Sunday, July 14, 2024

Stray Gods Review — A Gift from the Gods

Stray Gods (Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical) isn’t just a damn good game. It’s a damn good game that dares to ask the question: what if there was a game, that was also a musical, that highlights a small (but memorable) segment of the Greek pantheon in a modern-day world? Wouldn’t that sound like damn good fun?

The answer is, of course, yes.

Enter Grace (Laura Bailey), a troubled mid-20s young woman who feels as though she’s unable just to allow herself to thrive and be free. Not even her best friend, Freddie (Janina Gavankar), can help her get out of this funk. In the solo song ‘Adrift,’ Grace despairs that she’s her own worst enemy and that everything she wants falls out from underneath her. She’s a college dropout, she barely has any money, and feels that her life is just one big dead-end. It’s during this opening act we meet Calliope (Ashley Johnson), who overhears Grace’s sad tune and joins her to finish her song, turning it from a melancholic cry into an impassioned plea for Grace not to give up and try again.

Stray Gods

It’s during Calliope and Grace’s song that we get to choose whether Grace’s personality will be Charming, Kickass, or Clever. Fans of David Gaider’s (Co-Founder and Creative Director of Stray Gods) Dragon Age series will recognize (and perhaps feel a tad sentimental at) the appearance of the dialogue wheel and choice of personality. Seeing Grace, a badass chick with a leather jacket, Kickass immediately came to mind. With this choice, the lyrics and how Grace could react were forever influenced for the remainder of the game. Much like how the picking of a personality type for Hawke in Dragon Age 2 doesn’t affect the entire story, Grace’s personality isn’t rigid. While I did pick Kickass choices often — and boy, were they explosive — it didn’t stop me from choosing Clever or Charm options during songs. You can play Grace your way, but with enough differences throughout that you won’t want to just stop at one playthrough, but multiple, just to see how differently the story unfolds.

The opening act establishes a connection between Grace and Calliope that’s sweet and shrouded in mystery, but Stray Gods doesn’t give you the room to enjoy it before the carpet is ripped from under your feet. Calliope soon is lost, and her soul (called an eidolon) and powers are passed onto Grace. As it turns out, Calliope wasn’t just a really great singer who knew what to say at the right time but was actually the Last Muse with the power to bring out the true feelings of an individual through song. With this gift now in Grace’s possession, she has no choice but to be thrust (literally) into a secret other world where the remnants of the Greek pantheon are hidden from normal day society and are led by a handful of Greek gods.

The leaders of this group are, together, known as The Chorus. They are made up of known figures like Persephone (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn), Aphrodite (Merle Dandridge), Apollo (Troy Baker), and, of course, Athena (Felicia Day). The latter is notably the one who has the final say, and it is Athena who explains who they are, the reason why they are hidden, and, most importantly, what Calliope’s death (and the uncertainty of whoever was behind it) means for Grace: she has to die. Thankfully Grace doesn’t meet her end there, thanks to some quick-thinking from another individual from The Chorus. Instead, she has a week to find out who killed Calliope and why.

Stray Gods

Her path laid out before her, Grace has to either do or die — which puts her in the way of many memorable characters from Greek mythology. It goes without saying, if you’re a fan of the ancient Greeks and gods like I am, then you’re going to have an absolute field day with this game. Not all of the myths that you know are ‘accurate’ here, but one of the best parts throughout Stray Gods is getting to know just which bits and pieces of information you remember have snuck in. The answer to that is, for the most part, a lot. But much like any game focused on the Greek gods, so much of it differs enough that uncovering the stories of characters like Aphrodite and Persephone feels fresh and exciting.

