Stray Gods may be Summerfall Studios’ first game but it’s certainly no stranger to experience in the video game industry. The adventure roleplaying musical game is headed by a veteran team of developers and bolstered by some of gaming’s most well-known voice actors and creatives. With this in mind, Stray Gods set expectations high, with a passionate community of indie fans excited to see what such a unique concept could bring to the table.
Stray Gods is a choice-based murder mystery adventure mixed with Greek mythology and musical numbers – a combination sure to get anyone interested. Grace, (Laura Bailey) is suddenly thrown into the world of Greek gods after the last muse Calliope (Ashley Johnson), succumbs to fatal wounds passing on her eidolon, the source of her godhood, to Grace. After the other members of the Greek pantheon believe Grace to be Calliope’s murderer she is forced into a race against time to find the true culprit using her newfound godlike musical powers and wit.
The musical aspect of Stray Gods is implemented fantastically. Moments of emotion see characters break out into song with some meta-commentary and in-game reasons for why they do so. Austin Wintory – one of the most respected of his craft – once again proves how much of a talented composer he is. Along with the work of musicians Scott Edgar, Steven Gates and Simon Hall of Tripod and Jess Cerro, Stray Gods creates a truly unique musical experience with branching musical options that allow each song to shift tones dramatically yet seamlessly. I found myself utterly enraptured by each piece, particularly the opening melody that appears throughout the entire game. Each member of the cast provides a fitting performance and you can feel the passion and vision behind each musical number.
However, outside of that music, the game’s audio can feel a little bland at times. Voice lines dominate the airwaves with no real background sound to be heard. Perhaps this is meant to capture the feeling of actually watching a musical, where on-stage performers are usually only backed up by the occasional musical tone of an orchestra. However, in Stray Gods’ case, I found this generally took something away from the overall audio feel of the game.
With regards to the voice lines, there were several times during my playthrough when voices were either too loud or too quiet. At different stages throughout the game, voice audio would fluctuate heavily and any attempt to adjust the game’s audio made no difference. I could still make out what each character was saying but it was a jarring experience at times to have a character right in front of the camera speak extremely quietly when that certainly didn’t seem like the scene’s intent.
Where the game shines is with its bolstered cast of recognizable faces and voices. Many of us will likely recognise the likes of Laura Bailey, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, (all from The Last of Us), voicing characters here in Stray Gods. However, the performances that stuck out to me most were the less-familiar names of Khary Payton as Pan, Rahul Kohli as the Minotaur, Asterion, and Janina Gavankar as Freddie. Payton’s performance as Pan had me enraptured throughout my entire playthrough. His sly tone that persists throughout the experience is utterly engrossing and I looked forward to every encounter I had with him.
Equally, I believe Gavankar’s performance as Freddie is likely the best role of her career. It can be very difficult for a game to nail a good side-kick character but every scene with Freddie provided everything from adorable fun to heartwrenching emotion. It was also slightly surprising to see Rahul Kohli in a different style of role after his grounded gritty performance in Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, but he again proves his range playing the clumsy, romantic Minotaur, Asterion.
Despite the fantastic quality of voice acting, however, the Greek gods never felt like their actual mythological counterparts. Outside of some catch-all traits, many of the gods were only recognizable due to name alone. While this makes sense to a certain extent given the narrative setup, I can’t help but feel that the purpose behind each character being related to Greek gods is as a shorthand so that the writers don’t have to establish each character from the ground up. This, to me, ultimately makes the Greek presence feel more like superficial set dressing rather than an essential part of the game’s narrative.
The game’s art style is another huge draw for players and understandably so as the 3D spaces mixed with 2D characters is a fantastic feast for the eyes. However, the limited range of the game’s animations, as it attempts to portray a more visual-novel approach to storytelling, can lead to either a heavy amount of cuts at places or the camera staying on one shot for just too long. Equally, at times I found the game can encounter some performance issues. Particularly during a stage in Act 2, the game experienced some heavy frame drops and input delay. After closing down the game and rebooting it again the issue persisted. It’s not a major fault of the game but it did strike me as off given how well Stray Gods performs outside of this one scene.
Narratively and gameplay speaking Stray Gods is a bit of a mixed bag. There are several truly brilliant scenes filled with emotion and significant character development. However, even given the amount of choice in terms of how players can approach both musical segments and general dialogue I rarely felt like my individual choices were having a lasting effect on certain elements of the game. There was only really one instance where I found myself questioning my choices but outside of that I got the impression that had I made a different selection I ultimately still would have arrived near a similar conclusion come the end of the game. Alongside this, there isn’t any gameplay outside of dialogue conversations. This isn’t a bad thing, as I quite like the more relaxed approach to gameplay, but there are a few sections which just feel like you’re sifting through items until you find the right one. It’s fun to hear Grace’s thoughts on each item but for those not interested I imagine this could get tedious very quickly.
Overall, Stray Gods is an admirable take on a unique idea. However, some of the audio issues mixed with an, at times, unengaging narrative left me disappointed at the game’s overall execution. The cast’s performances are truly phenomenal and coupled with each musical number stick out as the game’s strongest aspects. The concept of a roleplaying musical is truly fantastic and I hope Summerfall Studios don’t abandon the idea altogether in future projects as there truly is a great niche of the indie game market that could benefit from experiences like Stray Gods.