The opening of every musical is meant to hook the audience into the next handful of hours of song and dance. The best also skillfully lay the groundwork for the story and character development to come. It’s why openings such as Into the Woods' titular track are so iconic.
Five minutes into Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, protagonist Grace launches into the first song of the game. As the music swelled in anticipation of the first sung notes, I waited for a statement about what this game would be. The first bars are shaky at best and the song – titled 'Adrift' – can’t seem to find itself.
It’s not a great first impression, but it is indicative of the five- to eight-hour experience that follows. Stray Gods, the first game from Summerfall Studios, is a promising concept with the lofty goal of melding two artistic mediums that have more in common than you might think. But the execution can never deliver a showstopping number, and the game itself feels adrift and unsure of what direction to go.
Sondheim, this is not.
Stray Gods tells you exactly what it is trying to be on the box. “Roleplaying musical”. The game meld’s a narrative filled with BioWare dialogue trees – Creative Director David Gaider is best known as the lead writer of Dragon Age: Origins and Inquisition – as well as big musical numbers – composed by Austin Wintory and co-written by Wintory, the band Tripod, and musician Montaigne.
The story of Stray Gods follows Grace – voiced by Laura Bailey – a singer in a band whose life is going nowhere fast. On the night of tryouts for a new member of the band, the mysterious woman Calliope (Ashley Johnson) swings by for a duet, only to quickly depart and then show up dead in Grace’s apartment the same evening. Turns out, Calliope was a living member of the ancient Greek pantheon of Gods, who live in secret and now call themselves The Chorus. With her demise, Grace becomes the next muse.
With little explanation, Grace is accused of murder by Athena (Felicia Day) and given one week to prove her innocence. The gameplay loop quickly falls into a repetitive rhythm. You are told to go see someone to learn about Calliope, you talk to them, and they sing a song. Repeat.
In its portrayal of the Chorus as gods turned pop stars, Stray Gods clearly riffs on Kieron Gillen’s comic, The Wicked + The Divine. The game wants to show that these characters aren’t the Greek gods you think you know, yet it never gives them enough time to establish their own identities. Leaning on popular characterizations just a bit more might have helped the player care more about them.
It is a common cliche that in musical theatre, songs exist because the characters' feelings are so strong that they cannot be spoken, they must be sung. This is to say that the point of a song is to show character growth, conflict, or a plot revelation. So it is a major failing of Stray Gods that the game’s songs do not serve this purpose.
There are numerous times throughout Stray Gods where important information occurs through normal dialogue, and I kept asking why this wasn’t a song. The moments of character development and major plot beats all occur in the dialogue directly before a song occurs. The songs themselves either rehash the same information the player just received, or they don’t communicate information at all. That leaves these showy numbers feeling bereft of purpose.
The musical identity of Stray Gods is all over the place as well, with each song switching between styles numerous times. This is in part due to the game’s core mechanic of allowing you to sing the next verse in one of three unique styles. It’s a fun concept on paper, but it is jarring in action when an operatic ballad makes a heel turn into a facsimile of Lin-Manuel Miranda-style rapping. Devotion to player choice is likely also the reason that these songs feel bland, as the base song needs to transform into whatever style the player decides upon.
To live up to the roleplaying aspect of the game, dialogue and songs have branching paths that you determine. But the world is so much smaller than an expansive RPG like Dragon Age that the need for multiple paths feels lacking of purpose. Choices matter in Dragon Age because you have a big wide world full of political drama that you can actually influence. Stray Gods, on the other hand, feels like a more linear path from start to finish.
The game itself seems strangely disinterested in the core murder mystery plot. By the game's final act, the culprit outs themselves, yet the story just slowly, very slowly, so incredibly slowly, chugs along. While there are multiple endings and variations thereof, the overall path of the narrative remains largely unchanged. This easily could have been a visual novel with songs, which may have better suited the story. Instead, empty choices in dialogue and song leave everything feeling boring and unimportant.
A big draw of Stray Gods is its star-studded cast led by Laura Bailey. And while she is an extremely talented voice actor known for incredible performances like Abby in The Last of Us Part II, she seems to struggle with the demands of singing so many different styles of music. There isn’t a duet in the game where Bailey isn't overshadowed by the performer opposite of her, which unfortunately is not a high bar to hit. But Bailey isn’t to blame for this.
Late into the game, Broadway veteran Anthony Rapp (of Rent fame) shows up to perform the best number in the game. But Rapp is working overtime to make the most out of the material he was given – which can also be said of Bailey and the other performers. The lyrics are nonsensical and the music is so unforgiving that the entire cast is left on their own, for the audience to only interpret that they just aren't talented singers.
Despite its desperate assurance that this is indeed a musical, Stray Gods never actually feels like a musical. It is a game with songs. But it never understands the intricacies of how musicals tell their stories and make audiences so invested. Stray Gods leaves the impression that while the team had a passion for the idea of a roleplaying musical, nobody had the necessary skill set to execute it.
In the many years I have been seeing theater in New York City, I have only ever walked out of one show – Flying Over Sunset. Despite a creative team with multiple Tonys and Pulitzers for drama under its belt, the show struggled with the absurdity of its premise – leaving critics to ask “Why did this get made?” In the case of Stray Gods, I found myself asking “Why wasn’t this made by a team who knew what they were doing?”
If Stray Gods had been a Broadway musical, it would have been the second show I walked out of.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical releases on August 10 for PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Inverse reviewed the game on PC.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.