The world is filled with musical theater nerds, fans of the great musicals like Rent, Chicago, Cats, and Wicked, to name a few. I wouldn't classify myself as one of them, but I can appreciate good theatre. Someone else who appreciates good theatre is David Gaider, the former lead writer for Dragon Age and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. He surprised many when he founded Summerfall Studios with the intention of making a video game musical. "How would that even work?" people like myself asked. After playing Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, however, I can only marvel at how well he and his team have pulled this feat off.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical follows the story of an aimless young adult named Grace who doesn't have much going for her beyond singing for her obscure band. Grace's life is turned upside-down when a strange woman named Calliope shows up to audition for the group and then shows up later at her apartment and dies in her arms. It turns out that this is the Greek Muse Calliope and she passes on her essence, called an eidolon, to Grace. As Grace becomes the new Muse, she's also quickly suspected of Calliope's murder.
With more of a visual novel type of presentation, story means a lot in Stray Gods, and this is a narrative with some distracting inconsistencies surrounding its pantheon. The gods (called Idols in this story) are immortal, except they aren't. They're all-powerful, except when they aren't. They're dangerous beings that aren't to be trifled with, except when they are. The actual power levels of the Idols seem to change to fit whatever situation the current scene calls for, which can be a bit annoying.
The reason that the Idols' power becomes important is because it's tied to the overarching murder mystery at play. Grace has only one week to prove her innocence otherwise, she'll be at the mercy of these powerful (in that instance, they would be) gods. She doesn't so much search for clues, because, by her own admission, she isn't a detective. Her primary method of investigation involves questioning the various Idols around her, which leads to a lot of jaunty musical numbers.
It takes some time for Stray Gods' story to come together in a satisfying way mainly because it takes a while for the world's rules to establish themselves. While the rules can be inconsistent and border on hokey, it's hard not to be emotionally affected by some of the individual scenes. This story hits hard, particularly when it touches on themes of love, sacrifice, trauma, and the question of whether anybody has the right to tell a person how to deal with their struggles and grief. The game doesn't so much have "right" answers, as the choices that players make move the story forward while also offering some thought-provoking debate long after the game has been shut off.
Taking the spotlight
Those who have played story-based games are accustomed to making dialogue choices that affect personal relationships and, eventually, the story's outcome as a whole. Those instances are plentiful in Stray Gods. In many cases, Grace can run through a line of questions before moving the story forward. Where the game stands out is with its use of musical numbers.
As the Muse, Grace has the power to make people around her break into song. This often leads to plot exposition and character moments expressed through toe-tapping beats and beautiful melodies. On their own, the compositions from Austin Wintory of Journey fame, Tripod, and Montaigne (from Eurovision Australia) can start as overly melancholic but quickly grow into something more fierce and memorable. What's especially genius about the musical numbers' integration is that players will also exercise dialogue choices mid-song. Depending on the player's choice, the song will go down a unique path, use different lyrics, sometimes take on a totally new chorus, and lead to a different outcome. It gives Stray Gods a sense of replayability that other games of this genre don't usually have.
On top of that, Stray Gods uses an interesting method to encourage multiple playthroughs. At the start of the story, players will pick one of three different traits for Grace. Depending on what they choose, specific dialogue options will become available while others will be blocked out entirely. While dialogue choices with traits tied to them aren't always the "right" answer, they do allow Grace to express herself with a unique personality that other choices wouldn't normally allow. It's a novel way to ensure that friends have unique playthroughs to allow them to compare and contrast their experiences.
An ambitious game of this type needs some strong performances to work, and Stray Gods' cast delivered. This is a wonderful ensemble piece and features many of gaming's most prolific voice actors showing why they're the best at their craft. Laura Bailey (The Last of Us Part 2, Marvel's Spider-Man, among many others), specifically, puts on an incredible show as main character Grace. Khary Payton (largely known for his work as DC's Cyborg) plays the devious Pan in another standout performance worthy of specific recognition. Payton's slick, almost two-faced demeanor and mischievous Cheshire Cat-like delivery is one I won't forget for a long time and, on its own, makes me want to return for another playthrough.
I did have one main problem and, sadly, it's a big one. In many scenes, I would hear a character speak at a normal volume, followed by a character who sounded ten miles away, and then followed by someone who was standing way too close to their microphone. The sound mixing on Stray Gods borders on dreadful, and it's an issue that stands out a lot more in a musical game. It's hard to turn the volume up on some of these scenes knowing a specific person's dialogue might blow out my speakers.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical was a premise that sounded fascinating on paper. Musical theatre in video game form? How would that even work? Summerfall Studios has shown everyone how it's done. This is a wonderful story with gorgeous artwork, tremendous performances, mostly memorable songs (there are a few downers, I won't lie), and heartbreaking twists. The rules of the world aren't always easy to follow, and the story will sometimes tie itself in knots because of them, but the narrative does come together at the end to deliver something truly satisfying.
With a multitude of choices and possibilities, Stray Gods gives players plenty of reasons to stick around for an encore. The show doesn't always have to end when the curtain goes down.
This review is based on a Steam digital code provided by the publisher. Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical will be available this Thursday, August 10 on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch for $29.99 USD. The game is rated T.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical
- Wonderfully unique concept
- Incredible voice acting and singing performances
- Gorgeous hand-drawn art style
- Worth replaying to hear everything
- Poor sound mixing
- Story sometimes gets bogged down by its world's rules
- A few of the songs are major downers