? If I’ve seen the show, I’m getting nothing new. If I haven’t, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but I get to fight a bunch of rats. Great.

The action in this game is what I’d describe as aggressively fine

I like the snap-to element that makes aiming a breeze and melee attacks sensible, but there’s not really much to work with. The game has 12 unlockable characters, each of which has a normal attack and a special attack, and you can have two out at a time, one under your control and one controlled by either an AI or a second, local player via split-screen co-op.

That said, it’s clear that the game wants this to be a “find the best combination for this situation” kind of game, with tanking abilities, blocking that boosts damage output after blocking, and trinkets to craft, but it’s all kind of trivialized and that’s immediately apparent. Lucas, for instance, gets a slingshot. Remember that enemy we had to sneak by because of how scary he supposedly was? You can take down a grown-ass adult in a few shots and never get hit in the process.

I like trinkets and I generally enjoy crafting, but you get most of the materials for that from random fetch quests that are just totally dry and boring

inventory management in the game

Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie

In one, I had to go from the pool to the mall to buy a hairdryer, but a bully at the pool wouldn’t let me back in so I had to do a favor for him first, too. He wanted a milkshake, but he was being a dick about it, so when I went to get that milkshake, Robin said I needed to go to the town’s convenience store to get a laxative for it, which had a side quest of its own where I had to, surprise surprise, fight more rats.

All of this for materials for trinkets that are like “Deal 10% more physical damage.” So… if an enemy takes 6 hits to be defeated, it…still takes 6 hits after I do multiple mind-numbing quests to craft a trinket? I’ll pass, thanks.

The game does an interesting thing with Elimination Mode, where once a character dies, they’re gone forever and you have to finish the game without them, but you can’t play Elimination Mode until you beat the game first. Cool.

All of this might still be fine if Stranger Things 3: The Game had anything story related to chew on outside of the show’s narrative, but it really doesn’t

It’s completely bound by the show’s plot, with the only additional “story” being these random side quests that don’t mean anything. Even then, the main plot is delivered so awkwardly, it doesn’t even feel like the same show.

For instance, the show has this issue where Jim Hopper is trying to reconcile how much time Mike and El are spending together and he goes to Joyce for advice. They have a conversation where she gives him tips on how to talk to Mike and El about it (which he immediately discards when it comes time to actually have that conversation).

In the game, you can literally overhear that conversation but it’s devoid of context; Mike and El haven’t even been seen together yet at that point, so it’s not even a problem you’re really aware of. It’s all incredibly awkward and just devolves into this sort of hand-waving, “We know you’ve seen the show, so you already know what’s going on and we’re just gonna skim through it if that’s okay.”

HOPPER, I’M LITERALLY RIGHT HERE (Image: Jacob Vander Ende / KnowTechie)

That’s not even the end of the awkward “we forced this to be a game” feeling exuded in every moment of this experience. Why am I running around the mall with a baseball bat? Why can I destroy every object in this game with total impunity? Why is every single NPC that isn’t an enemy just standing completely motionless? Why can I smash a toilet and have money spew out of it?

Why can I fight hordes of strange men in the woods outside Hopper’s house, right next to Hopper, after Hopper told me that he built a fence because he’s worried about strange men in the woods, and yet there’s no way to cry out, “HOPPER, THERE ARE STRANGE MEN IN THE WOODS AND I JUST KILLED LIKE TEN OF THEM WITH A BASEBALL BAT?” It’s like someone asked, “If we made a Stranger Things game, what would you do in it?” and somehow the best answer anyone could come up with was, “I dunno, hit stuff? Collect loose change and craft trinkets, maybe?”

Stranger Things 3: The Game does try to evoke the same 80s nostalgia that the show tries to evoke, but it doesn’t really work the same way and ends up feeling like pointless trivia. The show feels like a meaningful synthesis of everything from Magnum P.I. to John Carpenter’s The Thing to The Terminator, whereas the game just sneaks in things like an offhand reference to Zork or a trinket named REO Speedshoes.

stranger things 3 game

Also, why is that a TV instead of the exact sprite of the computer that’s sitting RIGHT THERE? Also, how did Dustin’s parents afford a computer just for him when personal computers were still astronomically expensive until sometime in the early 90s? We didn’t have a computer in my house until 1993 and I had exactly two friends who had them. (Image: Jake Vander Ende / KnowTechie)

I know they tried. I know there are tight financial and temporal constraints with timing a tie-in launch and working with a media giant probably comes with tons of rules, creative and otherwise, but this game really just doesn’t do it for me.

It’s cute and the sprite work is nice, but that’s about it. I would have much preferred to see BonusXP be given free rein to write something that happened in parallel to the show, with a character we’ve never met, who’s experiencing things we’ve never seen from a totally new angle. I would have played the hell out of that game for just a glimpse of something unexpected. Instead, I found myself bored by a franchise I adore, which is a real shame.

I know Stranger Things is a great show. I know season three is especially great. I know you’re gonna have unanswered questions when you finish it, hoping that maybe playing this will give you something. The trouble is, it won’t. You won’t find solace here. You might find be able to kill a few hours with some mindless local co-op, but don’t expect to learn anything you don’t already know.

Jake reviewed Stranger Things 3: The Game on Nintendo Switch with a code from the developers after watching the entire show first. It’s available now on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. 

Curious what our scores mean? Find out more in our comprehensive guide to Understanding KnowTechie’s Game Review Scoring.

Editors’ Recommendations:

The Good
Snappy combat from time to time
Pixel art that captures the visual design of every character
Drop-in/Drop-out local multiplayer is a really nice feature
The Bad
Boring, repetitive core gameplay
Incredibly awkward, stilted presentation
Nothing new for existing fans, nothing sensible for anyone who hasn't seen the show
5
Overall

Jake is a writer and game designer in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He loves action, exploration, building, filling bars, and turning numbers into bigger numbers. Someday he'll release a video game.

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