Genre: Visual Novel / Adventure
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
Windows 7/8.1/10, Core i3 (Sandy Bridge generation or better), 1 GB Intel HD Graphics Series, 13 GB Hard Drive space
Steins;Gate has enjoyed a healthy reputation since its release in Japan in 2009. The multi-branch visual novel, developed by 5pb. and Nitroplus, has received positive word-of-mouth from importers since its debut, and the praise has only increased since PQube brought it stateside in 2015. Mages has stepped in to do for the PC what PQube did for PS3 and PS Vita, allowing for even more players to get their fix of time-jumping science fiction. After hearing about it for years, but only getting the chance to try it out now, I have to say that it was worth the wait.
Visual novels are a peculiar genre. Despite the name, some of them are quite involved, such as Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, requiring players to solve puzzles, navigate environments, and guide conversation paths. In many respects, these are similar to older PC-style adventure titles. On the other end of the spectrum is Steins;Gate. Instead of being the driving force behind the protagonist’s progression, players are instead relegated to a more passive role, largely leaving the characters to their own devices. Much of the on-screen action requires little if any input, as characters argue, solve problems, and hang out on their own accord. However, while the player has a light touch, their presence is still felt, and their occasional gentle nudge can have a decisive impact on how the story plays out. In the case of Steins;Gate these gentle nudges are through the cell phone of Rintaro Okabe.
Rintaro Okabe is an 18-year-old self-proclaimed mad scientist. As he frequently reminds anyone who will listen, he is actually Kyouma Hououin, an evil genius that wants nothing more than to take down the system and engulf the world in chaos. (“Muah ha ha ha!”) During his summer break, he has taken to “creating” devices through his struggling startup, Future Gadget Lab, alongside ‘wizard-class super hacka’ Daru and childhood friend Mayuri. While attending a seminar on time travel with Mayuri, Okabe meets the brilliant student Kurisu Makise. Despite having only read about her in science journals, Okabe is informed by Makise that they recently met minutes earlier, but this curious exchange is cut short by some sort of explosion and a subsequent gruesome discovery. So begins a time-bending tale of conspiracy and camaraderie.
Time travel might be the star of the show, but the bedrock of Steins;Gate’s story is friendship. After Okabe’s chance encounter with Makise, his small circle of friends gradually grows to include several new ‘lab mems.’ Their goal is to understand how a goofy invention that combines a cellphone with a microwave to allow for remote control allows for emails to be sent into the past. As they unravel the mystery behind their discovery, they soon uncover an international conspiracy that has been decades in the making. As the group attempts to come to terms with what they have stumbled upon, a touching tale emerges of acceptance and loss. The backdrop of science fiction adds a consistent element of wonder and mystery to the mix, but at its heart, the game’s fundamental tale is about the pain of loss and the never-ending struggle of finding one’s place in the world.
Along the way, Okabe will receive and send text messages and phone calls that will allow players to interject themselves into the storyline. During set moments, deciding who to contact, when to answer the phone, and what to say via text message shifts the plot to focus on certain characters and towards one of several endings. Unlike most games, the problem isn’t determining what route to take—good, evil, or neutral—but what choice might be made, along with its possible affect the story. This is down to the fact that, for over half of the game, Okabe comes across as an unreliable narrator due to seemingly being disconnected from reality. He has created an entire world where he belongs to an unseen group that battles the shadowy Organization, avoiding their assassins while foiling their plans to control the world. He will whip out and talk into an unpowered cell phone, constantly interrupt other characters with rants about causing chaos, ramble about demon-slaying swords, and declare his desire to fill the streets of blood, which only he can bring about through his amazing machinations. Choosing a text-message response can be something as mundane as telling a cat-loving maid to stop saying “nya” all the time, to filling a bizarre tirade about Ragnarok with terms he’s made up on the spot. It’s not uncommon to choose a response that leaves the player just as confused as the recipient.
The game’s absolute dedication to Okabe is one of its biggest strengths and one of its biggest weaknesses. His behavior for much of the game is simply baffling, even if it’s also genuinely funny. But trying to come to grips with how a response will guide both him and the storyline can be frustrating, as it’s easy to end up moving away from the True Ending without even realizing it or knowing why after the fact. That isn’t to say that the other endings are bad, as some are equally surprising and tragic, but when there’s a literal True Ending, dammit, I want that ending—or at least a recognizable path to it. There is also an inordinate amount of text, even for a visual novel. Things that can be said with two or three sentences are said with five or six. That wouldn’t be to the detriment of characterization, either, as exchanges are often dragged out to the point of feeling padded. This begins to wear after a while in aggregate, given the volume of text in each playthrough; it took me around 20 hours to reach my first ending, which was also the first one chronologically. It’s possible to skip text to either make different choices or skim a familiar exchange in the back log, but even then, there are plenty of meandering exchanges.
Fortunately, there is a benefit to sitting through the conversations, even the more repetitive beats. Okabe’s strangeness makes for some great abrupt shifts in tone and topic, and it lends itself to numerous running jokes, like his tendency to give people nicknames and doggedly stick to them. His willingness to irritate everyone while being seemingly oblivious to his own shortcomings somehow works, especially when he’s being grossly inappropriate. The only time that I have encountered a character like him was in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. But unlike the delusional writer, Okabe is only abrasive on the surface, and his growth during the story allows him to progress beyond the verbose ramblings of an awkward teenager struggling with grandiose plans and the crushing reality. His off-the-wall rants and proclamations are also littered with real references and goofy puns. The various references are cataloged in a Tips section that explains everything from corporate names to the slang used on @channel, a popular off-kilter forum. Without this, Daru would be a maze of indecipherable slang, hormones, and hacking skills.
By the end of the game, it’s tough not to care about the characters. After a while, they and their quirks become so familiar as to seem like I’ve played the game for years, whether it’s Mayuri’s random enlightened observation among her usual ditziness and focus on eating and cosplay, or Makise’s inadvertent dropping of @channel slang, to the delight of Daru. The second half, and especially the last act, is when all of the goofy conversations pay off as the game goes full bore with the time-travel element. The designers take full advantage of the relationships so laboriously built up to push Okabe to his limit as he attempts to right wrongs that approach at a nightmarish pace. The twists and shifts relentlessly hammer the player, tearing at the heart strings and fully mining that nostalgia vein for those days when we palled around with our own gang of misfits. Toss in the Internet’s John Titor, the Large Hadron Collider, black holes, wormholes, and risking everything for those that matter the most, and you have a hell of a story.
Steins;Gate doesn’t have near the amount of interaction as other translated visual novels, and it’s not often clear what the outcome of those interactions may be, it is undoubtedly an enjoyable ride. It can take too long to get going, and would definitely benefit from a tighter edit, but the goofy characters, strange scenarios, and multiple endings make it a standout title. If only a walkthrough wasn’t required to find out just how to figure out how it’s supposed to end.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)