Steins;Gate Review0 Comments
Reviewed on: PlayStation Vita
Also available on: PlayStation 3, PC
Developer: 5pb., Nitroplus
I’ve heard that Steins;Gate is one of the best visual novels ever made. It wasn't until I was about eight hours in that I realized how true those rumors were.
Steins;Gate is, if you can believe it, a visual novel that originally released on the Xbox 360, of all things. It launched in Japan in 2009. Five years later, it made its way to North America on PC, and now it’s landed on PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, the second of which is an excellent engine for running this kind of game. Since I'm a fan of visual novels and knew Steins;Gate’s reputation, I jumped at the chance to play it on my Vita to spare myself the 15-plus hours in front of my computer.
As remarkable as it is that Steins;Gate, an older visual novel, is reaching the hands of gamers now—especially given the niche popularity of the genre in the West—it makes sense when you think about the game’s context. “Steins Gate” is fate, literally the will of God. The story shows what happens when man tries to change destiny. Through what else but time travel?
Steins;Gate follows Okabe Rintaro, a self-proclaimed “mad scientist” who likes to call himself “Hououin Kyouma.” At the beginning, you’re not quite sure if he really is on the run from a secret group called the Organization that rules the world from the shadows or if he’s making this stuff up (this is a sci-fi game, after all). Delusional or not, Okabe finds himself standing in the middle of a crowded street in Akihabara, Japan, cell phone to his ear, and a second later everyone is gone.
It’s not the end of the world, though it seems like it at first. At the top of the building above him is a space satellite, making a dent in the roof where it landed. The whole area has been sectioned off, but Okabe doesn’t remember any of it happening. His memories of the day don’t match anyone else’s. Time itself has changed, and in more ways than one. An alleged time traveler named John Titor claims that in 2036, the world has become a dystopia under the rule of SERN, a company with a monopoly on time travel.
Soon you and your lab members realize that one of your own “Future Gadget Laboratory” inventions, the PhoneWave (name subject to change), may have triggered the day's timeline shift. As you experiment with sending messages to the past to alter the present, Okabe is the only one who remembers the changes you make to the worldline.
The first half of Steins;Gate spends a lot of time developing your emotional relationship to these characters. The crazy but likeable Okarin/Okabe. The ditzy but sweet Mayuri, Okabe's childhood friend. The “pervy gentleman” otaku and “super hacka” Daru. The hotheaded but brilliant young scientist Kurisu (whom Okabe dubs “Christina” as a joke). As you meet more characters and recruit new lab “mems,” their quirky banter and over-the-top personas become as endearing and natural as if they were your friends, too. The humor took me some time to warm up to, but once I did, I grew fascinated with the characters and the surreal circumstance in which they found themselves. Trying to explain the events of the story to someone else is … challenging, but it shows just how intricate and intelligent the storytelling is.
At times Steins;Gate is an incredibly progressive game, especially when you remember that it launched in 2009. Transgenderism, a topic that’s very relevant today, is addressed tactfully through the character Lukako, a guy whose delicate attributes fool others into thinking he’s female. Even when Luke tearfully admits that he wants to be a girl, the other characters respect his feelings and change the past to try to make his wish come true.
Yet the second half of Steins;Gate is very different from the first. While you enjoy the thrill of using your time machine and experimenting with what it can do, you miss the true effects your changes are having on the world. It’s in the last four or five chapters that Okabe realizes the consequences of those actions, and this is when your emotional investment in the story changes as well. What were fun experiments become a string of life-or-death choices as Okabe makes desperate attempts to correct the worldline. He must balance fighting for a better future with fighting for his friends. Defying fate comes at a terrible price.
One of Steins;Gate’s six endings—the first of which concluded my playthrough a whole four chapters early—began with one of the most shocking and upsetting twists I’ve ever experienced in a video game. The story excels at dancing between silly and serious, using one mood as leverage to intensify the other. In other words, when you get too caught up in the characters’ joy, a moment comes along that devastates you, and vice versa.
It’s a testament to Steins;Gate that it can immerse the player so much through so little input. While other successful visual novels, like 999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) or Danganronpa, use various means of player interaction to break up the text, all Steins;Gate gives players is a few opportunities to use Okabe's phone. You can make phone calls, read and reply to text messages, and activate the PhoneWave, but that’s about it. Yet in the final chapters, the simple push of a button has the power to save or kill, to give happiness or take it away.
One of the best Visual Novels of all time, and for good reason.