5pb’s follow up to one of the finest visual novels of all time is a thrilling adventure and character study, held back by some disjointed storytelling and plot development.
|Physical English||Yes – EU/NA|
World-building & Story
(Warning, this review will contain spoilers for the original Steins;Gate)
It was hard to imagine how 5pb would be able to continue the story started in Steins;Gate, their epic sci-fi thriller about time travel. Yet that’s exactly the task they took on with 0, which has the odd distinction of being a sequel and a prequel to the events of that game, as well as somewhat of a side story. This is both the title’s biggest strength as well as its biggest weakness – it fills in a massive gap in the overall plot, but we already know how it ends.
Taking place in the beta world-line after Okabe failed to save Kurisu, but before he received the d-mail that helped guide him to Steins;Gate, the game explores how he came to send that fateful message to his past self. It was one of the most interesting plot points of the original title – how he needed to fail at saving Kurisu in order to gain the resolve to find a way to save her – making it a very interesting jumping off point here.
Steins;Gate 0 therefore follows a broken Okabe – he was forced to choose between the love of his life and his childhood best friend, and he’s trying to cope with the consequences of that decision. Hououin Kyouma is long gone, replaced by a brooding and depressed character who regularly suffers from PTSD flashbacks and a lack of enthusiasm for anything. It’s an incredible character study and something that’s truly handled with care – despite being mentally scarred, Okabe is still a compelling lead and his troubles feel so real and human.
In fact, character development on the whole remains the game’s strongest asset, constantly taking the existing cast in new directions. From the fallout of the revelation that Suzuha is Daru’s daughter from the future and how this affects their relationship to Mayuri’s continued perkiness and warm-heartedness, it’s amazing to see such a loveable cast together again. Even plot-development characters from the last game get more screen time and new aspects to their character revealed, such as Moeka who develops a sweet and unlikely friendship.
The new cast is more hit-and-miss. Maho is likeable enough, especially thanks to some of her comical scenes – yet she’s also an important piece in the overall plot and capable of some great dramatic scenes. Others, such as Fubuki and Kaede, are completely under-developed and serve little purpose, making me wonder what the point of their inclusion was. Dr Leskinen in particular is an example of a character with the potential to be deep and layered, but ends up two-dimensional and merely used to push the plot forward.
At its best, Steins;Gate 0 manages to surpass the emotional highs of the previous game thanks to some beautifully poignant moments. One scene in particular involving briefly returning to the alpha worldline where Kurisu quickly notices something is wrong had me welling with emotion throughout purely through the dialogue and significance of the interaction alone. The game is littered with moments like this, that are truly some of the best videogame storytelling I’ve ever seen.
Yet 0 is also uneven and poorly paced at times, spending too long on incidental scenes that do little to move things forward. While the original started slow by setting the scene and introducing the quirks of each character before hitting its stride in the second half and never letting up until you’ve seen each ending; 0 flits between ideas and feels more disjointed as a result. This is particularly noticeable in the endings which follow no real structure from one to another, unlike the logical progression of undoing each character’s d-mail in the original.
And really, this is the game’s biggest flaw – you’ll need to have played the previous release in order to derive the full enjoyment from this title, yet comparisons are inevitable and 0 has some glaring issues when stacked up against the brilliance that was Steins;Gate. As a standalone piece it’s still a hell of an achievement and it’s well worth playing in order to see these beloved characters grow and develop, but I definitely feel the game isn’t all it could be.
Just a quick word on world-building – this is the same Akihabara as seen previously, full of otaku references; cute events and technical talk. It’s a fantastic setting for a story and is still fully realised here, although journeys outside the lab are less frequent than previously. In addition, everything is still underpinned by a level of shadowy intrigue due to the political implications of a time machine being built, ensuring the enjoyable thriller aspect to the plot and world remains in tact in Steins;Gate 0.
Presentation & Sound
Graphically, Steins;Gate 0 has had an overhaul compared to its predecessor – with new art for each character as well as redrawn locations. While things generally look fantastic in the new style, it can be jarring compared to the old art which is used in flashbacks.
