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Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: 8/25/15
The Vita has become something of a repository for novel Japanese games, as far as the US market is concerned, and in the past two years it’s turned from a console no one really needs to own into a console that’s easily recommended if you like RPG’s and visual novels. That said, however, I was honestly convinced that, of all the games that would come to the US, Steins;Gate would NEVER be one of them. Part of the reason is, well, it’s a Nitroplus game, and Nitroplus has a history of making really weird visual novels, including one that revolves around playing Russian Roulette and another where you as the player have to telephone God to fix the game, and no, I’m not kidding. The other part, honestly, comes down to the fact that the game just seemed like it was never going to come stateside outside of the PC release in 2014. The game has been released, in Japan, on the PC, Xbox 360, PSP, iOS, Droid, PS3 and Vita in the six years since its initial release, but outside of said PC release, none of the other versions even sniffed at a US release date until this year, thanks to PQube. Well, after six years of waiting for a console release, let’s jump into Steins;Gate and see how it holds up, how it compares to its Vita brethren, and more importantly, if it was worth the wait.
On time travel and delusions of… something…
It’s hard to even know where to begin with the plot of Steins;Gate, mostly because the plot is just so utterly involved and narratively dense that it almost defies description in places. You play as one Rintarou Okabe, a young man who comes across as a borderline crazy person; he’s borderline NEET, constantly refers to himself as “Hououin Kyouma,” calls himself a mad scientist, talks in the third person as often as not, speaks to people who aren’t there and… just generally acts like he’s short several screws. As the game begins, he’s headed off to watch a presentation on a time machine with his childhood friend Mayuri (who is herself not entirely all there) when, after a series of random coincidences, he bumps into a young woman, Kurisu, who claims to have spoken to him not too long beforehand. Before she can explain further, Rintarou finds her dead in a back room, which would (you would think) massively ruin his chances to interact with her any further… except that as he text messages his friend about the event, he has something akin to a mental brownout, and finds out the next day that Kurisu is alive and well after all. Oh, yeah, and a satellite crashed into the building where he was attending the presentation, so the presentation he just watched had actually been cancelled. From here, the group discover that they’ve created a machine that can transfer emails into the past, and as they begin to experiment with using emails to change the present, Rintarou discovers he’s the only person who remembers the world the way it was before. Tampering with the past has a price, however, and it’s never a nice one…
Now, since this is a visual novel, the plot is far and away the most important part of the experience, which is problematic for Steins;Gate, not because it isn’t good (it really is), but because it’s… dense. To put it into simple terms, you can narratively divide the game right down the middle at Chapter Five, due to the events that happen during this chapter, as this is where the game has a huge tonal shift that almost turns the experience into a different story altogether. The thing is, the second half of the game, with all of its crazy twists and turns, branching plot points, multiple endings and plot development is amazing, and if this were the whole game it’d easily be the best storyline in a game released this year, period. However, the first half of the game is a whole lot of world building, similar to The Fruit of Grisaia, only unlike that game, the world it’s building takes a long time to get somewhere interesting. The biggest problem, one supposes, is that the protagonist himself is, honestly, hard to really appreciate. While the events of the second half of the game make him into a truly likable character, there’s a long stretch of time in the first half of the game where he’s simply incapable of evoking an emotion from the player that isn’t a deep sigh and a shake of the head. He’s not funny or clever, he’s just a tool, to be blunt about it, and it’s a wonder that the rest of the plot manages to compensate for him by being just interesting enough during the first half of the game to keep you going. The bigger problem, though, is that the first half of the narrative is around fifteen to twenty hours long, so not only does it take that long for the story to kick into overdrive, but you have watch the story unfold for that long of a period of time with a protagonist in the driver’s seat who you will almost certainly want to choke sooner or later. The plot also spends a whole lot of time talking about scientific concepts concerning time travel in a fairly in-depth fashion, which, again, is totally fine when things kick into high gear, but less so when you’re just building the world up slowly. It’s a testament to how well written the game is that I can still say I enjoyed the plot quite a bit, but make no mistake: if you hate self-deluded, arrogant main characters, or you have no interest in String Theory and the Large Hadron Collider (yes, really), this game might turn you off in the early going, but if you stick with it, it’s worth it.
