Musicals aren’t exactly commonplace in video games but can this daring new indie title make them the hot new genre?
Greek mythology, or at least a bastardised version of it, has been doing good business in video games recently. Hades, Immortals Fenyx Rising, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and earlier God Of War games before they went all Norse, all use the characters and stories of the ancient Greeks. The appeal is obvious: their gods all seem to be impressively powerful, ruthless and debauched, while also being paradoxically human in their motivations.
Aside from having one of the best names ever trademarked for a game, Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical distinguishes itself by transplanting its ancient Greek cast into modern day America for a murder mystery. After Calliope the muse is murdered, her soul and powers transfer to Grace, a mortal, whom the remaining gods strongly suspect may also have been the one that killed her.
Athena gives Grace a week to clear her name, by finding out whodunnit and collecting evidence to support that claim. In that time, she must come to terms with her new found abilities and role as muse in the dwindling Greek pantheon, while also attempting to prove she’s not a murderer. No easy task, but one the developers clearly thought wasn’t enough of a hook, so the premise is also spliced with musical theatre.
The upshot is that most major scenes in the game contain a conversation followed by a song. Your choice of what to say is affected by an initial decision about Grace’s character. Would you like her to be charming, clever, or kick-ass? You’re allowed to add a second trait later, but for most of the game your selection means dialogue options for the other two personalities are greyed out.
Conversations work as expected, with most responses having two or three choices, but the songs are a little different, in that your muse powers mean you can inspire the singer’s emotions as well as what they sing about. So under your influence, songs can turn towards anger, introspection or melancholy, forcing the deity singing them to examine different sides of their own character.
You’ll also discover that while everyone gives their songs a good old go, not everyone’s singing voice is equal, although most are pretty competent. However, the voice-acting is superb throughout. Laura Bailey’s Grace and Troy Baker’s Apollo, along with Ashley Johnson’s brief cameo as Calliope are effectively a The Last Of Us Part 2 reunion (Abby, Joel, and Ellie). And while Khary Payton wasn’t in that game, his portrayal of the duplicitous Pan is another standout in an already excellent cast.
So why doesn’t it work? Perhaps the biggest problem with a game billing itself as a musical, is the music. The technology underpinning it works seamlessly, with your lyrical and emotional direction blending neatly into songs as they play. The words and arrangements do justice to the sentiments you specify, but the songs themselves are entirely forgettable, with not a single hummable refrain in the whole game.
This is also not in any way a role-playing game. There’s no levelling up, no skill trees, and no weapons or armour to upgrade, re-forge or improve. This is, in reality, a musical Telltale Games style adventure, with your agency limited solely to dialogue choices, along with the odd moment where you can choose in what order to speak to people at a party or while wandering around town.
It’s comic book graphics do a good job of conveying emotion and the character of each protagonist. It’s also kind enough to explain each god’s place in Greek mythology, Grace standing in for us with her welter of questions. It’s a useful service for non-classics scholars and is achieved with such a light touch that nobody should feel patronised.
The issue, though, is that its central conceit just isn’t good enough, with songs doing their job of furthering the plot and letting you affect their musical style, without once being enjoyable to listen to. Some of them are actively terrible, although if you have an abiding love of musicals your mileage may vary.
There are also technical problems. One scene played out twice in succession against different backdrops; sound levels are highly variable, so some characters are loud, others almost inaudible, and some songs are deafening. There was also at least one crash to the home screen, which in a five-hour game with no animation isn’t an inspiring track record.
Developers should be applauded for trying something new, ignoring established genres and the artificially created borders between them. Stray Gods’ concept, characters, and art style are all absolutely superb. Unfortunately, its songs and sense of player agency are lacking, making this a great concept but sadly not a great game.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical review summary
In Short: An intriguingly whimsical mix of choose your own adventure book and musical, whose lacklustre songs and limited interactions don’t manage to live up to the promise of its name.
Pros: First rate voice-acting, fascinatingly complicated and flawed characters, expressive comic book art style, and a truly original blend of genres.
Cons: The songs range from mediocre to dreadful. Your decisions regularly seem almost irrelevant and there are a fair few technical issues for such a slight game.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Publisher: Humble Games
Developer: Summerfall Studios
Release Date: 10th August 2023
Age Rating: 12
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