I’ve always had a soft spot for rhythm games that are meant to simulate more than just, say, singing or playing an instrument. Games such as Fantasia: Music Evolved, which made it feel like you were a full-on conductor, or Fuser, which let you live out your DJ dreams and craft your own remixes. But Stray Gods, the debut game from David Gaider’s Summerfall Studios, takes a more interesting path by essentially putting you in the role of a composer or a songwriter, crafting each tune on the fly and crafting the lyrics and sound of it as you go. It’s a particularly daring approach, especially when tied in with a fantasy murder mystery involving the Greek gods in a modern-day world, but does it end up paying off?
Let’s start off by getting back to that “fantasy murder mystery” part. Stray Gods sees you playing as Grace, a young college dropout struggling to make it as a musician with her band, and also struggling with a direction in life. Things change when a mysterious woman named Calliope auditions for them one night, changing even further when Calliope then arrives on Grace’s doorstep one night and dies, passing on their Eidolon to Grace, giving them their powers and making them the new Calliope. Unfortunately, the Chorus that heads up the remaining Greek gods, known as Idols, quickly learns of Calliope’s death, fingers her as a suspect, and gives them a week to solve the mystery or else they’ll have to kill Grace. So you know, no pressure.
Luckily, Calliope’s powers include something that can help Grace with their investigation. Namely, the ability to create musical numbers and make people perform in them, to put it in layman’s terms. See, while Grace’s new skills can’t force anyone to do what they don’t want, the gift of song does allow them to reveal their heart’s innermost desire, what they really want to say. And Grace can help guide each song along, picking from one of three approaches for each new section it, choosing from either a charming, aggressive or crafty approach. Guide the tune in a certainly, and you can alter major outcomes, gain allies or unveil new secrets along the way.
It’s a unique gameplay mechanic, as well as a method of storytelling, essentially creating a major, truly interactive video game musical. But it would be nothing without terrific music, and rather unsurprisingly, Stray Gods delivers that in spades. Composers Austin Wintory, Tripod and Montaigne have not only crafted a bunch of impressive songs that explore a wide range of emotions and style, but the way each song can seamlessly shift into different tones, sounds and atmospheres based on your choices without sacrificing any integrity is something to be applauded. Of particular note are the polyphonic verses (offense to any musical fans if I got such a term wrong), which are splendidly executed and always make for a rather invigorating sounds, even intense at times.
It’s not just that the music in Stray Gods is amazing (and performed by an expert cast including the likes of Laura Bailey, Troy Baker and Felicia Day, who all nail near characters’ performance), but that it’s also uniquely tied into the main narrative as well. As mentioned earlier, your choices not only direct how the song goes, but what the potential outcome of it might be, leading to the likes of something like choosing what character to align with, or something more truly heartbreaking, as I got to experience with a number that, one way or another, would lead to a massive gut punch. You really do get an opportunity to explore every side of a character’s dilemma and their emotions, depending on how you choose to bring them out.
It helps that even without the musical numbers, Stray Gods still has a terrific story at the center of it all. A modern-day Greek mythology murder mystery does allow for a lot of unique opportunities, after all. While the Idols may mostly remain in hiding, you still get a particularly deep glimpse into how some of them have adjusted to modern life over the years in one way or another, such as Persephone running a nightclub called “The Underworld” or Apollo taking in a new oracle that’s…basically just a hacker who can find information, crashing at Apollo’s place. The game has a lot of fun with exploring different interpretations of Greek mythology, exploring how mortals have perceived it, and actually allows for a great sense sense of humor to shine through with more tongue-in-cheek moments.
The mystery at the core is also particularly well designed, and takes more than a few nice twists and turns, especially given the colorful cast of characters involved. Needless to say, given the reputations each character has due to their histories, everyone is easily seen as a suspect, and yet at the same time, every character is also well-rounded and likeable, with a lot of personality to showcase. Special mention goes to Grace’s best friend, and the only other major mortal character in the game, Freddie, who geeks out over every bit of myth they can see in person, and who is generally just a perfect ray of sunshine and comic relief character to have around.
Which each Idol in Stray Gods mainly being a reincarnation in one way or another, however, that leads to unique angles to explore. For example, Grace is told that eventually a veil will be lifted and all of Calliope’s memories will be flooding back to Grace. Will Grace still be able to remain Grace, especially give that her own memories will eventually be a drop in a bucket? How do other Idols cope with such changes? How do they deal issues that have been bottled up for centuries, like with Persephone’s resentment over what happened with Hades? The game doesn’t shy away from the the deeper issues of trauma, change and self-discovery, and it all makes for one fantastic tale.
Despite its subtitle of “The Roleplaying Musical,” however, Stray Gods really doesn’t have any traditional RPG mechanics, and it also doesn’t feel like much of a a graphic adventure game. In the end, it’s probably best described as something more akin to a visual novel, which is perfectly fine, but even for a visual novel, you might wish there was more meat here. The majority of the game will basically see you going through dialogue trees after dialogue trees, making choices at times, including those unlocked only via one of three personality traits you choose for Grace at the beginning (corresponding with the choices they can make in the musical numbers).
The problem might be that in contrast to the showstopping musical moment, the more traditional dialogue parts can’t help but feel vanilla. It doesn’t help that it makes the game feel like less of an investigation (there were about two points in my playthrough where Grace could actually examine objects in their surroundings) and more like you’re following a path of words until the next big choice or song. And while there’s nothing wrong with being simplistic in a genre like this, it does feel like it also contributes to a lack of challenge. True, this is a game with several branching paths (and even romance options) that encourages multiple playthroughs so you can see all the differences, but it was easy to get everybody on my side and unlock what felt like the best ending (or one of them, anyway), so even with a brief play time of about five hours or so, what was the incentive to back (aside from the musical bits)?
There’s one last complaint I have about Stray Gods, though, and it’s a rather ironic one for a game centered around beautiful music, and that’s in the sound mixing for the dialogue. Alas, there were times in which the volume for certain characters was considerably lower than the others, and while the game has more than a few reserved, bashful characters, here everyone else was speaking in normal volumes, in a normal conversation, which was especially egregious during the third act when this happened with a particularly important character. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future update, because it harms what is an otherwise majestic show. And a majestic show where a Greek god seemingly gets to paraphrase Linkin Park lyrics at one point. Not a lot of games get a sentence like that to help describe it.
Stray Gods’ unique blend of musicals and video games alone makes it worthy of applause, but it’s the incredible way that the ear-pleasing, player-orchestrated numbers are weaved into such a well-designed murder mystery which deserves the loudest cheers. Backed up by an impressive style with great visuals and an amazing cast of characters, this show is one that can hold its own when compared to some of Broadway’s best (even with the heavy amount of dialogue), so consider nabbing a ticket to go see it.