I’ve played plenty of video games over the years that have both rewarded and punished me for the choices I’ve made, creating this powerful sense of agency in the narrative. Those games feel like I have a hand in shaping the outcome of the story, one in which successfully navigating a tricky conversation is empowering and not quite finding the words for a tough heart-to-heart is devastating. Stray Gods: A Roleplaying Musical builds on that sensation but within the three-act structure of a musical. This combination is an impressive accomplishment, and it’s incredible to watch how all those choices can build on one another, culminating in a finale that you helped shape. Together, it makes Stray Gods one of the most memorable gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Set within our world–but one in which there’s an ounce of truth to the myths surrounding the Greek gods, titans, and their multitude of offspring–Stray Gods starts off like your typical visual novel. Conversations pause in order to present you with a multitude of dialogue options, some of which allow you to gain additional insight into other characters while others push the story forward to the next scene. Almost immediately, you have a chance to flirt with your cute best friend and kickstart one of several different romances. There’s comfort in this familiarity. And then the game quickly reveals what separates itself from its contemporaries: the music.
You actively participate in every musical number during Stray Gods runtime, of which there are many across its three acts. Like conversations in choice-driven visual novels and RPGs, each song can branch, and the effects of your choices impact not only the direction of that particular song but every performance that succeeds it. Choices are divided into three categories–Kickass, Clever, and Charming–informing both the method by which you’re trying to convince someone of something, and how a song can transform. Kickass choices are aggressive and confrontational and make songs take on a more punk rock vibe, while Clever choices are thoughtful and strategic and lean into jazz. Charming choices, on the other hand, are empathetic and caring and create a more melodious tune. Though all of the songs might begin one way, they can drastically change depending on what you choose.
As far as I can tell–there are a lot of choices to make in this game and I only replayed each song so many times before moving on–every direction a song can take flows together. I cannot fathom how difficult a task that is to pull off (we’re talking different genres and tempos yet it still has to all feel like the same song) but it’s all tightly woven together into this beautiful symphony of sound that leans into the transformative qualities of music to explore everything from fated heartbreak to lingering trauma. It also helps that this formula works wonders narratively, as the game sees you take on the role of the last Muse within the Greek pantheon as she explores the healing powers of music.
In Stray Gods, you play as Grace, a normal human thrust into a death sentence when the leadership of the existing Greek pantheon–Athena, Aphrodite, Apollo, and Persephone–mistakenly condemns her for the murder of Calliope. Grace was the only one present during the final moments of the Muse’s life as she bleeds out from a stab wound, leading to the false accusation. Grace is allowed a week to prove her innocence, seeking answers and chasing down leads with the help of her best friend Freddie.
Within the world of Stray Gods, the members of the Greek pantheon pass their souls, or eidolons, to the nearest person to them when they die, and so Grace inherits Calliope’s abilities and becomes a Muse, giving her the power to help anyone reveal their true feelings or fully express themselves through song. She also inherits Calliope’s family as well, putting her in the orbit of Hermes, Pan, Eros, and other entities of myth, many of whom have their own motivations for wanting to help Grace track down Calliope’s killer.
It’s a fantastic story with a rewarding sense of agency in how you approach conversations and your overall investigation. Very early into the game, I started to think that I wasn’t going to solve the case or that I might even take the fall for who I suspected to be the real killer because I didn’t want them to die. So I figured my best chance at survival was accruing allies and being nice to the most powerful members of the pantheon so when the week ended and Grace’s trial rolled around, I’d have people to stand by my side and say I shouldn’t die anyway even if I was guilty. As more was uncovered and I stumbled into increasingly troubling revelations, I realized I likely wasn’t jetting toward either conclusion I initially thought I was. But my decision to gather as many allies as possible still came in clutch by helping me circumnavigate several issues in the late game. There were a lot of people who felt indebted to me, and they allowed me to go to places and talk to people I shouldn’t have as well as stood up for me in moments where events could have gone south very quickly. My choices were honored.
The Greek pantheon–now calling themselves the Idols–is a messy bunch, struggling to survive hundreds of miles away from home in America with many of their number (including the big three of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) gone, either because they walked away from the Idols or because they died with no one nearby to absorb their eidolon. Grace, approaching them with the fresh perspective of someone who has only recently become a god, is able to help them tackle their issues with the more fervent immediacy of a mortal, wielding the power of music to help these gods delve into whatever problem has been ailing them for decades, sometimes centuries.
But music is such an interpretative power. When Grace invites someone to sing with her, you’re usually not being told how someone feels. And so each song becomes this balancing act of people, using music, rhyme schemes, and playful wordplay to try and reach a place of emotional understanding and catharsis. It transforms what otherwise might have been simple conversations into intense battles of emotion, each side bouncing off one another with carefully crafted improvisation. And just as these musical numbers can be funny and joyous at times, they can also be absolutely heartbreaking. However, they’re always memorable and culminate in a musical finale that is built from all the music and emotional connections that you managed to create. Many of the scenes in Stray Gods are going to sit with me for a long time, especially the ones where it seemed like there was no real right answer to the difficult morally gray questions being asked, resigning me to guide Grace as best I could and hope for the best. It occasionally worked, but it just as often didn’t. Regardless of how I pushed Grace to act, the results always had an impact on what happened in the song next and how the outcome of the interaction ultimately influenced the direction of the story.