And, as always with games from alumni like BioWare and Obsidian, the characters in Stray Gods shine like the brightest of gold even during moments where the murder mystery plot falls off. You may think you know Apollo, Pan (Khary Payton), and the other Greek gods, but Summerfall Studios wants to challenge your perception of them throughout the 3 acts that make up the roleplaying musical. More importantly, they want you to care about each and every one of them, even if you only speak to them only once or twice. Even Freddie, who is outside of the well-documented pantheon, absolutely holds her own against these almighty entities and superbly acts as Grace’s foil. Gavankar did a fantastic job here, and her performance as Freddie quickly became a favourite of mine. By the end of the game, I did end up a Freddiemancer (awful portmanteau, don’t use it), despite the many temptations of the other romance options; Persephone, Pan, and Apollo.

Considering that Grace only has a week to find out what happened to Calliope before her head departs from her shoulders, romance does take a backseat in the grand scheme of things and at times feels a little out of place depending on who you pursue. That said, what romance is there doesn’t feel overtly fluffy or Disney-esque. Each character you can romance has their own baggage, and, despite being very much, ‘press the heart button to romance’ at times, your choices beyond flirtation do have a direct effect on how other characters interact with Grace. There is a later choice with Persephone which heightened my previous flirtations with her, and directly changed how she felt about Grace in return. It’s choices and consequences like this that make the romance options feel a lot more mature, and fit with the desperate situation Grace and her companions are in. There are also moments where you can flirt with one character, and get called out by another if you flirt with them. I can confirm that playing Grace as a disaster bisexual is incredibly fun (and you should do it, if only for the achievement).

What really is the cherry on top for Stray Gods though is, of course, the music. In fact, I’d say the music is more like multiple, sweet cherries in this bizarre metaphor. ‘Adrift’ is the mournful siren’s lullaby that pulls you in and digs its hooks in you from the get-go, and it only gets bigger and better from there, with performances like ‘Morning Fades’, ‘Lost Girls’, ‘You and I’ and ‘Brave on Time’ — all songs that I would pay good money to see on stage. Laura Bailey’s performance and vocal range are sublime throughout, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s portrayal of Persephone is like a punch to the chest, her songs feeling more like a call to war in contrast to the fun and dynamic highs and lows of songs from Freddie and Pan.

At times the murder mystery falls by the wayside to instead focus on Grace being introduced to the world of being a God and the nifty lore behind it. This makes the pacing seem odd, and while not difficult to pick up again and grasp what’s going on, it does feel as though some of the scenes that occur feel inconsistent with what’s going on. For example, there is a part where Grace has to go visit a reliquary. When loading into the scene, Freddie is also there with her despite not there being any communication that she would be. Frankly, I’m not sure if this is a technical issue or not, because there were one or two other issues I ran into during my time with Stray Gods, such as lyrics speeding through before the vocals can catch up, and the map (which allows players to pick which location they want to visit) going further than I could select.

Yet even with these issues, Stray Gods’ pros far outweigh its cons. As mentioned above, its music is, ultimately, the heart and what drives the game’s themes of healing, self-recovery, and embracing change as the focus point. One of the best things about musicals is that they can communicate a story with the sensation of a beat, the melody of a poignant piece at a specific time, a lyric to express what the protagonist can’t do in words alone. Most importantly: singing and songs are fun! Musicals are fun! Stray Gods captures the intense thrill of each song with such ease that, like me, you’ll be absolutely devastated to find out there isn’t a way to go back to specific songs to play over and over again. On one hand, this helps with replayability, on the other, if these songs aren’t appearing on Spotify soon then I’m going to combust. Just saying.

Stray Gods

Summerfall Studios had an unenviable task: develop a great video game while also being a fantastic musical. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ve managed to do just that. There’s so much to love and, thanks to its wonderfully rich cast of characters, catchy songs, and a variety of choices, it’s clear to see why players will be coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and beyond just to get lost in this fun (but, at times, emotionally devastating) tale.

In this line of work, finding a truly unique game that stands out from the crowd is hard; but Stray Gods excels at it all the same and will certainly go down as being one of the most memorable video games of all time.

Score: 4.5/5

A copy of Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical for PC was provided to Gayming Magazine by PR.

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