The Worst Part About This New RPG Is Also What Makes It Special

The Worst Part About This New RPG Is Also What Makes It Special

The initial pitch for Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, a choice-based musical where player decisions inform the direction a song goes is great. Summerfall Studios’ debut game sets a stage adorned by a modern-day Greek mythology backdrop, and conceptually, I should be lapping this up. In some ways, I am sincerely enamored with the story of Grace, the singer-turned-muse dealing with centuries of Greek god drama. But man, I almost wish it wasn’t a musical because that’s the part of it that falls so flat.

Grace, a listless musician is falsely accused of killing Calliope, the last of the Greek muses. The Greek gods are living among us in the modern day and have persisted throughout history by transferring their souls and memories into (typically) willing hosts. Those memories take time to manifest, but eventually, they become so overwhelming to the host that they are essentially overwritten by the god. But Grace, having been given Calliope’s soul and powers in her dying breath with zero ceremony or warning, is in a unique situation, one that has put her under a microscope and assumed to have killed her predecessor.

Screenshot: Summerfall Studios / Kotaku

Grace is given a chance to investigate the muse’s murder, and in doing so must meet with the other Greek gods and interrogate them. But because she’s a muse, she doesn’t just ask questions, she compels everyone around her to sing their answers. When emotion swells in Stray Gods, the Greek gods erupt into a diegetic musical number meant to unmask the truth. There’s not much place for secrecy when you’re forced to sing your heart out.

Stray Gods’ unique take on Greek mythology is its greatest strength

Stray Gods is a fun twist on both Greek mythology and your average dialogue-driven adventure game. Its modern take on Greek gods casts Persephone, the queen of the underworld, as the head of an underground club, and Eros, the god of love, is perpetually decked out in gay leather garb. It’s fun to see how the game will play with ancient, established characters in new and exciting ways.

Stray Gods’ writing (outside of its music) is easily its strongest feature. Grace doesn’t tolerate any bullshit, so she comes in like a wrecking ball to break down and shake up the established hierarchy of these gods. And each character has a strong, defined voice that makes interacting with them its own compelling puzzle, as I often felt like I was parachuting into conflicts I had no place in, so it was important to push back but also recognize few people actually wanted me butting into centuries-long fights. Even without hugely diverging choices, Stray Gods put me on edge when talking to someone imposing like Persephone and made me feel comfortable with someone like Eros who was incredibly friendly and wanted things to be different for the Greek gods, rather than being caught in an endless cycle of death and reincarnation. It’s a well-rounded cast elevated by charming, decisive dialogue.

Stray Gods' three traits are shown as the player picks which one they want to choose.

Screenshot: Summerfall Studios / Kotaku

The trouble begins when you start engaging with its dialogue systems, which quickly unmask a restrictive format on a choice-driven story. At the outset, you pick one of three personality traits for Grace: Charming, Kickass, or Clever. For the first chunk of the game, you’re given access to different dialogue options based on what you picked, which often just add narrative flavor rather than actively blocking off certain paths. But ultimately, these traits never really make Grace feel like a distinct character save for a few key moments. Grace is typically a bewildered, jaded, but well-meaning individual, it’s just a matter of whether or not she kicks down a locked door or finds a way around it. Her story is compelling regardless of my input, and that can often be the case when you role-play a character who is more or less already defined before you were given control. While the title says Stray Gods is a roleplaying musical, I didn’t really feel like Grace was mine to roleplay, just to nudge slightly in one direction or another.

These dialogue systems play into the musical part of Stray Gods, as the songs will shift and change in tone and key based on dialogue decisions you make. Conceptually, that fucking rules. Musicals, especially ensemble productions where a lot of characters with distinct voices and styles are involved, are built around shifting and changing compositions that capture a character’s spirit just as much as they’re used for exposition. So giving the player the literal power to affect the flow of a song is a neat riff on dialogue-driven roleplaying. But as much as I love that premise, Stray Gods’ music ultimately can’t match up to its promise.

A Roleplaying Musical that’s best on mute

When Stray Gods was first announced back in 2019, I was excited to see that composer Austin Wintory, known best for his work on scores for Journey and Flow, was attached to the project. Journey has an all-time best video game soundtrack, especially in context with its stunning visuals and emotional beats. It is a masterclass in making every note feel attached to a gameplay moment. So I had high hopes that Stray Gods would be intimately tied to the music Wintory would create. But unfortunately, all it does is put a spotlight on how writing a score and writing a musical are two distinctly different things, even with the help of musical comedy trio Tripod and Australian pop artist Montaigne.

There are talented people at the heart of these songs. Laura Bailey as Grace is a standout, and thankfully as the protagonist she’s there to swoop in with a great vocal delivery when a song is getting unbearable. But from a composition perspective, Stray Gods’ musical numbers sound like a generic, amateurish community theater’s original production, and often seem functional rather than musical

Songs lack hooks or character, and the whole production doesn’t have big defining numbers you’d expect theater kids to latch onto. The sung dialogue lacks oomph, and the music underneath the lyrics is generic and seems almost terrified to outshine the vocalists. The end result is a musical soup that lacks any flavor as characters sing at each other instead of with each other. I don’t doubt the passion for musical theater among this team, I simply doubt that they have the chops. In your average stage musical, songs are meant to be both an extension of your dialogue and character arcs as well as something you’d listen to out of its original context. I wouldn’t seek out most of Stray Gods’ songs on Spotify, and some I’d actively skip if they came up on shuffle.

Grace is shown making a dialogue decision in Stray Gods.

Screenshot: Summerfall Studios / Kotaku

Stray Gods is a powerhouse of video game voice actor star power. Hell, you’ve got Laura Bailey, Ashley Johnson, and Troy Baker starring, and those are the headliners of The Last of Us Part II, each with musical history of their own. But that also unearths what Stray Gods’ problem is. It’s a bunch of video game people swinging for something incredibly ambitious and exciting, but perhaps not recognizing that musical theater requires an entirely different toolbox than, say, creating an RPG . Stray Gods looks at an artform with decades of history and tries to imitate it without capturing its magic.

I’m enamored by Stray Gods’ writing and art, but the thing that makes it unique is the worst part about it. Whenever I was enjoying the writing, acting, or art, the music would kick in and I’d mutter “oh, okay, here we go again” until it was time to pick my choices and direct the song one way or another. It’s such a cool idea, but the foundation is so shaky that I sometimes wish it was just a standard adventure game so its best parts could shine through. It wouldn’t have been as eye-catching or original without its gimmick, but it would’ve been a better game.

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