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Stranger Things 3 Hands-On: Game Oozes Retro Charm, Otherwordly Evil

SAN FRANCISCO — If you’re a child of the '80s, quick! Drop whatever you’re doing and go watch the trailer for Stranger Things 3. We’ve done this dance twice before now. A new season of the hybrid horror show drops, we eat it up in a few days, and then have to twiddle our thumbs for a year or more before another installment drops. Well, Stranger Thing 3: The Game will help ease the wait, since as soon as you’re done watching the kids’ latest adventure in Hawkins, Indiana, you can play it yourself — or with a friend.

Credit: Nintendo

(Image credit: Nintendo)

I went hands-on with Stranger Things 3 at GDC 2019, and while I’ve generally been more of a polite fan of the show than a true aficionado (I liked this story better when it was called Firestarter), the game seems like just the right kind of retro. You’ll take control of 12 different characters from the show in an isometric action/puzzle game, which draws a little from Zelda and a little from Streets of Rage. The title will be out on the Switch July 4, to coincide with the Season 3 release on Netflix; pricing hasn't been announced yet.

During my demo, I took control of tough-talking Sheriff Jim Hopper, while another journalist joined me as obsessive mom Joyce Byers. While you don’t have to play the game cooperatively, it helps. Each one of you can venture out on your own in a vertical split-screen, but we found that it helps to stay close together.

Combat feels a lot more video game-y than in the show, although that’s probably just the right tone for a game like this. Jim and Joyce explored an underground science lab, which, for some reason, was absolutely teeming with street punks with slicked-back hair and sunglasses. You can fight them off with standard punches, block their blows to gain a temporary attack boost or spend precious energy on special attacks. Jim had a bull rush to knock enemies down, while Joyce had a spinning whirlwind. (I couldn’t help but feel that if the characters used these abilities on the show, they could have potentially avoided a lot of trouble.)

Combat is brisk and fun, but there’s a little depth, too, as you’ll have to dodge attacks from tougher enemies and keep an eye on your health and energy. You can heal both of them on the fly, provided you’ve found enough healing items. And, of course, you find healing items by thoroughly exploring the maze-like levels.

This is where the other element of gameplay comes in: puzzle-solving. Each level puts a number of roadblocks in your way, from locked doors to impassable security barriers. Each character has a special ability to help navigate the environment. In our demo, Joyce had to rely on her trusty bolt-cutters to get through locked doors. The two characters then had to work together to solve puzzles, which ranged from finding keycards, to shutting down security cameras, to finding the proper placement for rat statues.

The whole production feels retro in all the right ways, like an old-school game adaptation that didn’t quite capture the feeling of a show, but inadvertently made some of its elements better. (Think Goof Troop on the SNES, or The Simpsons arcade game.) Stranger Things 3 doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it has tons of variety and the same kind of self-aware fun that fans of the show have come to expect.

If you absolutely can’t wait until July to play a Stranger Things game, there’s always Stranger Things: The Game on iOS and Android. It’s free, and made by the same developers as Stranger Things 3, so it’s well worth a look. And, of course, there’s always the entire bibliography of Stephen King, and the entire filmography of Steven Spielberg.

Be sure to check out our GDC 2019 hub page for all of the latest gaming news and hands-on impressions straight out of San Francisco.