So, Stranger Things Season 3 was pretty incredible, right?
For me, the best Season of the show yet. Fantastic acting performances, memorable moments, some ace character development.
I know not everyone feels the same, but from start to finish I was hooked. And despite the feeling it’s reaching its natural conclusion sooner than later, I still can’t wait for what’s next.
Now, admittedly, I didn’t play the companion game side by side with the show as recommended. In truth, I binged the show in a matter of hours and there was no way I was waiting for the game to catch up.
But what I will say is I’ve never played something that’s both so faithful to its source material and completely off the rails that it loses the essence of the show’s storytelling completely.
Stranger Things 3 The Game is the strangest thing I’ve played in some time and to tell you more about it, I will kind of need to spoil some things about the show. Basically, if you haven’t watched Stranger Things 3 yet, you need to stop reading now and get the idea of playing the game out of your head before you do.
Stranger Things Season 3 Spoilers to Follow
Where to start? I suppose I should point out that Bonus XP’s first mistake was not properly recreating Stranger Things epic opening score for the menu music. I know, absolute open goal…
It kind of follows the same beats and themes and you can almost fill the rest in from memory, but it’s not the same. Could be there was some licensing issue with it – which would be odd since this is an officially licensed product – either way, it’s weird.
Not a dealbreaker, of course, because they’ve still made a good game. You can switch between your favourite characters who are all gradually unlocked as you progress – carefully following major plot points in the story like Dustin’s return from camp and Steve and Robin’s part part-time job as translators.
Each character, as you might expect, has their own specialised skill. Mike’s got his baseball bat which he seems to swing at anyone and anything – more on that in a minute – while Dustin can hack wall panels and Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington is pretty nifty with a pair of bolt cutters.
It’s sort of like a top-down isometric RPG combined with a LEGO game. You craft and build stuff by collecting items dropped by smashing through crates and bushes, or by clubbing rats and slingshotting Russian spies. All while transitioning between characters to use their special abilities to bypass traps and obstacles as you move around Hawkins. Between the 12 different characters, you’ve got a lot of variety here and plenty to call upon for the inevitable backtracking.
The local co-op and split-screen aspect, in particular, is a very welcome and enjoyable inclusion.
My problem lies in how the story is portrayed. And it is a Catch-22 for Bonus XP because if they’d just remained faithful to the show, there’d almost be no point in the game. Literally moving from scene to scene with no changes, you’d likely ignore it altogether.
What they’ve done instead is keep the key beats, but give you a side dish of extra missions with a dollop of embellishment. And more often than not it doesn’t fit or feels very out of place. Like Mike’s mum giving him money to buy her special shampoo from the mall so she can smell good while cheating on his dad. Imagine involving your son in something like that.
Or when Mike is going on a date with Eleven but on the way he has to fight through Russian Spies who decide to throw knives and Molotov cocktails at him. Oh, and when he’s survived that and is about to turn the lights off and get cozy, Dustin and Lucas are there just hanging around. Perfectly normal.
Also, there’s quite a big emphasis on espionage and stealth on the show. In this, it’s pretty much beat up every baddie you see. Which probably isn’t practical when you’re young pre-pubescent teenagers taking on big strapping Russian bad-asses.
What the show did so well this year and the game has failed to grasp is finding a way to split these characters up, let them grow and come together organically rather than keep them in one big huddle all the way through. There are clear narrative reasons the kids are kept apart and Bonus XP seem to have ignored them despite spelling the story out, letter by letter.
Then again, Bonus XP have also omitted some of the best scenes from the season, like Steve and Dustin’s reunion, and Max and El’s bonding session. Proper head-scratching stuff as there’s some good missed material in there.
And that’s just it, I was just so confused playing the game. I both enjoyed what I played, getting into the old-school style, seeing Hawkins recreated in pixels, grabbing collectables and doing all manner of errands. But having watched the Season, I also feel like Bonus XP have somehow missed the point.
Ultimately, I’m not really sure who the target audience is either. As a companion game, this doesn’t fill in any narrative blanks, nor does it clear up anything the show hasn’t covered. If anything, it adds unnecessary filler that could be seen as detrimental, maybe even damaging to the overall plot.
And unless you really can’t stand watching Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown go through eight episodes of emotional turmoil, I can’t imagine a world where you’d play this without watching the show first.
As a game, it’s by far the best Stranger Things experience out there. True, that’s not saying a lot – which, in itself, is a crime – but I suppose it could serve as a new way to relive cool moments without having to watch the show again.
If you’re looking for an interactive experience that really pushes the possibilities of the Upside Down to its limits, though, this really isn’t it. Maybe a real LEGO Stranger Things game could do the trick? There’s playsets, after all..
Stranger Things 3 The Game is out now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch
Review code kindly provided by the publisher
Tested on Switch