5pb and Nitroplus’ second Science Adventure game proves an absolutely fascinating look at time travel gone wrong with a fantastic scenario and loveable characters, proving one of the most accessible and thought-provoking ways into the Visual Novel genre.
World-building & Story
Steins;Gate takes place exclusively in real-world settings – the main one being Akibahara, a district in Tokyo home to fans of electronics as well as many otaku who stay for the moe culture. Various other neighbourhoods are visited such as Ikebukuro, but the vast majority of the game takes place in Tokyo’s ‘Electric Town’.
The choice of setting is a logical one – after all, this is a story about time travel and scientists, and it makes sense for them to have an array of electronics to hand. What’s most impressive about it is how seemingly every aspect of Akiba is woven into different aspects of the story – mechanical shops are visited; maid cafes form regular meeting points; street vendors are interacted with etc. It’s all incredibly well thought out and really makes you believe that the characters are interacting with a real world.
In Akiba, we’re introduced to the members Future Gadget Laboratory, an amateur lab full of inventions and the driving force behind the plot. The lab was established by mad scientist Okabe Rintaro, who serves as the protagonist and narrator to the story; we’re quickly introduced to the other two members – ditzy but well-meaning Mayuri Shiina (Mayushii) and super-otaku-hacker Itaru Hashida (Daru). These three characters form the backbone of Steins;Gate’s story alongside Makise Kurisu, a renowned scientist who has a series of encounters with Okabe that changes events entirely.
The characters are easily one of the best things about the title – even if you’re initially unsure about them, each one shows growth and become genuinely likeable as the story progresses. This extends to side characters who could easily have been one-dimensional, like the cat-obsessed maid Faris NyanNyan or Luka Urushibara, a timid ‘trap’ friend of Okabe. Every one is effectively given their own chapter as part of the over-arching plot and some of these become highly emotional as things go on, showing just how much some of these characters change from their initial impressions.
Of course, the main plot focuses on the four previously mentioned members of the Future Gadget Laboratory and their experimentation with time travel. Without spoiling too much of what makes Steins;Gate unique, the story revolves around the accidental invention of a machine which can send text messages into the past (known in game as ‘d-mails’), and the subsequent developments (and devastating consequences) that follow on from this. It’s a compelling premise in itself and provides an incredible basis for the story to develop in so many interesting ways.
Unfortunately, the game suffers from slight pacing problems in the beginning, which is a shame because once the game hits its stride, it never lets up. As the plot progresses you will realise that this slow initial pace is fully necessary to give the initial characters time to develop, so that the story can crescendo to the highs it reaches towards the end, but I did find my interest waning during the early chapters.
Without labouring the point too much, however, once the plot gets moving it becomes one of the most essential, moving and interesting tales I’ve ever come across in a video-game. Events constantly take surprising turns; characters reveal motives you don’t see coming and the time-travel elements continue to be fascinating.
For me, it definitely helped that Okabe, our gateway into the world of Steins;Gate, starts out as an insufferable, delusional self-obsessed goon who transforms completely into someone desperately trying to save his friends by the end. It was a great way to demonstrate the scale of the events that took place and the toll this places upon one person, as well as being a great example of character development in general.
And personally, I really liked Okabe’s initial silly delusions and random sidebars as they kept the tone lighthearted. The game does actually maintain a good sense of humour – although it goes for the emotional jugular very often, it’s not afraid to make you smile with an absurd situation or random quip from a character soon afterwards, which keeps the pacing fresh throughout. With that said, the story definitely takes a more serious turn from about halfway through and sometimes struggles to keep up the laughs in the latter chapters.
It’s worth noting that the game does have multiple endings – standard fare for Visual Novels, but personally I found myself wanting to see all of them for Steins;Gate just due to the level of connections made with the characters. Aside from one particular ending, I feel each does work by itself and provides a decent level of closure no matter what stage the overarching main story is at – a great feat considering the number of intertwining plot threads going on at any one time. Of course, the true ending provides the most satisfying conclusion and was a genuinely fantastic way to wrap things up.
Presentation & Sound
Graphically, the game is presented in VN conversation scenes throughout depicting interactions between all of the cast, interspersed with still ‘painting’-style screens showing specific moments in the plot. Steins;Gate retains a distinct visual style that remains consistent throughout and makes for some lovely artwork to gaze upon while following the story. I found myself taking many screenshots of various scenes just because they looked so beautiful.
The actual conversation scenes themselves are only lightly animated – characters will move across the screen or fade out to depict movement, but there’s little beyond this.
Sound is undoubtedly a high point of the game. Steins;Gate features a beautiful soundtrack full of memorable songs – quiet and thought-provoking when things are emotional; light and breezy when things are cheerful. Many of the best pieces are variations on the game’s main theme, which itself is a remarkable piece of music, and remains fresh throughout thanks to the various changes. The OST reminds me of DanganRonpa in a way, in that the music is just always fitting to the mood of the scene (and in a similar comparison, I found myself youtube-ing some of the tracks long after completion, in particular ‘Gate of Steiner’ and ‘Sky-clad Observer’).
Voice acting is also fantastic – although Japanese only throughout. I doubt this would be an issue for many people, as the Japanese VA’s do a fantastic job of emoting their lines – even with the language barrier, the mood of the scene always comes across and each character has a distinctive speech pattern (Mayuri tends to drag out words; Makise tends to have shorter, sharper retorts). It all works perfectly and you can tell a lot of effort went into recording these lines.
Gameplay & Content
As a Visual Novel, very little player interaction is required throughout the majority of your time playing – obviously reading text is what you’ll do most. Steins;Gate adds a useful definition system for some of the more bizarre words you’ll come across, particularly any scientific terms but equally anything relating to specific aspects of Japanese culture. This in-game dictionary can be accessed at any time, a nice touch to ensure you never get lost when the conversations become more in-depth.
Aside from reading, however, the game employs various systems to allow you to interact with the world through Okabe’s mobile phone. He has this with him throughout the story, and at various points you’ll hear the jingle of a text message being received which will be one of the other characters chatting to you about something. You’re normally given one of a few possible responses to their texts (highlighted words which you can use to respond) and from there the conversation will steer in different directions, influencing the next reply you receive.
Normally your replies will not do anything to influence anything more than the specific conversation you’re having there and then, but occasionally you’re given larger choices to make, usually relating to sending a d-mail to the past and whether or not this is the right choice. On these occasions, you’ll notice a red ‘phone trigger’ flag in the text box indicating that the choice will have consequences, which usually means the story will be heading in a different direction from that point onward.
In addition to the text messages, you will sometimes receive phone calls from other characters which you can either choose to answer or ignore. Again, these calls can be ‘phone triggers’ and your choices can affect the outcome of the overall story (although often it’s just one of Okabe’s friends trying to provide useful information!)
It all comes together to make a compelling package – a visual novel with enough input that you’ll never lose interest, with choice having a major impact on the route the story takes. 5pb clearly thought long and hard about the different ways they could approach each character’s progression throughout and it makes for a fantastically well-crafted tale.
Steins;Gate is one of those titles that will stick with you for a long time – I can’t stop thinking about it since finishing. It’s smart, funny, full of likable characters and heart-wrenching drama and is absolutely one of the best experiences available on the Vita.