That said, it’s not just your vocal performances that determine your fate. Between performances, you’ll be tasked with chasing down clues behind Calliope’s murder, deciding who to talk to and in what order, and investigating crime scenes. The moment-to-moment gameplay of crime scene investigations is a tad too simplistic to produce a rewarding problem-solving experience, which is my one major gripe with the game. When Grace is investigating a space, you’re given a list of items to look at and you just keep clicking through until you arrive at the clue Grace is looking for. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between. The rest of the game is conversing with characters, and gathering clues depending on who you choose to talk to and what information you trust to share with them. Sometimes Grace needs to lie or hold back on sharing information to preserve a relationship and learn something important, and other times being aggressive or truthful or charming is the way to go. There’s actual strategy and consequence to your investigation when it comes to talking to people–the main crux of the game–and that fulfills the fantasy of being a musically-inclined crack detective.
Early in the game, you get to choose whether Grace is an especially Kickass, Clever, or Charming person, and this opens up unique dialogue options that further shape how individual relationships play out. It’s easier to prove your worth to the in-your-face disgraced Queen of the Underworld Persephone if Grace has access to Kickass options, for example, while a Clever Grace can go toe-to-toe with the secretive goddess of wisdom Athena or the mischievous god of chaos Pan. These dialogue options don’t seem to have as impactful an effect on the story as a whole, but they do inject some welcome replayability into Stray Gods if–like me–you want to see all the different ways that each song can play out and you want how Grace interacts with people to be slightly different playthrough to playthrough.
Stray Gods is also just a pleasant game to look at and listen to. Emulating a comic book look and art style, it incorporates a lot of movement in its scenes, quickly shifting the position and stance of different characters and objects to add a frenetic pull from shot to shot. It helps guide your eyes across the screen, creating a sense of action with what is essentially a lot of still images. This further personalizes certain characters, lending narrative weight to how they move and act. Apollo plods through scenes with a tired discomfort, for example, while Medusa almost seems to slither with her more rhythmic and weave-like movements. But more importantly, it adds to the spectacle of each musical performance, drawing inspiration from the likes of Broadway or K-Pop music videos to create a beautiful animatic-style cinematic experience. Every musical number is a spectacle that further reinforces the importance of each choice you make but also helps you understand the vibe that you and the other singer are creating based on what choices you’re making.
It certainly helps that Stray Gods has an incredible vocal cast, many of whom can draw you into the next musical performance within a few notes. The most notable standout is Laura Bailey (The Last of Us Part II’s Abbey and Marvel’s Spider-Man’s Mary Jane), who absolutely dazzles as Grace, weaving back-and-forth between musical genres and giving the protagonist a lovable spunk. But there are plenty of other fun surprises as well. Anjali Bhimani (Overwatch’s Symmetra and Apex Legends’ Rampart) is phenomenal, absolutely killing it as Medusa during my favorite musical number of the entire game. And both Rahul Kohli (Midnight Mass’ Sheriff Hassan and Harley Quinn’s Scarecrow) and Allegra Clark (Apex Legends’ Bloodhound and Dragon Age Inquisition’s Josephine Montilyet) bring adorable energy to the monstrous Asterius and Hecate, respectively. I could go on, but the point is that the pool of actors for this game is a talented one, and each imbues their own character with energy that’s simultaneously recognizable and yet brand-new.
And there’s an intriguing element to that divide. For instance, Bhimani hisses with monstrous glee when it comes to Medusa, but there’s an underlying sense of self-hatred and fear as well. The first part–the monster–matches the common preconception of Medusa but the latter does not. As you meet more and more characters, you’ll see how all the actors use their musical performances to nudge certain questions into your brain, convincing you to go uncover what has changed about these well-known mythical figures. And the desire to tug on those threads and unveil more of this world compels you forward with earnest curiosity, having the likely intended effect of drawing you further into the overarching mystery of both who killed Calliope and why. As you better understand who these people were and what they are now, the answer to those questions becomes ever more compelling to pursue.
Stray Gods: A Roleplaying Musical is one of the coolest games I’ve played in a while and I imagine its most powerful moments will sit with me for quite a bit. Having seen cluttered whiteboards that provide a glimpse of the massive branching storylines in some RPGs and visual novels, doing something like that but for songs–a means of communication that does not follow the conventions of conversations at all–is incredibly impressive. But the folks over at Summerfall Studios managed to pull it off, creating a game that explores the extraordinary healing power that music can have in our lives and wrapping it all up in a compelling murder mystery where the consequences of your choices can have drastic effects on a weakening Greek pantheon just trying to survive in the modern day. This is a fantastic visual novel and I cannot wait to play through it again.