Spoiler Note: Stranger Things 3: The Game follows the plot of season 3 of the Stranger Things Netflix show. The text of this review is spoiler-free and the video/screenshots shown are from early on in the campaign, but keep that in mind if you haven’t watched the show yet and would prefer to go in entirely blind.
While Stranger Things obviously oozes ’80s nostalgia, Stranger Things 3: The Game reminds me distinctly of the 2000’s, bearing many of the hallmarks of the bygone licensed tie-in games of that era. As an old-school arcade beat-em-up with a free-flowing open world structure, its story, characters, and ideas are all tied directly to the third season of the Netflix show that inspired it, sometimes to a fault.
Though it is better than many of the C-tier SpongeBob SquarePants, Rugrats, and Scooby Doo games that gave tie-ins a bad reputation, Stranger Things 3: The Game is still very much an addendum to the new season: It is not the best way to experience Stranger Things, and it’s a pretty blasé game experience if you don’t have any love for the franchise, but those who do may find something to enjoy in it.
Without going into spoiler territory, the story in Stranger Things 3: The Game feels like an abridged version of the story told throughout season 3. Though its roughly 8-hour campaign has more detail than you’d get watching a recap or reading a well-written wiki summary, it should surprise no one to hear that this version lacks the same emotional punch as the show. However, it does stick close enough to that script that I would strongly urge people to watch the new season before even turning it on.
There’s an uncanny quality to Stranger Things 3: The Game’s look. Ironically, it reminds me of a fake video game that might be made for a TV show: Its art style resembles 16-bit consoles, but is clearly more detailed than any SNES or Sega Genesis game could have been. Though there is a uniform style, it’s derived from a hodgepodge of influences. Longer stretches of dialogue come in text boxes with so-so hand-drawn character portraits, evoking 8- and 16-bit era RPGs, but you’ll also see a fair amount of floating pixelated flavor text a la Monkey Island. While it sometimes seems scattershot, it all blends together surprisingly well, evoking the nostalgic warm-and-fuzzies you want from something designed to match Stranger Things’ blanket “retro” vibe.
Similarly, its structure and mechanics feel designed to remind you of “old games” generally without taking too heavily from any one, while also borrowing ideas from more modern games. Since Stranger Things repurposes language and characters from Dungeons & Dragons, it’s fitting that Stranger Things 3: The Game broadly mimics a 16-bit-era action RPG. At any given time, your party of two characters (the second of which is either controlled by AI or another player in local co-op) can roam free around familiar areas in and around a carefully pixelated version of Hawkins, Indiana. The story is broken into chapters, each of which features a set of missions that roughly but faithfully follow the plots of various groups of characters from the show. You can complete these missions on your own time, in any order, which gives you an excuse to explore the town and revel in the experience of being inside the Stranger Things universe.
Stranger Things 3: The Game does its best to reward curious minds with sidequests and areas that are only accessible using specific characters, but I wouldn’t necessarily say any of those non-essential missions and their rewards feel especially meaningful. There are a lot of fetch-quests and some tedious legwork as you are asked to run back and forth across Hawkins, earning you money and crafting materials that you don’t really need.
The crafting and equipment system is very thin as well. You spend a lot of time finding materials to build “trinkets” that you equip to gain bonuses for some or all of your characters. While they’re useful, I found that putting a lot of energy into making and upgrading trinkets, which are the only equipment or customization options you find, bogged down the experience more than it improved it.
Still, on a broad level, roaming around, looking for chests, and finding locked doors you’ll return to once you have the right character is fun in a nostalgic way. It adds the kind of depth needed to support the dialogue-heavy moments that build up to what feels like a genuine recreation of the Stranger Things world. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll recognize where you are when you go places like the Hawkins pool, Hopper’s cabin, or the Starcourt mall — and if you haven’t, these story intensive areas of the world are still interesting places to be.
This is important, because the meat and potatoes of Stranger Things 3: The Game’s missions, its Streets of Rage-esque beat-em-up combat, wouldn’t really create room for the world and story from the Stranger Things show to breathe on its own. True to tie-in game form, many of the story missions take cues from the show’s plot, but those cues are used as excuses to throw you into combat areas not seen in the source material. Each of the 12 characters has a different attack, most of which are inspired by the show as well — my favorite is Dustin’s, who uses the spray can you may or may not have seen from season 3’s trailer — and a special ability designed to get you out of a tight spot, like Lucas’ explosive slingshot bomb or Jonathan’s camera flash stun attack.
For better and for worse — mostly better — you can switch your two active characters out for any you’ve unlocked at any time. Not all the characters are created equal, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. That’s good because it adds variety, but also makes it easy to ignore some of them entirely if they don’t appeal to you mechanically or because you’re just not a fan. It also makes it much easier to deal with ability-gated areas later on: Once you have Joyce, who carries bolt-cutters that can open chained up doors, all you have to do is walk up to a door and press A, and you will automatically switch to her and begin her time-based bolt-cutting minigame.
While it’s convenient, I actually found myself wishing things were a little more strict about who you could use in specific missions. I ended up always defaulting to whoever worked best in combat, even in missions that focused on particular characters that were entirely unrelated. It’s a bit jarring to play a mission as Max and Eleven, then trigger dialogue within it as Joyce and Hopper.
Regardless of who you choose, the combat is very simple and repetitive. There aren’t a ton of enemy types, and you don’t have a ton of options to deal with them. There’s a block, which adds a little bit of timing and strategy for dealing with even straightforward enemies, but most scrums boil down to button-mashy affairs. For the first half of the campaign this feels like enough, but as the missions get longer and throw more enemies at you, combat can grow more and more tedious. Late-game dungeons try to mix things up with some light, mostly uninspired puzzles — moving blocks, triggering switches in the right order, etc. — which felt like a respite from combat, but not so much that I wouldn’t have simply preferred shorter, punchier missions.
There are a few novel moments that mix things up — without any spoilers, a couple of well-made boss fights and a mid-game chase sequence come to mind. None of them reinvent the wheel, but feel at home in both the story and in the conventional action-RPG form Stranger Things 3: The Game retraces. And, like its quest-based RPG structure, they add just enough depth and variation to avoid monotony.