Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Review [Video Game]: Stray Gods

 A decision based story game with a musical twist, and one that manages to charm, despite its shortness.

The first game from new studio Summerfall Studio, co-founded by David Gaider of BioWare fame, Stray Gods is a narrative/choice-based game with a musical twist. You play as Grace, newly-made Muse, as she is pulled into the world of the Greek gods living in secret in her city, and attempts to solve a murder in the one week she's given before the trial that will accuse her of it. It's a short game, heavily focussed on the characters and their interactions and choices, rather than anything approaching an RPG (despite the "roleplaying" in its tagline). Its key distinguishing feature however - and the other part of the tagline - does not mislead. It absolutely is a musical.

Grace's power, she soon discovers, is that she can cause the people around her to burst into song and reveal what's going on in their minds and hearts... and possibly nudge it in the direction she wants it to go. She uses this power to help her solve the murder, as she meets new people who have no reason to tell her the truth about anything, and needs to get them to spill their souls as soon as possible (guitar riffs optional).

Which, frankly, is more justification than you get for the songs in most musicals, so it was nice to get that actual tie in for the premise. But I'll come back to the music in a moment.

In terms of gameplay, it's a pretty short story-based murder mystery plot - probably around 10 hours of gametime in total, if that - I burned through it in only a couple of sessions. That being said, it doesn't feel insubstantial, for all the brevity. The game is divided into three acts, and further into obvious episodes/chapters of events, and each smaller part feels like it pulls its weight in terms of furthering the story or giving you more information about the world or the characters - there's not a lot to it but it squeezes as much as it can out of those parts, and leaves it feeling greater than the sum. I definitely didn't feel shortchanged for my purchasing it.

It's also extremely replayable - at the beginning of the game, you choose a dominant personality trait (charming, badass or clever), and you can choose to follow the conversation choices this leads you to through the story, giving you three different moods to your gameplay, which mostly lead you to similar places, but with very different levels of information, as well as extremely different tones, to take you through the story. I followed mostly blue on my first play, and seeing the information subsequently available on a red play gave me quite a lot of background info that I'd just not had access to, as well as substantially different endings for some of the characters. But you don't have to - it's also possible to mix and match, to find the route through that sits better with how you want to play. But there's a benefit to consistency - which again, we'll come back to when we discuss the music.

There are also four potential romance options, and while they do each tend to synthesise better with one of the personality traits (Persephone is generally found with the badass conversation options), you don't have to bend to that. You have flexibility to pick the route you want, with the person you want, except for a few very specific choices, and those choices are pretty clearly marked out - if you want to romance Apollo, you probably need to take him along to help you through the events of the story, for instance.

The romances are all pretty different in terms of their personalities - you have an angry, vengeful Persephone, who is frankly one of the best iterations of the figure that I've seen in any recent media, a slightly skeevy, mischievous and cunning but also incredibly smooth Pan, your entirely unsubtly pining long-time best friend and all round myth-nerd Freddie, and the saddest boy in the world, Apollo. Who you choose to romance will also affect what information you get, both about the murder and about the world and characters around you, though it doesn't have an enormous impact in terms of what individual scenes you get and the conversations you have, so you don't ever really feel like your romance choice has cut you off from things you might have wanted to know.

No he does not appear to know how to button up a shirt

But you might feel cut off from the music - because each romance option has their own unique song sung with the protagonist, and a reprise at the end of the story if relevant. And it's here that I think there's a lot of the compelling content for each of the threads - the music for the romances is completely different, and sets a lot of the tone for that character's motivations, their feelings and how they relate to your protagonist. Where Apollo's is a much-needed jolt of optimism to chase away his melancholy, Persephone's is far more confrontational and teasing. Who you choose will have an impact - a big one - on the music you get at a few of the key scenes.

But then, so do all your choices. The personality traits aren't just about how you approach conversations in the game - they're also how you approach songs, and form the core of what's so interesting and unique about this game. They each correspond to a broad musical style, and if you want a consistent album of music at the end of it, you want to keep picking your chosen colour and stick with it - broadly speaking, green tends to the melodic and emotional, red to the rock and the beat, and blue to a strangely jaunty selection of songs. And so even at points in the game where you're accessing broadly the same content, by making those choices, it sounds totally different - not just the tune, but the lyrics and sometimes the graphics change to suit the mood of the music.

