Initial Release Date: October 15, 2009
Developer: 5pb., Nitroplus
Platforms: PC, Vita (reviewed)
After hearing so much about Steins;Gate I finally made it a point to playthrough the entire game on Vita. I have no experience with visuals novels, so I was excited for an introduction to the genre.
Now, for those also without any prior knowledge, visuals novels are pretty much just that – text and story along with pictures or small video. There are minimal gameplay elements other than clicking through the story or making a story-branch choice.
Given the nature of visual novels, it is difficult to do a traditional game review that I have done in the past. Visual novels are closer to books than games, and therefore the focus is really on the story and delivery. Therefore, this review will be a new exercise in review for me.
WARNING: Review may contain spoilers – Steins;Gate is a narrative driven game so beware!
The game begins with what will ultimately be a critical story piece. Okabe Rintaro, also known as Okarin or Kyouma Hououin, is the self proclaimed mad scientist of the Future Gadget Laboratory. In the beginning, he crashes a lecture about time travel, claiming its contents are plagiarism of a certain John Titor. Shortly after, he witnesses the murder of Kurisu Makise, a wunderkind in the field of neuroscience.
Rintaro then texts his hacker confidant extraordinaire, Itaru, about the murder. As soon as he does, the world changes forever. The text actually sends to the past, courtesy of the Future Gadget Lab’s PhoneWave invention, which is simply a microwave connected to the cellphone.
What proceeds is a walkthrough of various time travel theories, the malicious motivations of SERN, and the ethical and philosophical ramifications of the ability to manipulate time. I don’t want to give away too much more.
The “game” itself, as previously mentioned, consists of opening Rintaro’s cellphone to respond to emails. There are several choice in some emails, thus creating a branching effect for the endings.
There is one “true” ending that requires a specific set of responses. If playing through the game for the first time, I highly suggest just picking what you want for the first go round, and to NOT use a guide. The game allows you to replay with skipping on, which makes it easy to play through the game straight to the end, and get the ending you desire.
The minimal gameplay was not an issue I’ve read other’s complain about. While there is no precision or strategy required, it is still interactive at just the right pace to engage the player and invest them in their choices.
The story itself is well done. The game does a good job explaining the oft difficult concepts associated with time travel. It helps conceptualize what exactly is going on, which is where a lot of the depth of the story derives.
Another critical element is the visuals (it being a visual novel and all). It is all presented in the traditional Japanese animation style, and is mostly still frames with text. Occasionally, there is little animated or video bits, but these are few and far between.
For pacing, the game starts with a strong hook (as detailed above), but then does crawl a bit while building in the characters and the world. For instance, there is quite a bit of fiddling with the PhoneWave by the lab members early on, with some of the experiments not really producing anything meaningful for the story. While in real life, such futile efforts do a have a value, the story is lacking for such inclusion.
The story itself also has a few twists and turns that keep it interesting. While some of the plot can be somewhat predicted, the game still knows how to throw a curveball. Most satisfying, is the ultimate conclusion that brings all the threads together.
I did not get the true ending on my first playthrough. I was actually kind of shocked with the first ending I got, as the game just kind of…ended. It left open a lot and did not resolve a lot of the unknowns that I sensed would be important for a true ending. No worries though, a guide and the skipping function can get you back on your way.
Having completed the game, I am a bit excited to watch through the anime now. Lucky enough, its currently streaming on Hulu, so I have easy enough access. I believe the anime follows the true ending, and of the couple episodes I’ve already seen, cuts some of the “fat” of the visual novel. I assume this is at the expense of some of the more detailed character building.
One big unanswered question, which I’d love anyone’s feedback on, is the meaning of Rintaro’s seemingly mental instability. He proclaims he is a mad scientist, comes up with intricate names, and takes actions without meaning. Why does he focus on Norse mythology? Why is he a mad scientist? Why does he call it Steins Gate? Why is there a semicolon in the title?
Further, as with Persona 4, I was often confused at the Japanese naming conventions. It seems every character has like three names, possibly associated with formality. I could not decipher exactly what the function of each separate name meant, and at times got confused ie. Why do only certain people call him Okarin? Is Rintaro’s mad scientist name just to sound cool?
Despite these questions and confusions, I absolutely enjoyed Steins;Gate. The game did a great job explaining difficult subjects, building a narrative with compelling characters, and making use of the minimal gameplay design to keep me interested.
I am really looking forward to Steins;Gate 0 coming out soon. As I understand, it takes place in the middle of the first game. Given the time traveling mechanisms and worldlines, it should have some breadth to explore.
More importantly, I am now in the market for finding other great visual novels, specifically for the Vita. I know there a good many on PC, but I really enjoyed the ability to watch/play anywhere. I know many of the VNs have to be imported, and that many never get a translation.
Given that, does anyone have any recommendations of ones to pick up? I know the 999, Virtue, Zero Dilemma series has received high praise, but I’ve heard its more of a puzzle game vs traditional text based game. I also am not particularity interested in the fan service/sexualized visual novels that are pervasive on Steam. Speaking of which, the sexual elements in Steins;Gate felt forced and shoehorned in, in my opinion – they did not maintain the flow and persona of the characters, although were minor portions of the overall game.
In sum, Steins;Gate is a great tale of time travel, perfectly suited for a system like the Vita (and recently released on Steam). The anime has received high praise as well. Going forward, I’d like to pick up some more visual novels of similar quality. Who says the Vita has no games?