Stray Gods: The Kotaku Australia Review

Stray Gods: The Kotaku Australia Review

Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical just didn’t click for me quite the way I hoped it would.

It’s so close, though. So achingly close.

I’ve been in love with the Stray Gods pitch from the moment I first heard about it. I backed the game on Fig when Melbourne’s Summerfall Studios announced its desire to crowdfund part of its development. The game was called Chorus back then, and I gladly handed over my cash to help get it made. I’m still glad I did that. I will always be glad I did that. I still believe in the spirit and vision of this project, even if the final game, hindered by its own grand ambitions, wasn’t quite what I hoped for. A game like this — an interactive musical RPG — was always going to be a risk.

Stray Gods follows college dropout Grace, played by Laura Bailey, who is granted the power of a Muse. Grace must use her newfound powers to solve the mystery of her predecessor Calliope’s untimely passing. It’s up to you to decide who Grace works with to achieve her goal, who she likes and she who trusts. The story and script (by Dragon Age‘s David Gaider) is one of the game’s strongest aspects — I understand that Buffy, particularly its musical episode Once More With Feeling, was an inspiration here, and you can certainly tell. Characters bicker cleverly amongst themselves, and the story deals in big, bold metaphor, just the way Buffy did. It’s great stuff, from the Green Lantern origin story, its quiet and incidental character moments, right through to the game’s surprising conclusion.

Summerfall has pulled together a murderer’s row of high-quality voice talent for the game. The aforementioned Bailey is as adept a singer as she is an actor. Her Last of Us Part II co-stars Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker also show up in important roles. Janina Gavankar, Anjali Bhimani, Khary Payton, Felica Day, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Mr. Rent himself Anthony Rapp, all make appearances. It’s a who’s-who of voice acting talent and a real testament to Summerfall’s vision that it could rope in a cast with pedigrees this significant.

This tale of the Greek pantheon hiding in plain sight is told through still and rather beautiful comic-book-style images. Its visuals are striking and are, perhaps, my favourite part of the game. I can’t say enough about them. They remind me, funnily enough, of a Buffy spin-off comic called Fray, whose beautiful thick pencils and inks were provided by Karl Moline and Andy Owens. It’s the kind of art style that screams comics, dynamic linework that feels like it could leap off the page (or screen, in this case) at any moment. I love it.

Grace locks horns with several members of the Greek pantheon on her way to solving the mystery of Calliope’s death, and in the manner of a stage musical, these tête-à-têtes are conducted through song. The difference here is that you get to choose the lyrics that Grace sings, sometimes line by line. Each line you choose stems from a particular conversational branch — one is charismatic and charming, another is clever and incisive, and the third is aggressive and bullish. You can lean Grace into any one of these three personality trees, or you can hedge your bets and choose between the three. The more you use each of them, the stronger they become.

The songs, sadly, are where the game comes unstuck for me, which is a problem in a game designed to function as an interactive musical.

Something that many regular readers of this site may not know (but might have been able to figure out based on the fact that I knew who Anthony Rapp was): I’m a musical guy. I’ve studied many musicals in my life. I have a broad understanding of the things that make them tick because, at one point, I thought I might like to write one myself — until I gave it a go and realised how fucking hard it is to write a musical.

It’s why I have so much sympathy for Stray Gods in this regard. It tries its best, but there is a clash at the heart of its musical production that is holding it back. The score, by famed video game composer Austin Wintory, is just that — a score, and a good one, because that’s Wintory’s major area of expertise. The problem is that it feels like Wintory has written a video game score rather than arrangements for a musical.

Also difficult: writing lyrics, especially compared to, say, dialogue. They’re different disciplines, they use very different creative muscles. So it made me a little bummed to find how loosely it felt like the game’s lyrics had been draped around Wintory’s score, and not all of them fit as neatly as they possibly could. The layer of interactivity, of choosing the next line of a song in motion, only complicates this further. It creates a dissonant feeling in the listener, which is the opposite of what you want. There should be harmony. They should fit together perfectly.

Again, when I heard that Once More With Feeling was a major influence here, I worried that Stray Gods might stumble into a trap that many “musical episodes” fall into — most TV shows that make a musical episode do so because Buffy made one, and people seemed to like that. But its writers are TV writers, not songwriters or musicians. Their lyrics and rhymes aren’t as strong, and sometimes don’t quite arrive on beat, needing to be stretched to fit across a bar.

I heard quite a bit of this in Stray Gods. You can hire the greatest cast of voice actors on earth (and they have), but if the songwriting isn’t quite there, then no amount of expensive VO can conceal it.

I hate that I have to give Stray Gods a less-than-stellar review, though I truly believe it won’t diminish its fortunes in the long run. This is a game that will, I’m sure, go on to be hailed as a major local success story. Though I’ve aired my gripes in this review, I do think that it does absolutely everything in its power to deliver on the promise it made on Fig all those years ago. I said it at the start of this review: it was always going to be a risk, but one I still think was worth taking.

I hope that Stray Gods is successful enough that the team at Summerfall Studios gets a chance to make a sequel or another interactive musical, if only as an opportunity to hone their craft. Stray Gods has proven that there’s something here. That this is an idea that can and will work with the right people and the right creative components in place.

Stray Gods is so achingly close to greatness, but, like Icarus, it flies just a little too close to the sun.

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