Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X
August 10, 2023
“The problem with immortality is that you think you have all the time in the world.”
A choice-driven narrative adventure musical, Stray Gods describes itself as “a video game for musical lovers, and a musical for video game lovers”. First announced as Chorus: An Adventure Musical and crowdfunded in 2019, Melbourne-based Summerfall Studios later partnered with Humble Games to bring this roleplaying adventure to PC and consoles.
With a story written by David Gaider (lead writer on the Dragon Age series), a voice acting cast starring video game royalty Laura Bailey, and a fully orchestrated soundtrack featuring compositions by Austin Wintory (composer of the score for Journey) and Australia’s own Tripod and Montaigne, Summerfall Studios have assembled a killer creative team to develop a unique take on the visual novel. It’s dramatic, it’s intimate, and its soundtrack absolutely slaps.
At the beginning of Stray Gods, protagonist Grace is lost. Struggling to find a direction for her life, she and best friend Freddie hold auditions for their band in the hope that something will change. No promising acts appear until the mysterious Calliope passes by and catches Grace singing. The pair share a musical moment together, but that evening Calliope shows up at Grace’s apartment, bleeding, and dies in her arms. A shimmering orb leaves Calliope’s body and is absorbed by Grace, before she is whisked away to face the god-like Chorus, a formidable council of immortal Idols who blame her for the death of their beloved sister. Grace is charged with murdering Calliope and stealing her Muse abilities, and is given a single week to prove her own innocence.
The mystery of Calliope’s murder is a catalyst for you to learn more about the Idols’ history, their relationships, and their motivations. Over thousands of years, the threads of the Idols’ lives weave a tale that covers the full spectrum of Greek tragedy and comedy. It’s a story about memory and legacy, chosen family, and piecing together the person you once were with the person you’re trying to become. Grace’s week-long time limit isn’t reflected in the game mechanics, but adds pressure to the narrative and raises the stakes of each plot beat. Over time, you’ll learn more about who Calliope really was, her relationships with Chorus members Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, and Persephone, and what her death means for Grace and the future of the Idols.
The Idol’s Choice
As part of Grace’s newfound Muse powers, she is able to compel characters to sing with her, either allowing them to reflect on their inner conflicts or challenging them to change how they see the world. At certain points of each number, timed options appear onscreen and the player selects how Grace will continue the song. Early in the game, you’ll be prompted to select a “trait” for Grace: Charming, Kickass, or Clever. These are effectively RPG classes, influencing the kinds of choices Grace is able to make and how effectively she can influence others. Each trait mirrors an option presented during songs and they help to guide and inform your roleplaying.
Gameplay in Stray Gods is barebones, stripped back in order to keep Grace’s choices at the forefront. Each day, you select places of interest to visit from the city map in an effort to investigate Calliope’s murder. Some locations, such as Persephone’s nightclub, allow you to speak to characters in any order or examine the environment for clues, but the focus remains on getting to know the Idols and deciding how to leverage Grace’s relationships to clear her name. Dialogue options contain questions that provide optional context on the situation, lines that will progress the narrative, the occasional flirtatious nod (clearly marked with a heart icon), and “skill checks” that are only unlocked if Grace possesses the required trait. While this does mean your choices are usually pretty clear (given that players are way more likely to choose an unlocked skill check than anything else), there’s just enough variety in available options to make you feel like you’re driving the narrative.
Significant choices are signposted with unique icons, indicating that they’ll have a larger impact on the overall narrative than whether or not Apollo wants to make out with you. Fans of choice-driven RPGs will be delighted to see their Act One decisions extend their influence into Act Three. I was pleasantly surprised in my second playthrough when I was mean to Pan early on, and he simply did not show up to help Grace in a later scene. Stray Gods doesn’t have the complexity of some of its visual novel contemporaries, opting to clearly signpost the likely consequences of most decisions. This eases friction and incentivises subsequent playthroughs when trying a different Grace “build” to see all of the songs.
A standing ovation for the Chorus
Stray Gods’ soundtrack is obviously the star of the show, featuring an incredible selection of fully orchestrated tracks. You can hear the influence of composers Austin Wintory, Montaigne, and Tripod come through strongly in each number. A particular song performed by Asterion (Rahul Kohli) and Hecate (Allegra Clark) is positively dripping with Tripod energy. Every single vocal performance is excellent. The incredibly versatile Laura Bailey as Grace responds to each situation and the player’s choices, wielding a solid belt, a gentle touch of controlled vocal fry, or a surprisingly agile knack for rap. Anjali Bhimani’s Medusa is alluring and sinister, the ultimate reclusive diva. And, of course, Anthony Rapp’s performance as Orpheus is an absolute treat.
Much of the instrumentation features prominent bass and drum brushes, as well as sudden key changes and tempo shifts to accentuate the narrative conflict and accommodate for the different directions players can take. My favourite musical performance comes during the second act. Led by Aphrodite (Merle Dandridge, who also voiced Marlene in The Last of Us), the song starts as a beautiful, soulful ballad, before transitioning into a climactic uptempo epic featuring the entire chorus. It absolutely slaps, and fits perfectly with the stakes of the narrative at this point in the game. I’m excited to revisit it on subsequent playthroughs to see how my decisions shape the music.
