REVIEW: Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical hits the high notes but forgets to sweat the small stuff
Stray Gods was one of the reviews that got lost in the shuffle thanks to a COVID stint that all but wiped out the VGG staff for most of August. We played this game closer to launch and acknowledge some potential changes.
Musicals are like nothing else. They're so willfully earnest, putting people in scenarios where emotions are pulled from the depths and sung out loud. And, famously, they're hard to pull off. They require performers who are able to keep up with the rigors of singing and acting all at once.
Until now, they've been stuck in one medium, only really being pulled off on the stage.
I thought I'd never see the day when a video game could so purely execute something akin to a traditional musical, blended with the advanced interactivity of a video game, although we've certainly had games tap into music in fun ways — I think of the flowing interconnectivity of music-based levels in games like Sackboy: A Big Adventure, or the beat-absorbing flow state you can achieve in rhythm games.
And yet Summerfall Studios came a-knocking with the genre-blending, choose-your-own-melody, RPG-inspired, depressed-god-filled game that is Stray Gods.
Just the Facts
Developer: Summerfall Studios
Publisher: Humble Games
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: August 9, 2023
Review key provided by publisher.
Summerfall Studios spent the right amount of time cooking up their Greek mythology murder mystery musical. Which is to say, this game's been in the works for a very long time.
Starting in 2019 with a crowdfunding campaign on Fig, the investment-based crowdfunding alternative to Kickstarter, Stray Gods has undergone a lot of changes. For starters, the game was originally known as "Chorus: An Adventure Musical" and featured some extremely different character concepts in its initial pitch (a minotaur went from menacing beast to adorably bumbling goofball) but stayed true to its ultimate goal: create a musical true to the roots of the artform while implementing player control through choice-driven roleplaying-inspired design elements.
To pull that off, the Australia-based Summerfall Studios assembled an all-star cast and crew. Creative Director David Gaider was formerly the lead writer on the Dragon Age series. Then there's Art Director Benjamin Ee, a Magic the Gathering card artist whose team kills it with Stray Gods' graphic novel-inspired looks. You've got the composer behind some of gaming's most celebrated soundtracks and scores in Austin Wintory (Journey, Abzu, Banner Saga). Tie that all together with a cast that's a true who's who of the industry: Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, Felicia Day, Troy Baker, Merle Dandridge, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Khary Payton, Janina Gavankar, Rahul Kohli, Allegra Clark, AND ANTHONY RAPP? LIKE FROM RENT? I could go on all day about the star power of this cast.
So, sure. The pieces are all there. But (sorry in advance for the sports reference) if being a fan of the San Diego Padres has taught me anything, it's that having all the star-powered pieces doesn't always add up to a win at the end of the day. You've got to execute properly to make the most of it.
In some areas, Stray Gods does. One of my favorite bits of the experience was Stray Gods' story — more specifically, its handling of Greek myth.
What if the gods were one of us?
In Stray Gods, you take control of Grace, your classic aimless and adrift twenty-something looking for anything to latch onto. She's got no direction, but she's got a best friend. And her best friend's got a band. A band who's hosting auditions as we open our story, just before a whirlwind of magical chaos takes over her life.
In quick succession, the following happens:
Grace ends up singing a beautiful duet with actual Greek muse Calliope (but doesn't realize it).
Grace goes home feeling ready to tackle the world... before Calliope shows up dying on her doorstep.
Grace ends up inheriting Calliope's godly powers and is accused of her murder by a council of Greek gods.
Grace brokers a deal to give herself a week to try and find the actual killer before death is laid down as punishment for the crime she didn't commit.
And so begins our muse-focused murder mystery musical, one that rarely lets up on the magical whimsy and takes Grace on a journey unraveling the messy web of interpersonal relationships that these Greek gods have weaved over the years.
Summerfall Studios have a fascinating take on Greek mythology here, one that positions the gods as eternal beings who pass along their "eidolon" to new hosts every time they die, as somewhat ordinary people who live among us and live out their days as a strange little "family," and as people just as damaged as the rest of us.
Grace finds herself placed in the middle of all of their mess, simultaneously tasked with finding a killer and fixing their issues. It's nothing new to portray gods as people just as flawed as us wee mortals, but the world Summerfall sets up here is one full of complex moral decisions and hyper-focused on one's legacy — and what that all means when you're just one of many in the eidolon lineage of any one god. It'sa fresh spin on the concept and one I loved seeing through to the end.
Even if the experience is a bit uneven. The first half is certainly bogged down by exposition, as Grace is introduced to this world and taught the rules of the godly society. Not only dialogue, but songs too: While they're enjoyable musically, many of our opening numbers are busied with delivering details rather than solidifying the narrative's overall purpose.
But when the game reaches its climax, and the emotional impact is at its peak, Stray Gods soars. Musicals are at their most powerful when they're emotionally vulnerable. And when Stray Gods' mystery and exposition and all the rest sheds away, the power of this storytelling method sings.
