GameCentral offers a spoiler free review of the video game tie-in for Stranger Things season 3, but are its retro charms as strong?
Since Netflix accounts for 15% of all Internet traffic across the entire world, we imagine there’s a fair few million people that have, like us, already binged through season three of Stranger Things. Since the game tie-in follows the same story this will be a spoiler free review, but we’ll just say briefly that we did enjoy the show; even if it was surprising to see it abandon any pretence of subtlety in terms of its ludicrous plot, schlocky horror, and outrageous product placement and 80s movie references.
But everything is held together by a huge cast of characters that should seem unwieldy but are all genuinely likeable and engaging (well, except Sheriff Hopper, who was, for some reason, written as anything but this time). Each character was given at least a moment to shine, in terms of both action and character growth, and the whole season neatly demonstrated how talented actors and good direction can elevate a relatively unremarkable script.
A script which the game has clearly had full access to, since many lines of dialogue are identical and even minor plot points are referenced as the story unfolds. That means you absolutely do not want to play this before you’ve seen the show. Although there’s another, more obvious reason why you’d want to put it off: it’s not very good.
This might have the same script as the show but without any voiceovers or realistic animation it’s fascinating how the storytelling and dialogue falls completely flat. If you know the characters then you can follow along perfectly well, imagining their voices in your head as you read the on-screen text, but it’s not the same. Even without a video game to prove it, the primary appeal of the show is the performances and they don’t exist when everyone looks like a 16-bit sprite.
One of the bullet points for the game describes it as ‘a retro throwback to adventure games of the Stranger Things era’ which is palpably untrue. Season 3 is set in the summer of 1985, several months before the release of the NES in America. At that time the US was still feeling the effects of the video game crash of 1983, which is why, apart from a passing reference to an ‘Atari’ (presumably an Atari 2600), the only video games the kids are ever seen playing are arcade coin-ops.
But even a coin-op like Paperboy (an isometric game from the same year) never looked as good as the Stranger Things game, and it would certainly never feature slow-paced exploration and puzzles such as you find here. The simplistic combat is more reminiscent of the era though, as it revolves around the use of a single attack button and a special move that’s fuelled by New Coke (so, yes, the product placement is here too). Each character, out of an eventual total of 12, has their own different moves but none of them add any nuance or excitement to the action. There is a block, which is meant to segue into a counter, but it’s rarely necessary and difficult to use in a crowd.
Another main appeal of the show is the horror elements, which this season features some unexpectedly grotesque effects that seem to be cribbing from The Thing – and by association Resident Evil. That also falls completely flat in the game, as you spend most of your time fighting pixelated blobs that it’s impossible to be scared or disgusted by. Again, all the component elements are reflected in the game, but absolutely none of it works when transformed into an isometric faux-retro game.
Some role-playing elements might have helped but there aren’t really any, unless you count the crafting element that sees you using collected items to build ‘trinkets’ which give you buffs in combat. If you’re being generous you could also say there’s a minor Metroidvania element where some characters have the means to get into areas others can’t, such as Joyce with her wirecutters, but nothing you need to go back to is ever necessary for completing the story.
The only saving grace is the co-op option, which allows two to play at once – as otherwise you have to wander around with a computer-controlled companion. If both of you are Stranger Things fans then this can be mildly entertaining, especially during the tough boss battles, but since the combat is so dull it still feels like a chore. (Especially given the load screens that interrupt every single scene change, even when it only takes a second for the transition.)
Before they went bust Telltale Games were working on a Stranger Things game and for a show with relatively little action that does make much more sense than a mix of puzzle game and scrolling beat ‘em-up. Presumably the intention here was to replicate the kind of licensed games that existed in the 90s, but that not only ignores the setting of the show but also the fact that almost none of those games were any good. Which is a layer of authenticity the game could’ve well done without.
Stranger Things 3: The Game
In Short: Why a show set in the 80s has a video game tie-in that recalls the worst of 90s licensed games is a mystery, but this has absolutely none of the charm, wit, or excitement of the TV show.
Pros: The pixel art graphics are great and the game’s full of details fans will appreciate. Welcome co-op options and nice synthwave soundtrack.
Cons: Dull gameplay, with unimaginative puzzles and tedious combat. Poor storytelling, with lifeless characters and no sense of tension or humour. Constant loading screens are infuriating.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Release Date: 4th July 2019
Age Rating: 12
*Oddly, the Xbox One version is just £16.74, the Switch version £15.99, and the PC £15.49. All four versions seem to be identical, so there’s no obvious reason for the price variation.
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