The stage was set for a cow and a witch to fall in love. The stage in question was inside the actors’ minds and alternated between a shoddy, makeshift replication of a Romeo and Juliet backdrop and a glamorous setup ripped straight from Beauty and the Beast. One wrong line could have transformed the budding romance into an unspeakable tragedy, but with the right balance of emotional honesty and empathetic listening, Asterion the Minotaur and Hecate the witch walked away happy.
This is Stray Gods at its finest. The problem is that Stray Gods is so often not at its finest.
The self-styled “urban fantasy role-playing musical” from developer Summerfall Studios and Dragon Age writer David Gaider follows Grace (voiced by Laura Bailey), a directionless college dropout who suddenly inherits the powers of a Greek Muse after her new friend Calliope (Ashley Johnson) dies a shocking death. The other Greek deities, called Idols in the modern world, suspect Grace of the murder, and she has to find the true culprit in seven days — about seven hours of real-world play time — before the gods execute her.
Each number includes several key moments where you decide what lyrics Grace sings next, which usually has some effect on her relationship with the people involved. These choices give rise to one of Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical’s more confusing design choices, though. Picking a personality trait at the start locks you out of certain color-coded conversation topics (and certain endings to the entire game), but you’re free to choose any line in a song, even if it’s opposed to your dominant personality choice. The idea of musical improvisation is tantalizing in the possibilities it suggests for role-playing, but as a mechanic, it feels like an afterthought.
That level of flexibility could have enhanced the “role-playing” aspect of dialogue in the rest of the game by giving you more influence over Grace’s actions. Limiting it only to songs makes it feel more more like improvisation, with Grace wildly devising what to say next with just a shred of context and inspiration for guidance. And like many improv sets, the results vary significantly. While many outcomes have a meaningful effect on Grace’s relationships, others feel superfluous — almost like filler.
Luckily, Stray Gods’ setting is compelling in myriad other ways. It lends itself to some magical moments and clever juxtapositions of the mythical and the modern: Persephone owns a nightclub, a haven for all who long to be free, established after she won her own freedom from the underworld. Apollo’s oracle is a smart-talking hacker called Oracle. He thinks she’s a supernatural being and values her otherworldly skills of computer literacy. She just thinks he’s a weirdo.
It’s a fantasy that falls apart under scrutiny, though, thanks to plot inconsistencies and some careless writing that riddles the script. Pan acts like he’s never seen a human apartment when you first meet him, but it later turns out he lives in a luxe penthouse. Apollo supposedly doesn’t know what computers are, but somehow managed to set up a high-speed internet network for Oracle. In the most glaring case, Persephone is determined to pin Calliope’s murder on Grace for most of the first act, and then, seemingly on a whim after their song battle, Persephone says she found it pretty hard to believe Grace was guilty. I would chalk this up to the gods’ capriciousness — but the Idols’ refusal to change plays a key role in Stray Gods’ plot.
In general, Stray Gods handles big revelations unconvincingly. Take Apollo, for example. He reminds me of Hello Dolly’s Dolly Levi, another character who regrets years spent in a depressive rut, ruled by fear of the unknown. Dolly’s awakening happens during “Before the Parade Passes By,” a soul-stirring number where you can feel Dolly’s determination to wake her spirit up in everything — the tempo, the melody, the gradual addition of new accompanying instruments, even the volume. When she reemerges with a vibrant resolution to live a full life no matter the cost, you have no choice but to believe it.
No matter what route you take through Apollo’s song, the thing that erases centuries of regret and inaction and convinces him to help Grace is a simple line of throwaway dialogue. If only life were so simple. Stray Gods just doesn’t have the emotional depth to pull off most of the character transformations that are central to its plot.
The cast undergoing these transformations is a mix of inspired ideas and odd choices. Grace is a likable if uneven lead whose story centers on fixing godly conflicts more than it does her own emotional turmoil. Grace leaps into the Muse’s role and leaves her anxieties behind, rarely stopping to reflect on her new life or even Stray Gods’ (and Greek theater’s) biggest theme — the power of art to cleanse the emotions.
The devious Pan, grudge-bearing Persephone, and compassionate Aphrodite easily steal the show with their nuanced problems and strong deliveries. Troy Baker and Felicia Day, the actors who portray Apollo and Athena, give unusually flat readings that only emphasize how bland their characters are, so allying Grace with the aforementioned compelling deities makes sense.
A strength of musicals is the ability to explore emotions that defy mere spoken words. Some reflect these emotions with a poetic bent, while others indulge in spectacle and effect; the best do both. But most of Stray Gods’ first act feels like a first rehearsal. Overly simplified compositions drag out notes and topics alike, retreading ideas brought up in conversation without adding anything new. The habit gradually fades in the second act and beyond, though. Summerfall and composer Austin Wintory throw several gems into the mix, including the splendid number between Hecate and Asterion the Minotaur, as well as a charged duet between Pan and Grace. But Stray Gods can’t stay consistent — it’s several clusters of standout musical moments punctuated by long, dull stretches of downtime.
That said, the vocal performances are almost universally superb. Laura Bailey delivers consistently powerful notes, and it’s a crime against art if we don’t get to hear Allegra Clark (Hecate) and Merle Dandridge (Aphrodite) sing in some capacity again. The standout for me is Khary Payton as Pan, whose gravelly performance as the suspicious satyr still plays in my head long after the credits rolled.
One of my favorites is Pan’s introduction, “Morning Fades,” a jazzy number with a soft undercurrent of sleaze that tells you more about his character than any of the overly long dialogue segments that bookend it. My first time through, I picked lyrics in keeping with Grace’s clever, calculating traits and ended up with a disappointing experience. Grace only rehashes her suspicions of Pan, and Pan kept repeating how Grace needs him — both topics that Stray Gods covers extensively before the singing starts.
The second time I played through the scene, I had Grace side with her best friend, Freddie, and the two of them hijacked Pan’s own song, turning it into a scathing rebuke of his predatory behavior. The level of control Stray Gods affords in these moments is captivating and teases new ways to explore role-playing in games — specifically through music. I just wish Stray Gods lavished the same attention to role-playing on its other songs, where every path felt rewarding or altered the outcome in a meaningful way.
Stray Gods is ambitious in its goals, and while the road Summerfall and co. take to reach them is rough and uneven, I won’t be forgetting Grace’s tale anytime soon. It’s a clever format, and the unfulfilled potential makes me excited for future attempts to meld games and theater.
Stray Gods will be released on Aug. 10 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Humble Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.