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Review

STONE Review — Rough Around the Edges

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When making STONE, developer Convict Games aimed to make a narrative adventure that bridged the gap between Bukowskian characterisation and arthouse accessibility. With the title being described in this way, onlookers may expect a serious, realism-focused project akin to Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch, but, instead, STONE takes place entirely in a world of bizarre, anthropomorphic Australasian animals. The result is a The Big Lebowski-esque snapshot of contemporary developed life; half-whodunnit, half-love-story, STONE is unafraid of grappling with what is real underneath its cutesy veneer.

The studio’s effort is a love letter to the absurdity of Australia, noticeably rough around the edges with a heart of gold, much like its eponymous protagonist. As already revealed in the project’s trailer, the game begins vividly, cutting straight to Stone as he awakes from a night on the sauce to find that his lover, Alex, has been kidnapped. In typical Dudeist fashion, Stone employs his skills as a private investigator to find Alex himself, retracing their steps through the clubs and bars of Oldtown. Distrustful of the police, players and Stone must believe in their own intuition to find his beloved “Chookie.” Sudden breaks to action is a feature of the game, which, in place of gradual movement or slow transitions, viscerally cuts between different scenes. In some ways, the sharp transitions fulfill STONE’s goal of extending the non-conformity of arthouse cinema but feels unsatisfying in gameplay terms. Some open-world segments between chapters or perhaps even a scene of Stone driving to the next destination might have been a better choice. Often, the snapshots to different scenes, whilst purposeful, leave the player feeling oddly disconnecting from the scene’s action.

With STONE being a low-budget effort, its developer can be forgiven for not including expensive open-world or transition segments, but the Unreal Engine-run game does end up feeling oddly skeletal, more akin to a tech demo than a full-fledged experience. A few visual bugs signify a lack of polish for the game, but, at the worst of times, STONE feels barely put together, acting more as an ersatz version of the studio’s true vision. Luckily, the title’s strong writing, art direction, and sheer zaniness are enough to carry it through its playtime of a few hours. As with most narrative-focused games, the title runs in at roughly two or three hours, which, if players embed themselves in the pacey story, flies by.

The story initially presents itself as a comedic alcohol-driven mystery, but the nuances of the game’s plot present themselves in surprising yet natural ways. Many of the characters, particularly the “British band” of foxes, are written hilariously. Stone’s best mate, Les, is a clear copy of The Big Lebowski’s Walter: a family man in a Kanye shirt who spitballs conspiracy theories about government drones for hours. STONE shines in how it deals with the real stuff, however, tackling topics, emotions, and lifestyles that bigger budget titles blush at. To give these subjects away would be spoilers, but those put off by STONE’s party aesthetic will find plot discussions and themes that match any mature, moody walking simulator out there.

To boil the gameplay down, STONE has players traverse through several areas of Oldtown, talking to people in each area in hopes of finding clues via conversation. These conversations come with two responses, usually allowing players to choose “soft” or “hard” responses. Whilst much of the dialogue feels uncontrived and zippy, the responses seem to yield no punishment. No matter what direction Stone chooses, the conversation always reaches the same end. Each location, too, only has one person to talk to and few items to interact with. STONE’s lack of locations, combined with their shallowness, leaves the revisiting as a tiresome experience. The maps initially act as strong summations of segments of Australian nightlife, but their depth is drawn away on repeated visits. When the title’s toolkit is so bare, the systems need to have a decent amount of depth or avenue for replayability, which STONE simply does not have. The best walking simulators do not only have a fantastic narrative, they have potential for their stories to be told in alternative ways or for player agency to at least have some impact on the plot’s presentation.

Some little idiosyncrasies stay nice throughout the game, though, with Stone’s interactive drum machine in his apartment and the jukebox at the Smoky Possum as standouts. Visiting the cinema or watching public domain films on the TV act as honest representations of stoner pastimes, too. The biggest flaw in the game is how shallow the explorable areas and the consequences are, making the whole process of conversation feel more tiring than it should.

STONE

While the following praise may provide the impression that STONE is a poor experience, the soundtrack is the most impressive part of the whole game. Not only is the selection of hip-hop, dance-inspired songs tonally relevant, but the way they are integrated into key plot moments is also superb. STONE lives up to its cinematic goals most when the music is blaring and relevant, which is thankfully most of the time. STONE’s biggest strength and weakness is how the game is designed as a cinematic experiment first, game second. Considerable credit can be given to STONE’s international array of audio and visual artists, which is surprising given the project’s wholly Australian theme. The soundtrack includes Perth trap artist Luchii , Australian artists Golden Grove and Grand Oyster Palace, UK-based House artist James Tottakai, North Carolina resident Ryan Little, and Finnish musicians Biniyam Real Love, Noah Kin, Color Dolor, and Warchief. The visual lead, Ivan Pozdnyakov, hails from Moscow, and his use of neon-lit and contrasting colours is a major force in STONE’s morning-after vibe.

STONE, like its protagonist, is bloody rough. Channelling the tough on the outside, soft on the inside of its literary inspirations—Post Office, for example—STONE’s buggy visuals and lack of polish almost exist as a statement in themselves. By presenting a story about an unkempt rebel’s life, the choppy visuals benefit the game. Overall, the experience’s worth will be strongly dependent on the player. Similarly to most great arthouse experiences, sometimes viewers must ignore the dodgy presentation and appreciate the heart of the piece. STONE, and its protagonist, have a lot of heart, and that shines the most.

Reviewed on PC.

Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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