Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical (Switch) Review
Videogames and musicals are two of my favourite things on the planet, so to say that I was excited by the mere thought of Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical would be an understatement. These are two mediums sporting such profoundly unique ways to tell a story. Stray Gods infuses these formats with Greek mythology, a murder mystery, and a roll call to make a Playbill blush. The result gets close to living up to my lofty expectations, but at the same time, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave me with a feeling of a missed opportunity.
Throughout this visual novel you play as Grace, a headstrong vocalist played by prolific voice actress Laura Bailey. Grace encounters the Greek muse Calliope, with whom she experiences an other-worldly musical experience. Not long after, Calliope turns up on Grace’s doorstep with fatal wounds, at which point her soul and abilities are passed on to Grace. Hermes soon arrives and takes Grace to a council of Greek gods, who explain that she has one week to prove that she is innocent of the murder of Calliope.
Your quest to do so will take you across the city and into Olympus, meeting an assortment of Idols (the Greek gods) to learn more about what happened in an attempt to clear your name. Conversations unfold via a dialogue tree that allows you to enquire about details of those involved, and to develop your relationships along the way. At the start of the game, you can choose a dominant personality trait that will unlock additional conversation options; charming, kickass or clever. Having different ways to approach each situation adds plenty of replayability to the game.
You’ll have these personality choices throughout each of the game’s songs too. During several points in each of the more than a dozen songs across the game, you can influence the direction of the song by making choices from those personality traits. Each choice affects not only the lyrics and subsequently the story, but the musical composition changes to match. Charming choices cause the music to adopt a peaceful, melodic tone backed by the harp as the dominant instrument. Going the kickass route kicks things up a gear, with a more upbeat tempo and aggressive shift in music towards a punk rock vibe. Lastly, picking the clever option infuses a jazzy swing with quick and witty lyrics to match.
If you take one thing away from this review, let it be this: Stray Gods is, on a musical composition front, a technical marvel. The countless ways in which a song can branch off not only in lyrics, story and musical styles but for it to all feel cohesive and natural is nothing short of an astounding achievement. Composer Austin Wintory and his team deserve endless plaudits for the creation of music that is not just audibly pleasing but structurally sound and delivers an emotionally affecting and moving narrative. I can barely comprehend the amount of work it took to have everything work as seamlessly as it does, and I’m in legitimate awe of what they have produced here.
I still can’t help but wish for a little more. Whilst all songs are wonderfully written, the main reason songs will stick with you after the fact has more to do with the narrative portrayed through them than the music itself. Perhaps it was a deliberate style choice for a more subdued musical tone or a consequence of the branching paths limiting the ability to have consistent melodic hooks, but very few of the songs hung around in my head after the game. A little more variety, energy, and the addition of some stronger iconic melodies to create some more memorable tracks would have gone a long way.
The voice cast may be a bit of a factor here too. Now I love Laura Bailey and Troy Baker as much as the next person who has played basically any video game ever at this point. And I wouldn’t say they are bad singers – far from it! They’re very good singers. But are they phenomenal singers? I’m not sure. I found myself longing for a little more oomph or “je ne sais quoi” when it came to the lead vocals. There were more than a couple of occasions where I felt notes just didn’t quite land right or deliveries sounded a little shaky. At no point is it unpleasant, but I do kind of wish that instead of simply opting for the usual industry big hitters like Bailey and Baker, they had cast their net a little wider to find some incredible talent who could have left their mark on an ambitious project such as this.
The myriad of other vocalists playing smaller roles in the game tend to fare better with some incredibly powerful performances, and they are responsible for some of the more memorable tracks from the game. With that said, everyone involved delivers incredible voice work outside of the music. I don’t want to bring the game down on this factor too much – what is here is still excellent. I do however think it could have been a touch better.
What was less impressive was some of the title’s technical issues on Switch. I had probably half a dozen crashes back to the Switch home screen before rolling credits. Even more frustrating is the visuals. I quite like the general aesthetic of the game, with a look akin to something out of a graphic novel. What I didn’t like was that on Switch everything looked blurry. Having seen the game run on other platforms, this is a case unique to the Switch version. It isn’t exactly a technically demanding game either, so this isn’t simply a case of underpowered hardware. Something has gone wrong in the conversion, and it was sometimes genuinely difficult to look at. I do hope this can be patched at some point.
Something even more unforgivable is the game’s audio mixing. Some characters come through at a normal volume, whereas others are either way too loud or way too quiet. It’s a bizarre and frankly inexcusable shortcoming for a game in which its sound is so fundamental to the experience. It predominantly affects audio in conversations but can filter through to the songs as well. A fix for this is desperately needed.
I also have to mention the user interface. Although this may not be an issue on PC where you are moving the mouse to select options, on console it is almost impossible to discern which option is highlighted at any given time. This came to a particular head when the game crashed on me, and upon restarting the game I did not realise the cursor by default started on “New Game” instead of Continue. Only one button push after that did I accidentally delete my entire save file, as the default option on the “Are you sure you want to delete your save?” starts on yes instead of having to move over to select it. A patch has since changed the home screen to start on Continue, so I don’t think many will make the same mistake, but it is a symptom of a UI that was unclear, and I thought worth noting.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical is an ambitious and impressive first effort from a new studio. It offers a gaming experience unlike anything else I’ve ever played. The fact that this simply exists and that it works as well as it does is an incredible technical achievement. With that said, it feels like an off-Broadway debut that is destined for refinement and iteration before landing on the main stage. I loved the story, the characters, and the richness and density of the musical compositions. But I’m left with a lingering feeling of just wanting a little bit more. A bit more vocal punch, a bit more in the way of melodic hooks, and a bit more technical polish (at least as far as the Switch is concerned).
If you love musicals, you’ll still absolutely adore what has been created here, and I’ll certainly be going back for at least one more playthrough to pursue some different paths. But from the premise, I wanted to absolutely adore this game, and in the end, I just really liked it.
+ Compelling narrative with enthralling characters
+ Genius musical composition with a dizzying amount of replayability
+ An astounding achievement to have the concept work as well as it does
- Vocal performances fall just short
- Audio mixing is off
- Technical issues on Switch