Characters are key to any narrative-focused affair and Stray Gods' rendition of the Greek pantheon is filled to the brim with refreshing takes on classic tales anchored by beautiful performances. From Troy Baker's sadsack Apollo to Mary Elizabeth McGlynne's rightfully scornful and embittered Persephone, players have more than enough emotional baggage to sort through.
Choice-driven but little else in its bag of tricks
Actually playing Stray Gods is... about what you'd expect for something that ostensibly stands between a visual novel and something like Dragon's Lair. As Grace, you'll be making choices in dialogue, and that change things drastically in each musical number. These choices affect how Grace's relationships unfold and her romantic pursuits, how these gods make a few all-important decisions, and the trajectory of Grace's personality within the game's three archetypes, which alters the lyrics and tone of each song.
But like that Dragon's Lair comparison, those choices are most of the action within your control. In songs, for example, you're basically watching a music video and chiming in with your choice now and again. Outside of those choices, you can decide the places you go and which side stories to pursue, and you can choose what to examine when you do stop into these places — offering just the tiniest bits of flavor text and small bits of lore — and that's about it.
And that's okay.
Some will contend that the game promises something bigger by saying it's a "role-playing game" in the title. I do think some better transparency about how your choices affect Grace's progression through one of the game's three personality traits — Badass, Charming, Clever — could do a lot to smooth over those issues. Seeing some kind of enhancement of those systems or actually feel like I was "leveling" these things up, or that investing in choices associated with those traits actually had a payoff, would give some kind of tangible feeling of more RPG-like mechanics.
But I think it does succeed at roleplaying... just not in the way most people probably would have liked. Stray Gods succeeds at being a musical roleplaying game. It holds that same earnestness and purity that characters in musicals hold.
And so, even when the action is quite limited, I was more than okay with sitting back and reveling in the music instead of having to keep up with some kind of rhythm game or turn-based battling happening in the background.
As much as it nails that aspect of musicals, it weirdly fails them in one other major way: Audio quality.
TURN IT UP! No literally... turn it up, I can't hear them.
At the time of our initial playthrough, the game's audio mix, both in dialogue and within each song, wavered wildly from performer to performer. In some cases, it even changes drastically line-to-line, as if different recording sessions for each actor were not balanced against the others. In a game so focused on vocal performances (singing and otherwise), it's hard to overlook. I found myself having to turn the game up and down just to hear some lines being read.
(Note: The game has released a patch as of September 7 that may have partially fixed this issue, but many still appear to be experiencing issues where the mix is too low.)
It's a shame. The singing performances are great. Austin Wintory's score is impactful and straddles the line brilliantly between a modern rock musical and more traditional musical motifs. And each vocal performer flexes their voice acting muscles and years of experience in even the simplest line reads. I applaud the efforts to make a cohesive soundtrack across lyric changes and even complete tonal shifts — depending on player choice — with seemingly an endless amount of variables that go into each song's eventual end product. Truly mindblowing work.
I also want to shout out the fun treatment given to Anthony Rapp, assigning him a role in the pantheon that perfectly matches his talents before allowing him to deliver one of the most satisfying musical moments of the whole game.
At least while you're turning the game up and down, Stray Gods pulls off some beautiful things in its visual style. Stray Gods employs an interesting motion comic/animatic style that'll probably be familiar and welcoming to fans of musicals. Oftentimes in the extremely active online musical community, those who wish to consume popular musicals are relegated to mushy, grainy bootleg recordings of musicals on Broadway. Some artists got sick of it and started to provide their own takes on popular tracks and characters by creating animatics and uploading them to YouTube.
These lightly animated pieces of art take static images, the implication of movement through simple camera movements, and beautiful designs to give an extra layer of meaning and character to a piece of audio they love. I don't know whether Stray Gods made that connection intentionally, but the connection made the experience all the more powerful for me.
Stray Gods has a mix of brilliant character illustrations that feel inspired by some of the best comic books and graphic novels out there — I swear they secretly absorbed the DNA of Fiona Staples, the artist of the comic series Saga — and adapted some classic Greek mythology visuals into a modern setting. Thirsty gamers out there may find it difficult to choose a romantic interest, because Summerfall Studios really made all these gods beautiful.
Stray Gods is messy. The game's story, music... some systems? But they're all so true to its heart and the intentions of the project. Summerfall Studios has delivered a flawed but fascinating musical in Stray Gods. Ambitious but so painfully human. Not unlike the ways the Greek gods are portrayed in the game. The experience is all the more beautiful for it.
If you don't like musicals, can't get past a few audio issues, or dislike visual novel-like experiences, Stray Gods isn't for you. But musical fans, Greek mythology addicts, and people looking to make a pathetic sad man happy? Strap yourselves in for a musical rollercoaster.
Video Games Are Good and Stray Goods is . . . GOOD. (7.5/10)
+ a musical experience where you have unprecedented control over the songs, fascinating reconstructions of Greek myth and characters, stunning vocal performances and artistry to bring it all to life
- issues with the audio mix stand out as pretty glaring, story pacing is uneven to say the least, a bit rough around the edges
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