Visually, Steins;Gate uses the same basic style of most visual novels, so you’ll spend your time revolving between static backgrounds, talking 2D character models and CG events as you go. The art style of the game is interesting, aesthetically, as the character models and environments have a look to them that’s somewhat ethereal, and occasionally has a bit of a “rough draft” sort of quality to it. Character models look both angelic and yet, somehow, unfinished at the same time, and it’s a very interesting effect; even if it’s not an art style you enjoy, it’s one that’s very unique, and it gives the game a very special, interesting feel few other games can really touch. Aurally, the game has a perfectly fine presentation to it, as its soundtrack is honestly rather nice and the voicework is quite fitting to the characters. Regarding the voice work, the game uses the Japanese voice track only, so those who love their dubs won’t find one here, but the acting is quite nice all in all, and you probably won’t miss an English voice cast since everything is fairly well translated. On the soundtrack front, what’s here is honestly really good, and while it’s not quite on par with the best in the genre (Danganronpa for example), it’s still wonderful to listen to while playing the game. There are a few tracks that also stand on their own well enough, as well, which is generally a sign of something being done right, but the rest still work well for the game, even if you won’t run out to buy an OST for them.
On reading and cellphones
As Steins;Gate is basically a visual novel, you’re almost certainly familiar with how the gameplay works. The plot advances through internal monologues and character conversations, featuring characters talking to one another about whatever is going on at the moment, and you generally advance this plot via the pressing of a button on the controller. That’s essentially the core of almost any VN in this day and age, though fortunately, Steins;Gate also comes equipped with a few novel functions that make working with the game easier. Pressing the Square button at any time brings up a sub-menu that offers you a lot of useful functions, including the ability to view the backlog if you missed a key point of the conversation, and the ability to Save and Load, as well as Quicksave and Quickload if you’re in a hurry or just experimenting with a choice. You can also skip read text at any time you want with the press of a button, so those who are trying to unlock every possible conversation path can do so with little difficulty, and the game remembers what text you’ve seen even after loading, so you can jump back and forth between earlier and later saves as often as you like and skip around with little difficulty. Mechanically, it’s harder to make a VN more user friendly than this has, so even if you’re only a casual fan you’ll find it’s a lot easier to see all of the choices available to you without the frustration that often comes with it.
There are a few unique functions in the game that make it more than just another adventure in talking and choice making, however, and in point of fact, you rarely make choices at all… well, in the conventional sense, in any case. Rather than prompting you for choices in the normal way, instead you can access a cellphone at most times throughout the game, which is where you’ll make all of your choices. The game makes these choices fairly transparent in their availability, mind you; you’ll receive a notification that you’ve got a new email, for example, or Rintarou will suggest that he should call or email someone, and you’ll be able to pull up the phone and deal with this event. When emailing someone directly or taking and making calls, the events are fairly cut and dry; you just do what the game says and move on. However, when responding to emails, you’ll often be given one or more lines of blue text, which allow you to pick a specific term to respond to, which may change the answer you receive, or even if you receive a response at all. Some of these choices mean little to the overall narrative, and will, at most, lock you out of receiving a specific Trophy, if even that. Others, however, are central to the narrative, and will lock you out of entire ending paths, or will cause you to see different scenes in the plot depending on what you did and how you responded. Experimenting with these results is a big part of the experience, and makes for a big part of the replay value in the game.