As a visual novel, the game is presented with 2D character portraits for the majority of a playthrough. Characters are drawn well, with defined features; bright colours and plenty of different poses and animations. Conversations move seamlessly between different cast members and in general there’s just a quality feel to everything, which is important when you’ll spend the majority of your time reading.
Issues start appearing in the aforementioned flashback scenes which use the previous title’s artstyle. While a nice touch in itself, the gulf between the two is vast – the old models use duller colours; have more exaggerated features and less expressions. Yet they’re much more unique and memorable – meaning that aside from the fact it’s quite disjointed switching between the two, it also makes you yearn for the old designs where everyone had something unforgettable in their design.
Thankfully environments look as good as ever, doing a good job of conveying the bustle of Akihabara with the quirks of the otaku lifestyle. Aside from returning locations like the maid cafe and Future Gadget Lab, you’ll also visit some darker locations as a result of the pending third world war which gives the game a gritty, moody feel at times; and contrasts well with some of the more comical and light-hearted moments.
Aside from this, menus are fairly easy to navigate (although it’s not always obvious which option your cursor is hovering over); while Okabe’s phone menu is both nostalgic yet easy to use. Text is also a decent size and scrolls smoothly, meaning in general all the practicalities of the game look pretty good. You’ll also be treated to a good number of CG scenes, which look gorgeous and convey a nice range of moments from Maho comically using a claw machine to more dramatic scenes of action – you’ll unlock a gallery which you can view these in later on which is a nice touch due to how beautiful they are.
Sound is similarly impressive – voice acting is fully Japanese and each VA puts their heart and soul into the performance, with particular highlights being Mayuri’s cute and sweet talking or Daru’s lecherous and slightly dopey tones. Music is absolutely beautiful, with the main piano track feeling subdued and somewhat depressing; yet other pieces manage to convey mystery; intrigue or horror extremely well. It doesn’t quite manage to reach the ‘Gate of Steiner’ highs of its predecessor, but it’s still very, very good.
Gameplay & Content
A pure visual novel with very minor route-choosing elements, Steins;Gate 0 is light in the gameplay department with a much stronger emphasis on storytelling – as with all games in the genre.
Aside from scrolling through text – which can be either read manually; on auto or skipped entirely – your main method of interaction with the world is through Okabe’s mobile phone. At various points he will receive phone calls from other characters which can either be answered or ignored – with calls from Amadeus acting as the different route flags. You’ll also be occasionally prompted to take out your phone and make a call or send a message, although this usually happens regardless of whether you respond to the text prompt or not.
Okabe can also send messages through the game’s RINE system – a messaging app that allows both words and images. Compared to the original Steins;Gate, where you were required to pick out a specific phrase with no idea how that response would actually play out, 0 allows you to choose your response from a number of options allowing a greater degree of control over the interaction. This is a nice quality-of-life change that I really appreciated, even if the choices didn’t ultimately impact anything.
You’ll be able to keep track of the endings you’ve triggered from the main menu, as well as view any CG’s you’ve unlocked. The title also features a ‘tips’ system that explains certain words and phrases, which is a useful tool when conversations get particularly technical or in-depth. It all comes together to make an enjoyable, easy-to-use visual novel – although whether this genre is for you is entirely up to personal preference.
Steins;Gate 0 has a good amount of content, taking me over 20 hours to see all of the endings – which actually involved very few cases of seeing the same thing more than once. With that said, it does feel well padded with a number of stretches that could have been chopped down to still achieve the same impact – something its predecessor was guilty of too.
A visual novel lives or dies on the strength of its story and characters and thankfully Steins;Gate 0 features a loveable cast thrust into a thriller tale of political intrigue; science-fiction adventures and mysterious events. It’s a respectable follow up to an all-time classic that manages to explore the dynamics of some already great characters while bringing new ones into the fold, as well as having some interesting new ideas regarding time travel; memory and fate. Yet in everything it does, it pales in comparison to its predecessor – not helped by some messy storytelling and pacing, leaving the end product feeling disjointed and slightly disappointing. In the end, it’s still a very good game – just not quite the masterpiece it could have been.