Licensed games based on television shows or movies are relatively rare nowadays; at least ones beyond quick cash-in mobile games are. Stranger Things 3, a game based on the upcoming third season of Netflix's hit show, is gearing up to release simultaneously with the season premiere on July 4.
It's a season that's so secretive, even the very demo I played at a Nindies showcase during this week's Game Developers Conference is masked in a faux-premise. It's a demo that only exists to be a demo, and is not a vertical slice of the game itself.
"Some of the challenge is just making sure that our looks are true to what the show has because, you know, they have their own like schedule for doing production on special effects and things, and we want to make sure that we do something that's as true to their look as possible," lead game designer William Lemons at BonusXP tells me as I play the demo. "But as far as I think the design, the story is written long before they shoot, so a lot of that information is easy. So far it's been really easy working with them on getting everything done."
Stranger Things 3: The Game takes on a truer SNES-inspired aesthetic than its direct predecessor, Stranger Things: The Game—which only came to mobile. In stark contrast, Stranger Things 3 will be releasing on "all platforms," as previously stated when it was revealed in December 2018. Lemons cites the likes of Double Dragon, King's Quest, and in a surprising nod, Goof Troop as key inspirations for the puzzle-heavy co-op beat 'em up.
During my demo, I play as the character Joyce, with my co-op partner playing as Hopper. We revisit the lab where shit went down at the end of season two, to retrieve something left behind by the characters. (In a very meta way, the characters joke at the end of the demo that the premise is not something that will happen in season three, and only exists for the demo.)
Together, we solved some puzzles in communicating with one another, like turning off the power in a room while the other walked by a security camera because it was down. Combat feels typical for a beat 'em up, with each character having a special move (Joyce spins around, Hopper charges). Each character has a navigation tool too, like Joyce's special wire cutters to get around chained up doors. There will be 12 playable characters in total, but Lemons wouldn't say who else yet.
"This one's got an entirely new graphics engine. It's done in an isometric style so the characters look different," says Lemons. "We wanted to be able to show off the characters a little bit better this time around. We pulled some of our love of adventure games and puzzle solving that we had in the first game. [...] But this one is different in other ways. The show is a lot about friends working together to overcome problems, and so we wanted to hit on that more. So in this game you control two characters at a time as you run around, in single player or in co-op."
In single-player, you toggle between characters to move them around and direct them to follow or stay still. In my demo, I only played co-op, which worked relatively well, though the Switch version of the game itself had some noticeable stuttering issues. Stranger Things 3 also features dialogue choices sometimes, which lead to either flavor text or branching decisions that bear an impact later on.
"We wanted to broaden our audience," says Lemons on why Stranger Things 3 is aiming to be a whole lot bigger than the last game. "And I think also just we wanted something deeper, like more action. Console just felt right for that."
Stranger Things 3 will be out on July 4, alongside the season three premiere of Stranger Things on Netflix.