Horror fans will know that Stranger Things 2 is returning in time for Halloween this October 27th, but the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi series still has a few tricks up its sleeve with the launch of Stranger Things: The Game for iOS and Android.
The award-winning Netflix series brought 80s American horror back to the TV screen, directly inspired by classic works such as Stephen King’s It and Spielberg’s E.T., it captured audiences with a cast of dorky kids overcoming adversity to get to the bottom of mysterious events in Hawkins: a town where children go missing, government workers patrol the streets, and a monster is on the loose.
Yet beyond its strong casting with five brilliant child actors, as well as compelling performances from Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers) and David Harbour (Jim Hopper), Stranger Things owes a lot of its success to a perfectly captured world of 80s pop culture. With franchises like Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, and X-men as not only inspiration for the series but also beloved by the geeky characters themselves, it’s not surprising that Stranger Things would want to release a game of their own. What is surprising is that for a free TV tie-in game made to promote the series, Stranger Things: The Game is absolutely worth your time.
Stranger Things: The Game is a free mobile game made to promote the TV series, but crammed into its 6-10 hours of gameplay are so many rewarding puzzles, compulsive collectibles, hidden references, and season 2 teasers that the game undeniably stands on its own two feet. Rendered in retro pixel art and arcade bleeps, Stranger Things: The Game lets you play through the final moments of the first season, starting out as Hopper but slowly unlocking the full cast of characters each with unique powers to solve puzzles and fight your way through enemies.
You can run through the entirety of Hawkins, which is mapped out with pixel-perfect faithfulness to the TV series’, heading into your parents’ houses to raid fridges, buying items in local corner-shops, and exploring mysterious sewers as you please. Main story objectives which unlock characters and important items are found in self-contained dungeons with puzzles and enemies that grow steadily more complex, but in addition to larger dungeons like Hawkins School, Sattler Quarry, and the Government Laboratory, mini-dungeons are also hidden around the map with bonus items and buffs waiting to be found.
Dungeons tend to center around hitting switches, clearing rooms of enemies, and keeping your eyes peeled for hidden routes. The very first dungeon: The Forest Maze, works as a perfect example of this as it has you not only punching security guards and destroying every leaf-pile in sight for bonus items as Hopper but also using Lucas and his ranged slingshot to take down beehives and trick bears into solving your timed puzzles for you.
Later in the game you can unlock Nancy, who can knock back enemies and clear rubble blocking your path with a swing of her baseball bat, or Mike with a torch that stuns enemies and a bike to get around faster, Dustin distracts enemies with pudding, and, of course, Eleven can use telekinetic powers to stop her foes. Like old adventure games Stranger Things: The Game also has a completion percentage, but with my own score at 99.3% there are still a few things to wait for with the release of season 2 on October 27th: one of which is a mysterious 8th character that is still to be unlocked. Whether this new character will mean further DLC for the game, or simply be a reveal of a new important character for season 2 remains to be seen.
Hunting for season 2 teasers is, of course, one of the main reasons to download the game, if not simply to play through a season recap and remind yourself where the show left off. Separate to its main story, Stranger Things: The Game has an easter egg for players who track down all eight VHS tapes hidden throughout the map: unlocking a visit to a screening held in Hawkins Theatre of an extended season 2 trailer.
But hidden tapes are only half the fun, as the game plays on gamers’ completionist impulses to track down every possible item, with eight hidden Eggos used to summon Eleven, and forty quests with items scattered throughout the map ranging from bringing Joyce a new telephone to finding nails for Steve so he’ll upgrade Nancy’s bat. It’s a good idea to do some side-quests as they increase your characters’ health, as well as often unlocking damage upgrades, which will come in handy in the late game when enemies would otherwise kill you in a single hit.
The game’s biggest fault is that other than figuring out the various puzzles combat remains both unchallenging and frustrating, especially towards the end. If you’ve been upgrading your health and damage it’s unlikely that any enemy, even boss fights, will pose any threat to you, yet it’s still not possible for you to rush around impatiently without taking out mobs individually. Even running through town, where a handful of enemies lurk on street corners, you can find yourself suddenly being killed if you decided not to stop and clear your route. That said, the late game does find fun ways to incorporate enemies more and more into puzzles, rather than piling them on as mobs that need to be picked off, and forces you to switch creatively between characters to find a way through each room.
Stranger Things: The Game also gives you the choice of two game modes: ‘normal’ and ‘classic’, the latter of which is an easier mode clearly designed for fans of the TV-series who might be total newcomers to video games, and the former mode, which I recommend, for experienced gamers who will want more of a challenge. The classic mode warns that deaths will be more punishing, but other than being frustrated when I was punished for trying to rush through rooms I definitely don’t think anyone should be worried about finding the classic mode enemies too hard.
Last of all, it’s a shame to note that the Stranger Things: The Game soundtrack is somewhat of a let-down. Given the TV series’ iconic music, made by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, the game simply does not live up to the same standard, and it’s a shame given the well-done pixel art style not to have an accompanying chip-tune remix of the popular soundtrack beyond the intro sequence used in the game trailer.
All said, Stranger Things: The Game is a surprisingly well-made retro game that’s hard to put down, which is a problem when it’s draining your battery but also a compliment when the only thing that stops you playing is realizing the last few hours have whittled you down to 2%. For a promotional mini-game Stranger Things is anything but mini, and with hours of content available for free (there are zero micro-transactions) you’d be crazy not to check it out. If you want a glimpse of what Stranger Things 2 has to offer or to remind yourself of the story we closed out on back in summer 2016, Stranger Things: The Game is a seriously fun mobile game that will welcome you back to the upside down in time for Halloween.