With the exception of documentary, just about every film genre is widely represented in video games — except for one. The musical is largely uncharted territory for gaming. Sure, we’ve got no shortage of rhythm games, but how often do you get to see Kratos bust out into a full Broadway number?
Developer Summerfall Studios has gone where few games have gone before with Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical. The narrative murder-mystery story — starring hot Greek Gods — features an all-star cast of video game voice actors and a wealth of dramatic musical numbers that would feel right at home on a stage. It’s a surprising setup for a video game, but one that some players clearly wanted; the project was a crowdfunding success story that proved there was an audience for it.
Whether or not you’re part of that audience comes down to one simple question: Were you a theater kid in high school? If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this loving ode to musical theater. Though if you were never bitten by the acting bug, Stray Gods doesn’t do much to make the idea of a video game musical all that spectacular.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical plays like a standard visual novel with occasional music interludes. It tells the story of Grace, a human musician who accidentally winds up in the world of Gods after Calliope is murdered. In order to clear her name, Grace vows to find the real killer among a colorful cast of Greek Gods. It’s a fun premise for a murder mystery story that lets Summerfall Studios get inventive with a modern take on mythology.
Right from its opening scenes, it’s pretty clear who Stray Gods is trying to court. It has an aesthetic that’s best described as “Tumblrcore” (and if you don’t know what that means, you probably don’t need to). It’s a game that’s begging to be turned into fan art, capitalizing on Hades’ sexy Gods with its own romanceable cast. Eros is depicted as a buff, bearded stud barely covered by thin strips of leather, while Persephone’s commanding presence is sure to elicit some swooning. A lot of the fun here comes from seeing how each God has been reimagined into a dating sim archetype. That idea is helped along by a strong voice cast, led by video game staples like Laura Bailey and Troy Baker.
While the project has a lot going for it upfront, it struggles to meld its theater and video game ambitions. The story is entirely told through illustrated visual novel sequences that play out like a motion comic. The gameplay largely comes down to making choices to move along conversations, which have an impact on where the story goes. Even “investigation” sequences just have me picking objects from a text list on the side of the screen rather than hunting for clues myself.
That idea extends to musical sequences too, as dialogue choices will change the lyrics and tone of a song. It’s an impressive trick, one that makes up for the fact Stray Gods is lacking in true showstopping numbers. Though impressively composed by Austin Wintery and performed by its voice cast (Khary Payton tears the house down as Pan), lyrics carefully built to advance a branching plot make a Lin-Manuel Miranda songbook sound like Björk.
Even with its lack of poetry, a few numbers stand out. One song centers around a shy Minotaur helplessly trying to flirt via song. I can intervene and help him woo his love or sit back and let him figure it out himself. Naturally, I do the latter to hear him bumble through a hilariously inept love song before swooping in to save the day right before the climax. Little moments like that sell the visual novel setup well enough, but I still found myself hungry for more.
On both stage and screen, musicals are a spectacle-driven genre. Stray Gods can’t deliver on that with musical sequences playing out like movie animatics. Sweeping songs play over still frames, making it clear that Summerfall Studios is a small studio looking to deliver something ambitious on a limited budget — one that had to account for a star-studded voice cast.
That’s where a few extra gameplay hooks could have been helpful. Last year’s We Are OFK delivers musical sequences as playable music videos complete with their own little minigames. More successfully, Sayonara Wild Hearts brings the emotive power of a musical to a rhythm action formula that almost feels like you’re pulling off choreographed dance sequences. Stray Gods is more akin to feeding actors lines during a dress rehearsal. I kept wishing I could see the opening night instead.
I imagine that Stray Gods will be a hit for a certain kind of theater nerd who cares more about shipping hot Gods than anything else. There’s clearly a big audience for that, and Summerfall Studios caters to it with a fun murder mystery about defying fate and finding one’s own voice. I just hope this first run gives the studio the resources it needs to stage an even grander production that can better serve its Broadway ambitions.
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