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There’s a lot of promise in the phrase The Roleplaying Musical, the subtitle of Summerfall Studios’ new game Stray Gods. The “Musical” part is the flashier portion, of course, and the game certainly delivers on that: Powered by the abilities of Grace—a disaffected twentysomething who suddenly finds herself thrust into divinity when the Muse of Music is murdered on her doorstep—characters in Stray Gods frequently open up their pipes, unleashing the voices of big-name voice actor talent like Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, Khary Payton, Ashley Johnson, Felicia Day, and more.
The “Roleplaying” part, though, is a bit more subtle, and quite a bit less enthralling. Working through occasional dialogue trees, players can choose Grace’s overall approach to the problem of solving this unexpected god-murder, choosing to play her as “Aggressive,” “Clever,” or “Charismatic,” and deciding, at certain points, which of her friends, enemies, and allies to accompany on their investigation. (And, obviously—given the game’s clear visual novel DNA—smooch, although the game at least lets you know very clearly when you’re embarking on the ship of love.) But anyone hoping their “roleplaying” will be anything more robust than the occasional choice from a menu is going to be disappointed by Stray Gods’ brief three-or-four hour run: Stray Gods is solely focused on its story, and its execution, at the expense of doing anything more interesting or complex with the play of unraveling its deicidal plot.
The highlights, unsurprisingly, are the big musical moments, in which Grace’s muse abilities force the people around her to burst into song, often belting out secrets and hidden emotions they didn’t intend to spill. (It’s a bit like an interactive version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling.”) These are also the moments when the game itself has the most rigor; choosing things like who gets to take a solo, for instance, can determine not just who you hear from, but who Grace might favor in the game’s gently branching plot. (Although the game will always funnel you toward its resolution, meaning that these choices are more about which content you’d like to see, rather than gaining any real advantage on solving the mystery.)
And that, really, is the issue, and the thing that keeps Stray Gods in the territory of a charming excursion, instead of something deeper: More often than not, it feels more like you’re choosing your path to success, rather than determining an actual outcome. Not that you don’t occasionally decide the fate of major characters—but the game nevertheless can feel like playing a tabletop game with a DM who lets you determine the content of individual scenes, but who keeps their hand firmly on the tiller for the wider plot.
The songs themselves, at least, are all catchy and great—even if they’re not likely to get stuck in your head for long once the game is finished. The voice cast occasionally feels like it was picked for name appeal more than total suitability for the characters—Felicia Day is great, for instance, but not entirely convincing as the stern matriarch of the gods—but the art, while obviously designed for a budget, features strong and instantly recognizable character designs. (Part of the fun of the game’s first hour is playing “Who’s that god?” when you’re first introduced to a new character; the game’s conception of Apollo as a burned-out beach bum is an especially strong choice.)
Stray Gods is, in other words, an undeniably charming and ambitious game—but only from certain particular angles. The basic conceit, and the execution of the music itself (the quality of the songs, and the ways they can be varied via player choice) is top-notch. But the game portions of the game are very old-hat at this point: A slight adjustment to the old Telltale formula that powered The Walking Dead, Fables, and more, where choices are far more likely to affect flavor than to seize true control of the narrative. It’s brisk, charming, and catchy—but anyone hoping for something deeper is likely to be a bit disappointed.