Despite the numerous otherworldly creatures and the escalating tension, watching an episode — or a season, for you bingers — of Netflix’s Stranger Things can be a comforting experience. There’s something to be said about reliving the ’80s through the eyes of a few teenagers from a small Indiana town, and the focus on horror and science fiction doesn’t detract from the show’s emphasis on nostalgic moments. Stranger Things 3: The Game attempts to capitalize on the same sense of nostalgia. While it might not feature a steady flow of references to decades-old culture, developer BonusXP has styled their latest game off classic arcade beat-em-ups, and the end result is equal parts promising and enticing.
We had the opportunity to go hands-on with the game at a Nintendo-hosted GDC event. While the developers created a brand new level specifically to show off the game — translated: no spoilers — both a developer from BonusXP and a spokesperson from Netflix assured me that the final release will serve as a companion piece to the show’s third season, while also providing more backstory and insight into the supernatural events taking place in Hawkins, Indiana.
Despite tying into the upcoming season, BonusXP has fully fleshed out Stranger Things 3: The Game with their own suite of ideas and design philosophies. Reminiscent of some of the best arcade games of yesteryear — Konami’s The Simpsons comes to mind — players will be able to choose from 12 different characters, each with their own strengths and special abilities. For the GDC 2019 demo, the developers showed off Chief Hopper (who is a bit stronger in hand-to-hand combat) and Joyce Byers, who comes equipped with a sturdy pair of bolt cutters, which can be used to break open locked doors. In fact, it doesn’t take long to begin sussing out potential synergies and ideal pairings. Regardless of whether you play solo or with a friend, there will always be two playable characters at any given moment. Combining Joyce’s special stun ability with Hopper’s powerful charge attack is a no-brainer, and the developers assured me that there are plenty more effective combinations to experiment with.
Light puzzle-solving and exploration break up the combat sections, and while most of the puzzles are fairly straightforward, some of them harken back to the golden age of the adventure genre. While you won’t be pixel-hunting or trying to combine seemingly random items together, there are a few environmental puzzles which do require some thought in order to solve. While they were used sparingly in the demo build, we’re hoping these types of headscratchers pop up more frequently come launch day, as they help to break up the exploration-combat cycle that drives the rest of the game.
The GDC 2019 demo was limited in scope, though it does hint at greater things to come. Aside from hidden collectibles and a simple crafting system, certain sections of the map were blocked off, with on-screen cues suggesting that we’d have to return with a different character in order to fully explore certain levels. An occasional dialogue choice paved the way for some chuckle-worthy jokes, though Netflix and BonusXP hinted that some choices might have more lasting consequences. While Stranger Things 3: The Game might not feature the same level of tension and horror as its Netflix counterpart, I was promised that some sections ratchet up the intensity.
Stranger Things 3: The Game is set to release on July 4 on Nintendo Switch. The third season of Stranger Things will premiere on the same day. Be sure to check out the rest of our coverage from GDC 2019.