Steins;Gate 0 is a visual novel developed by 5pb and Nitroplus, and over the past week I powered through the 40-45 hours it takes to see its six different endings and earn its platinum trophy. It was certainly a whirlwind of emotions, and a roller coaster ride that I truly enjoyed, and I think you will as well. Before we dive into the review proper, lets get some basic housekeeping out of the way:
Firstly, Steins;Gate 0 is a pseudo-sequel to the original game, Steins;Gate. It takes place during one of the alternate endings of the original, but due in no small part to some masterful writing and the time-jumping nature of the narrative, I consider it a prequel of sorts as well. It should go without saying then, that you absolutely should play the original game first. At the very least, consider watching the fantastic anime series. Also, considering this game features very little in the way of actual gameplay and consists almost entirely of reading a lot of text, it can be hard to discuss this title without at least referencing the events that take place within it.
And while I always do my very best to avoid spoilers in my reviews, it is virtually impossible not to spoil the events of the original Steins;Gate when discussing Steins;Gate 0. You have been warned. Got it? Good!
The Steins;Gate series is the tale of one ordinary mans all-out, no holds barred battle with fate and the laws of God and the universe itself. It’s incredibly in-depth narrative is not for the faint of heart, as it goes to some very dark places, but at its core is a tale of hope, faith in ones friendships in the face of adversity, and ultimately, of redemption. Like the best sci-fi, it is based in real world science, but very quickly goes off the deep end into territory that can only be described as fantastical.
So, time for some setup. In case you forgot, the original Steins;Gate story revolves around university student/wannabe Mad Scientist, Okabe Rintaro, who (with the help of some very likeable friends) accidentally invents a time machine and inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will change the world. As punishment for tampering with the laws of the universe and altering the past with an invention known as the PhoneWave (name subject to change), Okabe is forced to watch as his childhood friend Mayuri Shiina is killed over and over again, despite repeatedly attempting to fix the timeline and the events that cause her death. After a lot of trial and error, he discovers that by changing events drastically enough he can break away from his own Alpha timeline to a Beta world line, where Mayuri survives. But, in the Beta world line, it is Kurisu Makise, the genius teenage scientist (and Okabe’s potential love interest) that helped invent the PhoneWave (name subject to change) in the first place who is fated to die repeatedly. Also, in the Beta timeline, World War 3 occurs, which you know, isn’t great. The goal of the original Steins:Gate was to try and find a perfect timeline known as “Steins Gate”, in which both Mayuri and Kurisu survive and WW3 is averted, along with all of the drama that goes with getting there.
Still with me? Steins;Gate 0 pretty much just assumes you are familiar with all of the above, and drops you right in the deep end. I played the original multiple times around a year ago, and found that I needed a bit of a refresher course.
Set in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, the otaku Mecca, the story of Steins;Gate 0 takes place in the Beta word line, during the ending of the original game, but explores a different side of things. In this world line, Kurisu convinces Okabe to let her die, so that Mayuri can have a chance to live a happy life. Picking up several months later, the story begins with Okabe attempting to deal with the extreme depression and PTSD he has developed as a result of the horrendous events he has experienced. On top of that, he is wracked with the guilt he feels over not being able to save Kurisu. He destroys the PhoneWave (name subject to change) and swears never to tamper with the world lines again, and tries to live a normal life as a shell of his former self.
If that all sounds pretty heavy, its because it is. This game really doesn’t pull any punches, emotionally speaking, and expects you to keep track of a bunch of characters, concepts and timelines. All of the original game’s cast returns, and there are several new faces introduced that are integral to the plot. I suppose if the original game’s themes dealt with time travel and the effects of tampering with the past, Steins;Gate 0 deals with the ramifications of such a technology having been invented, and the power struggle and technological arms race that would inevitably ensue as nations and shadowy organisations scramble to obtain their device. An artificial intelligence known as “Amadeus” is also introduced and is pretty essential to the plot, as it possesses the digital memories of Kurisu Makise, and is the impetus for a lot of the decisions made in the game.
All of this is presented in a series of incredibly long story vignettes. If you have never played a visual novel, the emphasis is on the “novel” part. The original game had some 40,000 lines of dialogue, and I would wager this one is even longer. While Steins;Gate 0 is available on consoles, I chose the PlayStation Vita version for the portability factor, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Basically, you stare at some admittedly pretty great looking characters that spout reams of dialogue at you (which is, impressively, entirely voiced but only in Japanese). The location are pretty great too, and are presented as static backgrounds for the talking character portraits. I have spent a lot of time in Akihabara, and to see locations and landmarks in this game that I have physically been to was an awesome nostalgia trip.
Not to beat a dead horse here, but I really cant overstate the fact that you don’t actually “do” a lot in this game. You have a cell phone that will occasionally ring, and you press a button to answer it, or to reply to text messages. And while answering (or ignoring) specific phone calls is actually how you access the different paths and endings that can be achieved, that is really all you as the player are required to do. For me, that was fine, visual novels are something I have grown to really enjoy but they do require a lot of patience. Similarly, being set in Akihabra, Steins;Gate 0 really leans into its otaku and anime roots, and that might be off putting for some. One of the games main characters, works in a maid cafe and wears cat ears constantly. She also finishes every sentence with “nyan”, because I guess that’s what cat-girls do? It can be a little grating, but as the quality of writing is incredibly high, I can forgive some of these very Japanese quirks. More troublesome, in my opinion, is the games treatment of Luka or Lukako as he is mockingly referred to. A male character that is described as being incredibly feminine, the jokes that are made about his perceived sexuality/gender made me a little uncomfortable. Its nothing too crude, but it is constant, and seems a little off in this day and age. Another complaint I have is there is very little indication of what kind of narrative path you are on. I straight up got the worst of six possible endings on my first playthough, and I could see that deterring some players who might not even know how or why they went down that route.
In summary Steins;Gate 0 is a fantastic title that I really enjoyed my time with. I didn’t even mention the soundtrack, and I find some of the slower piano pieces it features popping into my brain even days after seeing the credits roll. While the game may go on a little too long (especially if you want to see everything it has to offer), the strength and originality of its narrative more than makes up for any short comings it might have. It can also be incredibly meta, in a way that is truly unique to the video game genre: as you achieve certain endings, you learn more about the overall plot, and are able to load a save file and take a different path through the narrative, just like the characters in the narrative do with the use of time travel. Its incredibly clever, and especially after unlocking the true ending, was something I really appreciated. I would recommend Steins;Gate 0 to any fan of visual novels, and the series as a whole to any Vita owner.
Now if you will excuse me, I have some bananas in the microwave and I’m expecting a phone call. What could possibly go wrong?
El. Psy. Kongroo.