You shall not go astray with Stray Gods: An Accessibility Review

Update: The saved game bug mentioned later in this review is worse than expected. My proposed workaround isn’t a workaround, I was simply lucky. Disappearing saves is a known issue currently being investigated.

Let me start by saying that Stray Gods is an absolutely wonderful game. It might not be for everyone, but you’re reading my review, so you get my opinion. I love great narrative, AND I love musicals, and the fact that one now exists that is interactive, and I can play it… Well that’s just the best. Oh yeah, in case that wasn’t clear, Stray Gods is absolutely playable by the totally blind, though with some important caveats. We’ll talk about the good and the bad in this review. Let’s get to it!

Let’s start with some good news. You can absolutely use OCR to play Stray Gods. Dialog choices read perfectly, even during songs. There is a small issue where this is concerned, but I’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s cover a major OCR stumbling block.

Stray Gods’ menu structure is a mess if you’re blind. It’s almost impossible to tell which option you’re highlighting, and there is some weird left and right movement required to hit certain items, like the options menu, that I really do not like. The worst is in the options menu itself, where it is impossible to see which settings are active and which aren’t. You also can’t tell which option is selected, which I absolutely admit is a huge problem. I did end up getting sighted assistance to activate the features I needed in order to play, which were to activate audio description, to turn off timed choices, and to turn on a couple of UI-related options that add additional UI sounds for songs and other game areas. Once they were on, however, I began to play.

It took me a bit to figure things out as the game began. I knew that OCR doesn’t really care what a game looks like, so there was a chance I would have to determine the order in which dialog choices appeared as it relates to the choice wheel you use to select them. I was correct about this. To save you some time, should you choose to play it, I will tell you this. Most of the time, (and this is the small issue I mentioned above), the choices appear in this order. The first choice is the top of the wheel, the second is the left option, and the third is the right option. This pattern breaks at several points, though, and I don’t understand why. It may be related to scenes that contain more characters, thus confusing OCR regarding the layout of the screen, but I have no real proof of that. Interestingly, though, and a mark in the positive column, is that this NEVER happens during a song. Songs are the most important aspect of this game, and OCR is perfect, following the pattern I mentioned, in each and every one. The imperfection of this pattern during normal dialog options, though, is an issue, and certainly a frustration. If you generally follow this pattern, you’ll usually be fine, but you will occasionally say something you didn’t intend, or miss a conversation option because you pick the thing that moves the story along. However, I want to do my best to be clear on this. Yes, it is frustrating when this happens, but I do not believe it ever happens during a major decision in the game. A story-affecting decision, I should say. All those are done through the musical numbers, which as I’ve said work perfectly. Oh, one more thing, the pattern breaking also seems to happen more often when you have 4 choices instead of 3, though again that’s inconsistent. Also, when that happens, the last thing OCR reads should also be the bottom of the wheel.

There are 2 other gameplay elements I need to mention. The first is a rarely used look around mechanic. This mechanic is simply-constructed, and won’t block you from the game, but it does have an odd UI experience. Firstly, though you can read everything you can see with OCR, at least during one of these scenes, the controller support seems lacking, as it’s difficult to look at what you specifically want to. However, there’s a workaround for this. It’s not ideal, but it does work. When you look at something, it is erased from the list, so when you reach one of these scenes, you can just keep pressing X on a Playstation controller or A on an Xbox controller to both select and confirm, and you’ll look at every item in order. I understand that removes the notion of player choice from these scenes, but it will get you through them.

The second thing I have to mention is a kind of map mechanic where you select your next destination. It seems like controller support here was actually unfinished, as I’ve had the controller seemingly stop responding while trying to select a destination, and there doesn’t appear to be any consistent way to know what you’re selecting here. Trying almost everything seems to click on your journal, which is always on this screen, until suddenly it doesn’t and takes you somewhere. Unfortunately, this does sometimes lead to uncertainty as to where you’re actually going until the game continues. I’ve been able to make guesses most of the time based on OCR, as the destinations do read with it, so I might say something like, “OK, so if I want to go here, it’s somewhere in a generally down direction from the journal.” That seemed to work… sort of… in a general way, though I do know I missed at least 1 optional conversation due to struggling with this screen. Still, you will eventually go somewhere, so it’s still not a total blocker.

Speaking of navigation, let me be very clear that there is no other navigation to speak of. There is no need to worry about wandering through corridors trying to find that illusive door, or following the monsters, or anything like that. The game simply flows. It’s all dialog choices, song choices, rare looking around, and map selections. That’s the game. Don’t get me wrong, though, it’s a beautiful game. In fact, let’s talk a bit about that.

In spite of everything, even some things I haven’t told you about yet, I loved Stray Gods. Its music is absolutely amazing, composed by the incomparable Austin Wintory, its story is deep, and well-written and moving, (no seriously I was moved to tears multiple times), and its voice cast… Wow. I mean, not only does it contain, like, half the cast of The Last of Us, (Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, AND Merle Dandridge), it also has Felicia Day, who is amazing, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who is also amazing, and more! This is a cast that is going to blow your socks clean off, especially when they start singing. And the thing is, I knew some of these folks could sing. Troy Baker, for instance. I knew the man could sing but still… Good lord. His first number is absolutely incredible. And keep in mind I only heard 1 single version of it. These songs flow, and they change based on every single choice you make, sometimes very drastically. It’s so neat, and it works so well.