So if you replay it, you've essentially got three variables to mess around with, to make a whole new piece of media around your story, and that's before you start making a truly individualised medley. Summerfall have, very sensibly, made all three colours available as an individual album, as well as a purple version with the instrumental and less changeable songs, so if you want to spend several hours comparing them and crafting your perfect experience, you very much can.

Is it worth doing that? Well, mostly. There are some absolute banger songs in the game, especially at some of the key dramatic moments - the opening song Adrift is hauntingly beautiful, no matter which route you end up choosing. However, if you're not a particular fan of the type of musical show where the dialogue devolves into speak-singing at every turn, some of the tracks will turn you off completely. There's also something of a mixed bag of vocal abilities amongst the cast. I have absolutely no concerns about Anthony Rapp's voice - frankly, he needed more singing time - but Felicia Day is, while an excellent voice actor, certainly not the strongest voice in the chorus, so to speak. Especially when the voice acting is generally such a strong part of the production - and it really is, there are some very well played dramatic moments, and one character who occasionally gave me chills when they spoke - it feels a shame that the singing just sometimes lets the whole thing down. And this is all coming from someone with... mixed abilities at musical appreciation at best. I suspect someone with a good ear and a lot of musical experience might find more to criticise in the singing.

Erika Ishii's Hermes is an adorable little dork
Likewise, there are some other audio mishaps. Chief among them, the volume is incredibly inconsistent. You might be set perfectly for a song, and then you break for dialogue and suddenly it feels like Pan is shouting at you, then you turn around and he's whispering. It breaks the flow and immersion somewhat to be constantly fiddling with the settings to try to get it right. There are also occasional moments where the audio and subtitles just aren't well aligned.

But... it's easy to forgive these sins, if you're sold on the heart of the story, and especially the characters, as I was. Even the ones who don't get a lot of screentime, like Hermes and Eros, are well done, and their voice actors have put a lot into making them instantly individual, putting what little gametime they have to the fullest use possible. 

Meanwhile Abubakar Salim's Eros is both second saddest boy in the world and an absolute sweetheart

The game keeps the cast pretty small, so you can get as much time with the key characters as possible, and while it sometimes makes "crowd" scenes feel sparsely populated, it was a good choice for the length of game we have.

It also helps that the writers have definitely treated the mythological origins of the story more as a jumping off point than an unchangeable gospel. As well as the badass Persephone we need and deserve, they've definitely been willing to play around with the backstories of some of the other characters as needed to suit the game they're trying to make... all while still giving us occasional flashes of clearly quite in-depth research behind the scenes. This flexibility also carries through in their interpretation of the powers they've given their gods, and gives us a more seamlessly modern looking cast while sidestepping any discussions that might have - in however much good or bad faith - about the "authenticity" to history of their looks. And in playing flexibly with the source material, they give us a finished product that feels far more urban fantasy than anything else, just one with a Greek mythology flavouring.

Compared to the more interesting parts of story and song, the art direction is a much more minimalistic one - the cartoonish style is simple and fades into the background, while being well done at every step. Especially in character design, it really does its job, but the animation is basic, letting you focus instead on the song and story. Everyone is instantly recognisable, but their individuality comes in the base design, rather than in how they move and interact - the game revolves primarily around still shots, rather than dynamic scenes, letting the singing do the talking instead.

All in all, it's a competently built short game, tightly focussed around the innovative musical idea at its core. There are some issues with the execution, especially for those more likely to be turned off by occasionally iffy musical moments, but if you're willing to buy into the story and the heart of the game, it becomes easy to forgive the missteps. And they've fundamentally made a game where it's easy to do just that. In a perfect world, it might be longer, more substantial, more expansive. But what we have is a replayable, relistenable delight, that will leave you humming tunes for days after you've finished playing.


The Math

Highlights: Genuinely innovative core concept, cute art, high replayability

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Stray Gods [Summerfall Games, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea