Review: Stray Gods harmonizes well, but it’s missing a few notes

Musicals are inherently transformative. They require audiences to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in a world where people burst into song when their emotions become too strong to contain. The characters dance and sing in liminal spaces full of unreality and the impossibility of expressing their hopes, dreams, fears and traumas. Then a new truth about yourself is discovered. In Stray Gods: The Role Playing Musical, our protagonist Grace is transformed when she suddenly gains the powers of a Greek goddess and is thrust into the world of immortal idols. Grace must use her singing power to uncover the mystery of the last muse’s murder or be sentenced to death.

Grace’s world changes forever when the role of final muse is unexpectedly thrust upon her by the death of Calliope, the previous final muse. Before her sudden ascension to godhood, Grace lived as a listless college dropout wandering through everyday life. Without an anchor, like a ship thrown into the sea without a leader, she has no real goals in life. After a harrowing attempt to find members for the band she and her friends formed, she finds herself alone and hopeless in an empty hall. She does what everyone does in a musical: she sings. Grace performs a poignant solo called “Adrift,” which clearly expresses her feelings about her aimless path. As she performs on stage, she meets Calliope. Calliope heard her singing through the auditorium doors and turns Grace’s solo into a duet where they share their feelings with each other in a beautiful call-and-response style.

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Screenshot from Siliconera

In “Adrift” we are introduced to the basic game mechanics Stray Gods: The Role Playing Musical. The game takes a unique twist on the visual novel genre and uses music and dialogue segments to present its story to players. We get to choose between three different personality traits: Charming, Kickass and Clever. A Charming Grace strives to please others and do the right thing. A Kickass Grace is stubborn and will fight for answers. “A Clever Grace” – the route I took on my first playthrough – has a keen eye and draws informed conclusions. Each musical performance in the game requires the player to choose the direction in which Grace plays the song, and each characteristic is represented by the options presented to the player. The music and lyrics change and some tracks switch from soulful ballads to lively jazz performances. This completely changes the tone of the song and the progression of the story.

The three personality traits also influence the dialogue options Grace uses in the non-musical sections of ” Stray Gods. There are regular dialogue options that the player can select, but sometimes there are also options influenced by individual personality traits. Depending on what the player chose at the start of the game, they may not be able to choose a dialogue option that has a different property than the path they chose. Some options are also locked if you haven’t completed certain character interactions or story beats in the game.

As Grace delves into this new world of divinity and magic, she searches for the truth behind Calliope’s murder by using her powers of music to compel people to sing their deepest truths to her. Grace is also able to grow closer to these characters and develop friendships with them that drastically influence the direction of the story by using her musical powers.

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Screenshot from Siliconera

As with many visual novels, the player can develop romances with four of the story’s main protagonists: Apollo, Freddie, Pan and Persephone. Freddie, Grace’s best friend, is her most loyal supporter throughout the game. Despite being human, she is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to Greek gods and helps Grace on her journey to unravel the mystery behind Calliope’s death. Apollo, the god of the sun and prophecy, is haunted by his powers to predict the future. He seems both conflicted and interested in helping Grace on her journey to prove her innocence. Pan, a hedonistic god who creates more questions than answers, finds creative ways to lead Grace down different paths to find out the truth about the idols. Persephone, the rightful queen of the underworld, is snarky and doesn’t trust easily, but slowly develops a kinship with Grace. I wish I could romance them all at once. Each character is charming in their own way and each has their own fears and complexities that made me want to learn as much as I could about them. The game only lasts about six hours and there are lots of different endings to reach and different versions of the songs to hear, which is perfect for replay value. I ended up romancing Pan and ended up completely in love with the character, even though I had concerns about the character at the start of the game. On my second playthrough, I had trouble deciding whether to romance Freddie or Persephone, so I ended up choosing a non-romance route.

Despite the joy of the story of Stray Gods, there were some random glitches and inconsistencies that would deter me from the experience. There is a part in the game where the player must meet the mythical creature Medusa to question her about Calliope’s murder. Depending on the choices the player makes beforehand, you can visit Medusa with Pan, with Freddie, or with both. On my first playthrough, I ended up seeing Medusa with Pan as a replacement, but after that section of the story ends, Freddie randomly shows up outside with Grace and Pan, as if she had been there the whole time. I don’t know if it’s because I built up Freddie’s romance but didn’t take her side in a particular section early in the game, but it was definitely irritating. Also, in my first playthrough, after visiting Medusa, Grace immediately returns to Pan and gets into an argument with him, as if she hadn’t just been there with him and had a similar conversation.

Another bug I had was that sometimes when selecting a dialogue option I would have to press the “A” button multiple times or use the Switch’s touchscreen to select an option because the button was unresponsive. This didn’t happen all the time, so all I can think of is that it’s a bug and not just a strange quirk of the dialogue wheel.

As I progressed to the end of the second act and throughout the entire third act of Stray Gods, I also started experiencing frequent crashes. Typically, I experienced these crashes when transitioning between events as the game tried to retrieve data for the next event. Luckily, the game has a great autosave feature, so I never lost more than maybe a few minutes of gameplay after these crashes.

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Screenshot from Siliconera

The game stands out not only for its story, but also for its artistic direction. Stray GodS is bursting with style as it has adopted a 2D comic book-like look that reminds me a bit of the Saga comic series. The characters feel like they are constantly moving, even though most scenes are static due to the expressive poses in which the characters are portrayed. By using clean yet distinct lines for the character art and contrasting them with rich color palettes in the background, everything pops and feels alive. It’s a shame that the great art is ruined by the poor presentation on the Nintendo Switch. I tested the game in both handheld and TV modes and everything looked compressed and blurry. Even though it is a 2D art style, Stray Gods uses flattened 3D models created in Unreal Engine 4 to render the backgrounds, and sometimes they stand out from the 2D graphics in the foreground.

In addition to the outstanding artistic direction, the voice acting is also by Stray Gods is truly a miracle. Featuring an all-star cast full of industry veterans like Laura Bailey as Grace, Ashley Johnson as Calliope and Troy Baker as Apollo, the story of Stray Gods feels elevated due to the great dubbing and vocal performances. It’s hard to imagine Pan’s jazzy songs without Khary Payton’s gravelly voice, or the discovery of Persephone’s past without Mary Elizabeth McGlynn delivering her lines with real passion. Unfortunately, the audio mixing in the game is poor on the Switch. Sometimes scenes are too quiet and become too loud after transitioning to a new one. Additionally, the background music turns on and off when the voiceover plays, resulting in a constantly changing volume that can be distracting if you notice it.

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Screenshot from Siliconera

Austin Wintory, best known for his work on Triptook on the challenge of developing the music for it Stray Gods alongside musicians Montaigne and Tripod, but their efforts fail somewhat. When I started playing Stray GodsI was extremely impressed with “Adrift,” the first musical number by Laura Bailey and Ashley Johnson. The beautiful, haunting tone set the stage for what I hoped would be a game full of excellent songs, but what greeted me later sounded a little strange and forgettable. Due to the different directions songs can go depending on the player’s choices, the tone of a song can shift completely, creating a dissonant sound that I feel detracts from the quality of each musical number, despite it being so intertwined with the identity Stray Gods. The background music in this game is also a bit forgettable. Aside from “Adrift” and its third-act reprise, however, there are still a few standouts. I really enjoyed the musical number where Grace attends the love goddess Aphrodite’s party in the second act and a duet between Persephone and Grace in Persephone’s club.

Grace and the rest of the Greek pantheon in Stray Gods are brought to life by expert voice actors, great art direction and a poignant story that is fascinating from start to finish, and the game is undone by its performance on the Nintendo Switch. The game attempts to balance musical elements with decision-driven mechanics, but fails to nail that tone due to an awkward soundtrack. Still, I had a lot of fun with it Stray Gods: The Role Playing Musical And visual novel fans looking for something unique will definitely find this enchanting game worth experiencing.

Stray Gods: The Role Playing Musical is available for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Nintendo Switch.

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