I was wondering how they’d handle timed choices being off when it came to the music. Would the music just cut off abruptly while people were still singing? Would there be some melody that just plays in the background while your choice was on screen? I think this latter option would’ve been the coolest, but it doesn’t do either of these things. What it does is still better than what I was worried it would do, though. Somehow, instead of cutting off abruptly, the music actually stops naturally, the last instrument before the pause allowed to play its note, and even have its note fade out naturally too. It doesn’t feel abrupt, it just feels like the song is holding its breath for you, which again isn’t the coolest, but it’s OK. It is an acceptable way of handling it. I imagine all the individual clips that together make up the song were composed this way, but a natural fade from one to the other is created if you make your choice in time. Because yes, if you are quick with your choices, which is possible if you’re paying close attention and checking OCR often, the song just never stops, flowing perfectly as you choose its path. It’s wonderful to witness, and well, like I said, it’s beautiful.

OK, time to talk about some bugs, because I did encounter some. The first and worst of them is one that actually deleted my save. Thankfully this did not happen too incredibly far in, so while it annoyed me I didn’t mind it much. I believe the cause may have been related to closing the game with Alt F4, even though I was in the main menu at the time. The game does auto-save, I confirmed that with my second attempt, but it doesn’t seem to save the slot until you exit the game by specifically choosing the exit option. That’s the best conclusion I was able to reach, as it never happened again once I began doing that. So uh, just to be safe, when you’re done playing, go back to the main menu by pausing and hitting up twice, then confirming, and choose exit by going up once, confirming, then left to yes, and confirming again.

The second bug is strange, because I didn’t manage to reproduce it on a second attempt. The first interactive song didn’t work properly for me as far as my timed choices setting was concerned. I ran out of time, which shouldn’t have been possible, and a random choice was selected for me. This is what happens if you run out of time with timed choices on. I got sighted confirmation that the setting was indeed set to off, though, so this definitely was a bug. The next song worked just fine, however. Then, the game save bug happened, so I had to attempt the first song again, and low and behold, it was fine. So yeah, definitely no idea why this happened, and I hope it doesn’t happen to you, but I figured I’d mention it as it was my experience.

There seems to be one more bug related to controller support. There were times when I felt the controller support lost all connectivity with UI. At least, when I moved, there were no UI sounds playing. Maybe it was working, and this is an audio bug, but when you’re blind, you can’t tell. Anyway, when this happened, I figured out that I could simply pause the game, and unpause it, and then control would be returned to me. This happens most often on the map screen, so be aware of it.

Lastly, there seem to be some audio issues with the game. These include pretty major mix issues, mostly during non-song gameplay, as some voices are significantly louder or significantly quieter than others, to audio that appears to be missing, (a crowd murmur in one scene seems strangely absent), to the worst one I encountered, which was a single clip of a song based on a choice I made that didn’t play. I OCR-ed the subtitles, so I missed no information, but still… It’s all about the music, baby.

Alright, now we need to get to some unpleasantness. I need to call out the audio description in this game. I am glad it’s there. I am glad audio description is starting to exists in more and more games. I swear I am. But we have the wright to ask for quality, and this audio description is, quite simply, not good. Whole swaths of information go completely undescribed. Locations, for instance, are almost never described. There’s one particular scene that I won’t spoil, but it’s the kind of location I would really want described, and we get nothing aside from the fact that the characters enter that location. There’s another moment, again no spoilers, where we receive the description of an event that happens a full 20 seconds later, and weirdly, there’s a pause of about 5 of those seconds after which we get the description of the next event. Remember, the first event hasn’t happened yet. There is also character-swapping, due I assume to the game’s interactivity and the incorrect description audio being played based on the current game state, but still it threw me. The writing just isn’t there. It stays basic, and sometimes, sure, it’s helpful, but almost all the time I just keep wondering “Why not more?” This is especially true given the fact that the game literally pauses for descriptions. There actually is no time limit because of this method, yet they act as though there is, and that it is very short most of the time. Truly, I wish Summerfall Studios had worked with my good pals over at Descriptive Video works, because this game oozes potential for truly great in-game audio description. It really does.

So how could some of this game’s issues be solved? Why, full narration, of course. Narration immediately solves the OCR choice inconsistency problem, it may potentially solve the map screen issues, it will make the in-game menus more tolerable though as I understand it based on the help I got, the cursor’s positioning in those menus is confusing to sighted people as well… Full narration is an instant plus to this game. Also, I think we could use at least 1 more UI sound that plays when choices appear. I sometimes paused for a long time before using OCR to read potential dialog choices because these actors really perform these scenes, and if there’s a natural pause, they take it, even if they have more to say. I think it’d be especially valuable during songs, however. The actual text of song choices is fairly short, so I believe that, if we had a combination of full narration, (preferably in the form of screen reader support and not the incredibly slow TTS used for audio description), and a sound to let us know when that wheel popped up, we may not even need to turn off choice timers on songs. Based on my frantic scanning, it seemed like these choices popped up in time to act on them if you read them immediately, so I could anticipate playing this game with nonstop music. Those things, plus some work on controller support to make sure it snaps to UI elements better, and some improved audio description of course, would put this game among the truly greats.

In conclusion, I guess I want to reiterate that I loved this game. In spite of everything I told you about that isn’t good, there is so, so much good here, and for me, it outweighed the bad. I know it won’t for everyone. I know many will choose to wait until narration is added, something the developer has already said they will attempt to do, and I respect that. But if you love narrative games as much as I do, if you’re willing to go through the very particular struggles I mentioned in this review, you can both play, and enjoy this game as I did. I know for a fact that I will play this game again. I might even do it soon, or I might wait, too, to see if accessibility is improved. Thanks so much for reading. I’m going to go whistle songs from this game nonstop now.

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