Stray Gods successfully summons a hefty portion of theatrical flare within its visual novel format. While some choices may not feel as weighted as you’d hope, a likeable cast, earnest writing, and catalogue of tunes make it a moreish musical experience worth the price of admission.
Striking hand-drawn imagery brings the world to life
Narrative decisions feel weighted with consequence
A dynamic range of musical styles allows you to create unique ballads
Replaying the story to unlock every song can feel laborious
A post-game karaoke mode would be the icing on the cake
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PS5, Xbox X/S, PC, Nintendo Switch
Release date: August 10th
Fans of Greek mythology, musicals, and narrative games rejoice as Summerfall Studios' Stray Gods is here to smash those three things together in style, delivering an inventive and refreshing roleplaying experience.
In Stray Gods, you assume the role of Grace, a troubled singer who is unwillingly gifted the theatrical powers of the last Grecian Muse, Calliope. Subsequently, Grace is enveloped in a murder mystery surrounding Calliope’s unusual death, and has seven days to explore a city and sing her way towards freedom, using her newfound power to compel deities to duet and speak their truth.
From the first call-and-response vocal performance of Stray Gods, I was enthralled with its poetic lyricism. An enchanting opening duet features an elegant refrain that shines in its simplicity while carefully setting up the plot. It’s the perfect amuse-bouche to the games’ choose-your-own-adventure musical playstyle.
Pick your poison
Similar to Telltale and Bioware games, you’ll have access to a preordained set of dialogue choices which you can choose to progress conversations, with all interactions available via clicking on-screen prompts. Summerfall Studios twists this approach in a smart way by forcing you to pick a specific trait for Grace early in the tale (Charming, Kick-ass or Clever), which defines the response paths you’ll have access to as you flirt your way through the pantheon to clear your name. Cruelly, you’ll still be able to see the other options even if you can’t interact with them, which taunts you into a second playthrough.
Picking Charming gave me agency in an otherwise predestined dialogue tree, and I enjoyed how Grace’s thoughtful touches impacted her relationships. It was often easy to forget the urgency of looking for clues and instead immerse myself in the lives of the ‘Idols’ with my choices, which felt like Stray Gods enabling my particular approach to its narrative, and my idea of who Grace could be.
Grace is voiced by VA veteran Laura Bailey (Abby, The Last of Us Part II), who flexes her musical muscles here, delivering showstopping vocals, from raps to rock ballads, across the entire saga. She is not alone, though, as the game’s cast is a rogue’s gallery of talent, from Troy Baker’s Apollo to Rahul Kohli’s Minotaur, and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s feisty take on Persephone. The star-studded cast breathe life into the wide world of Stray Gods, making it easy to get lost in its mysteries, prophecies and atmosphere. One of the game’s undeniable highlights is its casual portrayal of queerness, too. From pride flag set dressing to an open approach to romantic options, Stray Gods succeeds in creating complicated characters that aren’t defined by their preferences - it’s just who they are.
Another one of my favourite things about Stray Gods is how Summerfall Studios chose to keep the vibrato and natural shakiness in the audio provided by its performers, which brings refreshing honesty and heightened emotion to its soundtrack, selling the game as a true theatrical experience. In my first playthrough, there were a handful of gut-punching moments that garnered some tears and, on one occasion, a genuine gasp. Across these scenes, I thought back to every decision I’d made as Grace, and whether I’d chosen correctly, turned a wrong corner, or worse even, trusted the wrong person. There was a humanity in it all that felt very convincing and immersive. The writing has an earnest realism to it beyond the mythological set dressing, which summons palpable gravitas.
However, in my second attempt at Stray Gods’ campaign, my previously-tailored experience lost some shine as it became clear my choices didn’t hold as much importance as I’d anticipated, and were orbiting some key narrative beats, which shattered some of the carefully-crafted illusions of choice. It’s a backhanded compliment, and that’s not to say everything is the same each run, as there are alternative story branches for you to follow. If you’re keen on certain characters, you can uncover more about each NPC’s history in your revisits, whether it be mythological or mortal in origin. But ultimately, your first run will always answer most of your big questions about the narrative at large.
Carve your own path
When revisiting Stray Gods’ most powerful sonic anthems after the credits had rolled, it was nice to see how players could potentially make different choices and encounter unexpected musical genres and themes. Most impressive is how Stray Gods’ composers manage to create cohesive songs that felt seamless even as you flit between genres with every individual choice. It would have been great to see a Karaoke mode in the post-game so players could access the fantastic music without all the effort, though. Fingers crossed that feature may come in the future; for now, the soundtrack will have to do.
As Stray Gods shifts from conversational dialogue to musical numbers you’ll face timed decisions that add palpable tension to the songs. In these moments, the game capitalises on the emotional weight of its difficult choices with intense musical swells as the clock quickly ticks down. In the throws of its resonant melodies, you always feel like an integral part of the ballad.
A hand-drawn art style frames the world, fusing modern amenities with Grecian history to create a striking graphic novel aesthetic. The environments you explore feature tasteful 3D elements on a 2D backdrop and vice versa, providing a dynamic feel as the camera’s focus shifts. Because many of the scenes are mostly static, the unique colour palettes and mixed-medium approach brings much-needed life to areas that could have felt flat otherwise.
This distinct visual style shines best in the character designs, though, which, aside from being great to look at, display some of the coolest fits I’ve seen in a video game, with cute nods to each idol's mythology included in their dress sense - Persephone’s maroon suit is complemented by a luminous teal accent on her silken coat, evoking the blue flames of the underworld.
Stray Gods delivers an emotional narrative adventure full of twists and turns that puts the power of lyrical poetry and clever composition into the hands of its players. Even though going back to collect every song became somewhat repetitive, there was a reason I was doing it. The team at Summerfall Studios took care to craft this mythological murder mystery, and I relished in unravelling it.
Before you begin the campaign in Stray Gods, you’ll be presented with a content warning for alcohol use, violence, PTSD, death and themes of suicide. In the options menu accessible from the pause screen, Stray Gods also provides a solid range of accessibility tools, including re-bindable inputs, subtitles and subtitle sizing options, as well as audio description. You can also decide whether you would like to play with or without timed choices, and you can control the volume of specific parts of the audio mix across environmental SFX, score and character voices.
How we reviewed
After completing one full playthrough of Stray Gods, I started a new game and continued through the narrative while intentionally making different choices. In each of my subsequent experimental playthroughs, I chose a different core stat for Grace, which unlocked unique conversational threads. In this process, I unlocked almost all of the game’s songs and experienced (what I believe to be) most of its plotlines and options for romance.