We’ve seen some unusual genre combinations, but Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical immediately caught my eye for being a supernatural murder mystery visual novel musical; as far as I can tell it’s a one-of-a-kind video game, but an idea that we can only hope will become more common because of how boldly bonkers it is. There’s a magical moment when characters – both mortals and the gods of Greek myth – burst into song and you can choose your response, which impacts how your character feels, affects how other people respond, and even changes the lyrics of the tune you’re helping create. Musical battles evolve to a whole new level when you can decide who sings and how they’re expressing their emotions. Inevitably, the initial thrill of choice starts to wear off the more you play, and the story and characters’ predictability make the overall experience fall a little flat, but even so, it has plenty of wonderful art and top-notch voice acting to keep you entertained through it all.
You play as Grace, voiced with moxie and flair by The Last of Us star Laura Bailey. She’s a college dropout who finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and falsely accused of murdering a muse of the gods. Just as you’d hope for in a musical, which depends on every character being able to belt out a tune, the voice acting is rich across the board. Every line is voiced, often by recognizable talent. Bailey is joined by her The Last of Us colleagues Troy Baker, Merle Dandridge, Ashley Jonson, as well as stars of the stage and screen like Felicia Day, Rahul Kohli, and Anthony Rapp.
For such a fantastical story, though, I was a bit underwhelmed by the overly safe interpretation of the characters. If you’re going to explore Greek mythology, I want to see something new done with characters like Athena, Pan, and Persephone; I want to be enchanted by discovering new sides to these gods and to their established storylines. There are a few of those surprises here: Baker’s Apollo, for instance, is far moodier than the way the God of the Sun is usually portrayed, and I did enjoy his surfer bro backstory. But for the most part, this pantheon sticks a bit too comfortably close to the archetypes they’re traditionally presented as.
Part of that is due to the fact that a playthrough of Stray Gods takes only about three hours, so by necessity the writing (which was led by BioWare veteran David Gaider) sacrifices character development for plot acceleration, for the most part. You can catch characters at a bar or party and briefly speak to them, but the overarching goal is always to find the murder suspect and clear your name. The few dialogue choices that do build out the lives of these characters are just optional lines that you can skip through as you complete the main quest.
The art, though, is absolutely fantastic. The hand-drawn characters look distinctive and vivid, in bold lines and fashion choices. A number of the gods have edgy piercings and other accessories that give them an extra layer of personality that matches their writing and voice performances. The color schemes of the backdrops, whether it’s a lair or a luxury apartment, are also a feast for the eyes.
Maybe this is just a pet peeve, but it did bother me that the characters’ lips don’t move at all – and while that’s fairly typical for a visual novel, most visual novels aren’t musicals. At times, the characters have their mouths closed while their songs play, which served to take me out of the illusion that they were really singing. To their credit, the varied camera angles do keep the flow of each scene going.
While the murder mystery plot’s true culprit was a little too obvious for my taste, and that never changes, there’s potential for replayability in that Grace’s dialogue options are guided by whether you’ve chosen to play her as Clever, Charismatic, or Kickass, and that decision makes scenes play out very differently. A Kickass Grace will aggressively shake down a suspect, whereas a Clever Grace would reason with her adversaries and try to make them see logic.
As a positive, the gameplay is extremely simple and accessible, to the point where it feels like an interactive TV special. You’re mostly looking around places for clues and deciding if you want to charm, interrogate, or sneak past other characters or obstacles. You can choose violence… or you can be more subtle. You select Grace’s dialogue choices, and during tense song battles, these choices are timed – though it’s still low-stakes in that there are no real consequences if you fail to make a choice in time – it simply picks one for you.
I find myself replaying to see if I can date other characters (usually you can, unrestricted by gender) and to spend more time with characters I’d bypassed on the first run. And the only technical issues I ran into were occasional failures to save my progress. Even someone who has never picked up a video game before could, in theory, enjoy Stray Gods.
Stray Gods’ original songs could fit right into a Broadway show. Scored by acclaimed game composer Austin Wintory, they’re lengthy and are aimed at giving us a sense of who these characters are as they contemplate mortality, reflect on the bitterness of the past, and vent their emotions. The very talented voice actors show off their impressive range and deliver heartfelt performances. It can get quite heavy, and I found myself wondering if these songs might reflect the feelings of some of my own relatives who are nearing the end of their lives. However, they’re written without much of a pop hook; as a result, they’re not very catchy. But upon a second playthrough, I could hear recurring themes and character accents, and they certainly have their moments. At one point, Grace switches over to a Hamilton-like delivery, belting out insults against her opponents in a rap battle. At another, there’s a quirky cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” A villain’s soliloquy is appropriately devilish.
Stray Gods: The Musical Screenshots
“It sounds like they hurt you, defied or usurped you,” Grace sings at one point, and that about sums up the vibe. These gods have all been wronged in some way in their thousands of years of being alive. Grace almost has to go around offering them free therapy to comfort them, and I wasn’t necessarily a fan of this approach. One of the draws of video games is that they offer a level of escapism, but Stray Gods dwells on too many sad emotions for me. It just feels a little bleak, especially if I spend too many hours in this world.
On my first playthrough I allowed every dialogue line to be read in full, and I found that the pacing of the story drags during some of the slower songs when characters ponder their lives and their decisions, such as when Apollo sings about how he’s too passive. You have to sit through those no matter what, but thankfully, there’s an option in the menus to make dialogue skippable if you’d like to make additional playthroughs a breeze.
It’s worth going through at least one more time because your choices have life-and-death consequences at two major plot points. On a smaller scale, you’re able to change the lyrics of the songs that the characters belt out, and even pick who gets a solo act versus a duet or group performance. You can also choose to make Grace someone who hogs the spotlight, or someone who’s fairly generous with her time. When I first discovered this, I really enjoyed seeing how the songs change, while sticking to an overall melody that still works.
Grace’s muse ability to make anyone near her breakout in song means she can also influence their mental health and what they choose to do with their life. Stray Gods doesn’t really address this, but it does open up the question to me, at least: Say you do influence the people around you to do what you want. Doesn’t that strip them of their agency? It’s an idea that Life is Strange: True Colors explores more in depth, and one that would have been fascinating enough to elevate that game from simply being about some characters in a town to being about greater human themes. Instead of digging into this, though, Stray Gods just lets Grace do what she wants, and doesn’t bother worrying about the consequences.