On replay, and replay, and replay…
Steins;Gate is easily a forty hour VN, all told, though if you want to see everything the story has to offer it could take you almost twice that long to do so. Part of this is because there are multiple different endings reliant on specific choices in the game, such that there are five alternate universe endings and one “true” ending to unlock, and a few of these are mutually exclusive to one another in terms of choices made in the game. Another part of this comes from the Trophies, as several Trophies will require you to, at the very least, make one choice over another to unlock one before jumping back to continue the alternate conversation thread, and even if you try to get them all in one go it’ll take some time. Make no mistake, the core plot is very dense, and it generally justifies its playtime overall, but if you’re the sort of person who loves Trophies, you’ll find there’s a lot to do and unlock in the game, and it even is nice enough to keep track of what you have and haven’t done from the Options sub menu, so you don’t even have to jump to the desktop. Even if you’re not into long-term replay on your VNs, or you just don’t want to skip around to see everything here, though, the game still offers you about a dollar per hour of story content, and that isn’t bad in the least.
Aside from its weird subject matter, slow start and at times smackable main character, the biggest issues with Steins;Gate are probably its incredibly experimental choice structure in relation to how it really works, and its at times awkward translation bugs. Regarding the former point, there are multiple instances where a specific choice in an email conversation will send you down a specific path… but there will often be chained choices, some of which accomplish literally nothing but ending a conversation string. This can be frustrating, as it’s not just a matter of making the right choice, but making the right sequence of choices in a row to clear one specific flag. The game can easily turn into the sort of experience that needs a strategy guide to complete, especially since the game isn’t great about telling you where you screwed up in some cases. Also, sometimes the phone can go off to let you know something’s happening as you’re in the middle of scrolling through interactions, and if you skip the message at that moment, you often can’t go back and interact with it; if you open it, the links will be gone, making that message, and its thread, dead to you unless you reload. Finally, while the translation is easily understood, there will occasionally be odd sentence breaks, where the sentence breaks at a specific word for no good reason and leaves blank space or a broken thought as you advance. These aren’t terrible, mind you, and the game is still nowhere near Lux Pain levels of bad in terms of its translation, but these issues do pop up here and there, and deserve mention.
Honestly, I can safely say I’ve never played a VN quite like Steins;Gate, and while it’s not the best VN I’ve played this year, not only is it pretty close, but it’s also a game that I’m thrilled to have played, and would easily recommend to anyone with an appetite for what it has to offer. The plot has some really memorable moments and characters, and the second half in particular is just an amazing series of events that are quite well written and flow together nicely, no matter what ending you end up with. The game also has a very interesting visual aesthetic, a strong aural presentation, and some surprisingly creative mechanical additions to the common VN structure that make it really stand out in a positive way. The plot can be a bit hard to take at first, though, since there’s a lot of scientifically dense material packed into it and the main character spends the first half of the game behaving like a crazy person. Also, the email system can make getting to certain plot paths harder than it should be at times due to how many paths it offers the player, and the translation is a little wonky in its sentence breaks. If you can deal with the dense narrative, though, that’s honestly the hardest part to overcome, and the final product is well worth the dense structure of its early narrative. In other words, if you love Visual Novels and don’t mind dorky main characters or science discussions, Steins;Gate is one of the better ones to come to the US yet, and it’s well worth it for VN lovers of any level.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Steins;Gate is one of the most unique Visual Novels to come to the US… well, ever, even if it isn’t the best, and its time travel hook, scientific discussions and amazing overall plot make it a must play for genre fans, if they can get past some of the more confounding hiccups the game has to offer. The plot is outstanding overall, featuring some really unique concepts and a dynamite second half, and the game has a truly special and interesting visual style and strong aural presentation that really set it apart from its contemporaries. The gameplay is more or less what you’d expect from the genre, though an interesting phone-based choice system makes the game feel far more engaging than similar games in the genre, and there’s a massive amount of content to dig through for those who are interested. The first half of the plot can be tough to get through due to its dense scientific discussions and a protagonist you’ll want to smack more often than not (at first), however, and between the phone system sometimes making getting onto the correct narrative path challenging and the occasional sentence break oddities due to the translation, the game can at times be a little wonky. Overall, though, Steins;Gate is truly a unique experience, and one that VN fans of all levels should definitely look into experiencing. If you can deal with some involved scientific discussion, a smackable protagonist and a few translation hiccups, there’s absolutely no reason not to pick up Steins;Gate as soon as possible, as it’s more than worth the asking price if you’re into what it’s offering.