During my first playthrough, I struggled to concentrate a little during musical numbers. The chaos of trying to decipher which parts of the song were poetry, which were driving the narrative, and which would require a quick controller input made me feel distracted and overwhelmed. It finally clicked: I was playing Stray Gods as though it was an extended cutscene in a game, rather than thinking of it as a musical production. My experience changed completely when I switched off subtitles. Suddenly, keeping up with the narrative was easy. Words carry meaning, but lyrics carry emotion. Focusing on the voices, the instruments, the tonal difference between a Clever verse and a Kickass verse – these are the peak moments of Stray Gods, and if you’re able to enjoy them without reading along with the lyrics then I highly recommend it.
Of course, this is not an option for every gamer. There is a decent suite of accessibility settings available, allowing different-sized captioning, audio descriptions, or removing the timer from choices in songs. It’s worth noting that my game had some issues with audio balancing that were fixed with a patch during the review period. This patch also came with some adjustments to the accessibility options, with the developers indicating that further options will be available in future updates.
“True to form for a visual novel, all of the characters are very hot.”
Stray Gods’ visual style, while gorgeous, takes some getting used to. Scenes are beautifully drawn in the style of a graphic novel, with characters moving between static poses – it’s like flipping between different panels in a comic, with a few animated flourishes and shifts in facial expression to keep the characters alive. Letterboxing appears onscreen during songs and the visuals tend to become more dramatic. For the most part, the style works, but there are moments (particularly during intense musical numbers) where the lack of full animation can be distracting. Some poses feel more like they were made for taking gameplay screenshots than showing character motivations. However, the overall art direction is strong, and helps to build up the mysterious modern world of the Idols. Also, true to form for a visual novel, all of the characters are very hot. Expect to see lots of fan art for this title (particularly of leather zaddy Eros).
It’s neat to see some nicely incidental diversity in Stray Gods’ roster of characters. As a musical, it would have been easy to abandon subtlety (like the wonderfully, unapologetically woke hot mess that is Jagged Little Pill) but instead these characters just… exist. Hermes, an absolutely delightful thembo, makes one little joke about being the “god of transitions”. Venus, a special friend of Aphrodite’s, is in a wheelchair. Every Idol is a bit gay and you can pursue romances with a bunch of them. Even just seeing the progress pride flag in Freddie and Grace’s apartment does that little bit extra to add to the game’s vibe.
Everyone has an inner Muse
The concept of a “videogame musical” sounds incredibly niche, but it’s important to remember that Dragon Age: Origins released in the same year as the first season of Glee. The Venn diagram of RPG enthusiasts and theatre geeks is surprisingly tight, and the explosive popularity of games like Hades and Animal Crossing proves that what seems “niche” can be incredibly successful. The simplicity of its visual novel gameplay makes Stray Gods an easy entry point for casual gamers, while its BioWare-style character relationships, multiple narrative pathways, and phenomenal audio production provide plenty of delightfully gentle roleplaying fuel for gaming veterans. My list of mates to recommend this title to keeps growing with each new playthrough, each new song beat I discover.
Despite a star-studded creative team and a slick marketing campaign, Stray Gods remains charmingly indie and personal in its tone. Each character is lovingly designed and gets moments of light and shade throughout their dialogue, while the songs elevate the intensity of the drama in ways only a musical could achieve. Vocal performances bring passion, weight, and empathy to each relationship: even the hardest of hearts would be melted by Apollo’s (Troy Baker) anguished tenor regrets, or seduced by the cheeky charm of Khary Payton’s Pan.
It’s worth noting that while a theatre production is inherently communal (since you’re usually in a theatre with an audience), Stray Gods’ single-player visual novel format removes the social aspect of performance and instead creates a sense of intimacy. It made me feel like a teenager, watching bootleg recordings of Wicked and Spring Awakening on a tiny iPod screen. What you lose from the lack of transaction with live actors, you gain in immersion, accessibility, and the ability to direct your own experience. Character outcomes feel weightier through the addition of choice, making you as the player complicit in their struggles. It all comes together in an experience that extends beyond a single playthrough, and lingers long after you put the controller down.
- Incredible musical performances that provide depth and drama to the experience
- A compelling narrative featuring a delightfully eccentric roster of characters
- Simple but effective use of player choice to incentivise multiple playthroughs
- Stylistic visuals don't always feel like the right choice
A wonderfully peculiar blend of visual novel, choice-driven RPG, and off-Broadway musical, Stray Gods embraces the theatrical duality of comedy and tragedy and wraps it into a narrative experience that can be at once gut-wrenching and cheeky. Through some excellently written and performed dialogue, incredible audio production, and effective use of player choice, it provides an intimate and personal music theatre experience. While its semi-animated visual style and simplified gameplay may prove off-putting for some, Stray Gods is a unique and compelling love letter to the theatre kid inside us all.