This nifty little title popped up on the iOS App Store recently and immediately drew me in with its 16-bit aesthetic and promise of retro style gameplay. With Stranger Things, the Netflix show, already being a celebration of the 80’s, a game attempting to follow the same vein could have a lot of potential. Also, the app is free so there was not much to lose.
Upon starting the game, the graphics and sound immediately transported me to my childhood. There are two difficulty modes: Normal and Classic. Normal explains: “For users new to pixely adventuring. Deaths are less punishing.” Classic vouches to offer how games of the time tended to be: hard and punishing. So, being the sucker that I am, I picked “Classic”.
The game plays in standard top down fashion(think classic Zelda) where players can both move their character and interact with elements in the environment by tapping on the screen. Tapping NPC’s will trigger conversations while tapping random items lying around will trigger comment speech bubbles by the playable character. Tapping enemies, switches or destructible items will perform an attack. The way attacks are executed was a pleasant surprise. The initial character’s attack is a basic punch and, where other similar games would have the character walk over to your intended target and then punch it (which can feel sluggish during complex enemy encounters), Stranger Things has the character lunge with a punch once he gets within a certain range of the target. It is a simple difference but feels highly satisfying.
After some more play, I noticed my character was no longer doing the lunge. This is when I discovered that the lunge only occurs when the character is at full health, reminiscent of the original Zelda’s sword beam attack. It became a very nice incentive to keep my character unharmed. Later, as other characters get unlocked, each one’s “full health” bonus can be read in their attack description, such as double damage from Lucas, a range attacker with his slingshot, or knock-back from Nancy, who attacks using a bat.
Hawkins National Laboratory, the first dungeon, was a nice combination of exploration and combat. The lab is full of security guards and gates that can only be opened by finding keycards or flipping switches two or three rooms away. As players explore, a map of the dungeon gets filled in, making it easy to stay oriented and on-track. Aside from progressing through and unlocking the doors, exploration is rewarded by finding several collectibles. The bottom of the screen shows players how many collectibles there are and how many they have found so far.
Getting knocked out seems to just return players to the entrance of the dungeon with all progress intact. This is nice but left me curious as to what the difficulty setting meant by “punishing deaths”. Regardless, making simple mistakes does lead to death and I learned that pretty quickly when I engaged an enemy before I was supposed to, got trapped in a corner and clobbered.
After unlocking a series of doors in the center of the dungeon and making my way through, a boss fight ensued. It took me two tries to figure out the mechanics which involved hitting the boss with either of my two characters depending on whether or not he had his deflective shield on; all this, while dodging his ranged attacks. Defeating him was very satisfying and left me looking forward to other bosses in the game.
Once done with the first dungeon, the next big surprise about the game opened up: the entire city of Hawkins is explorable and it is no small town in-game. Upon inspecting the map, players can quickly see several inaccessible areas behind locks. These lock icons, when traveled to, represent different obstacles that can be later removed either by story progression or the unlocking of a specific character like Nancy, who can break obstacles with her bat.
Enemies are littered all around town and can easily knock out the player if they do not tread carefully; getting the jump on standard ground units and properly dodging all the stinking owls that swoop down to attack them. Doing so can be a bit challenging at first because of the way the controls work. But, once enemy patterns are learned, it becomes easier to spot the incoming attack and move out of the way in time.
While exploring the available areas of the town, I found more collectibles and encountered several characters, like a reporter looking for his camera lens. Following the story lead me to a blocked path, next to a tree which obviously had a portal to the “upside down”. Just like in the show, this dimension is a dark version of the normal world. In this instance, I had to navigate the character through a series of “push box” type puzzles, albeit with exploding flesh sacs. After two screen pans, another portal lead me back to the normal world, on the other side of the blocked path. The whole experience reminded me of classic Zelda games, which utilized the concept of mirrored worlds very effectively.
Overall, my gut tells me the game will follow the general formula of exploring dungeons to gather collectibles. These collectibles will be used to gain new characters and abilities that will then allow further exploration of the town which, in turn, should open more dungeons. I also expect the “upside down” segments to become more complex and to start featuring some of their creepy monsters.
It is seriously pretty good for a free app and, if it continues to increase its difficulty at the right pace and the graphics and music do not grow stale, I might play it all the way through to the end.
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