El Psy Kongroo!
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Xbox 360, PSP, PS3, PS Vita, Mobile, PS4
Developer: Mages Inc. and Nitroplus
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Steins;Gate follows Okabe Rintaro, a college student who spends most of his free time hanging out with his friends Mayuri and Daru in a dingy little apartment housed in the heart of Akihabara, where he indulges in overzealous and childish chuunibyou nonsense while presenting himself as a mad scientist, coming up with fairly useless inventions after another. At least until the creation of the PhoneWave, a repurposed microwave that functions as a very limited time machine that sets Okabe and his companions on a rousing adventure throughout time. Or perhaps throughout timelines would be a more accurate way to describe it.
It all amounts to a bizarre yet surprisingly effective story filled with compelling scientific concepts that can honestly be a bit hard to parse or truly grasp onto, yet come off as both well devised and intriguing. Regular references and incorporation of otaku, Akihabara, and 2Chan culture to the point where the in-universe equivalent, @Channel, is a major plot point throughout the story. Inane chuunibyou nonsense. General anime styled shenanigans. And a cast of well rounded and appealing characters, despite the initially superficial trappings afforded to some of them. Well, except for Daru, who is a super hacker otaku, and that’s pretty much it.
Needless to say, this game easily ticks off the tonal fluidity that I value so dearly in a lot of lengthy visual novels, with moments of levity, such as Okabe conversing with a catgirl maid in order to discover the secret of how to make Akihabara moe again, managing to coexist with a far more grounded approach to time travel than I think I have seen from any other piece of media. Because of this, I actually find Steins;Gate to be somewhat unique as a time travel story with a take on the subject that, while a bit messy in the exact details, is compelling and serves as a very effective backdrop that explores concepts of temporal convergence, transferring memories and data throughout time, and the expected ramifications of the butterfly effect in action. All of which culminates in a story with the protagonist bopping throughout time, reliving the same days in slightly different ways, and trying to steady his resolve as both he and the story grow increasingly more dire.
It is all given a level of gravitace that is often not afforded in the exploration of time travel as a narrative concept. Dealing heavily with the psychological issues that Okabe develops as he tries to alter elements of the past and present in order to forge a better future. Needing to weigh if his decisions are genuinely the right thing to do if they result in him harming those whom he cares for. All while bashing his head against the metaphorical wall that is temporal convergence, and learning to grow as a person.
Needless to say, I found the story to be rather impressive, though what I find to be the most impressive part of Steins;Gate is actually its localization. Jast USA, the original publisher, did an excellent job at adapting and bringing over this material, creating a very authentic reading localization that rarely ever comes off as stilted or awkward, which is quite impressive given the scope and scale of this title. For as much as I could continue highlighting things I liked about the story, I do have a few hang ups. From the initial outset, a lot of this story seems to rely on pre-existing contrivances. From how the time machine just so happens to be in the right location to function. To how the female lead, Kurisu Makise, is well versed in time travel theory, is a genius 18-year-old neuroscientist, and it just so happens that she finds Okabe both tolerable and interesting enough to partake in his time travel exploits.
Or the inexplicable technical knowhow of the 18-year-old super “hacka” Daru, who manages to hack into what should be among the most secure servers on the planet in about two days time. Furthermore, the pacing can fluctuate at points, with the story moving a bit too slow or fast depending on the chapter, and certain details being skimmed over. Yet all of this is fairly minor, and only serve as momentary distractions from the story proper… though there is one more substantial grievance that I simply cannot ignore.
I don’t want to dwell on this too much, so I’ll be concise. The character Luka is a transgender women, who, due to time travel shenanigans, becomes biologically female in chapter 4. In chapter 8, Okabe must detransition her back into a biologically male body via time travel shenanigans in order to save the world. Their subplot is not a particularly offensive or spiteful plotpoint, but it is an incredibly awkward one that I honestly wish was not included in the game, as it is indicative to the tone deaf nature that a lot of Japanese media has when it comes to portraying contemporary gender issues.
That’s the story, but where does the gameplay come in? Well, rather than providing the player with explicit choice boxes to deviate the story, all player interaction is done with Okabe’s cell phone, which can be used to reply to emails, make phone calls, and activate the time machine itself. All of which is context sensitive, and only goes to slightly deviate from the game’s main storyline. That being said, how the player chooses to respond to emails will either give them various extras, some light flavor text, bonus endings, or flags needed in order to obtain the true ending, which is I consider to be an essential part of the story.
While the optional endings are fairly obvious, everything else is on the nebulous side, and is very difficult to determine without an external source of information, such as this fan created flowchart. This is especially true for the true ending flags, which are not accompanied with any fanfare, yet house off an ending that I consider to be a major part of the overall story.
As for the presentation, I would describe Steins;Gate as being meticulous in its detail, while also being genuinely beautiful in it’s own way. I truly am not sure what to call the approach to shading used in the character sprites and CGs, but not only do they look excellent, they manage to give the game a distinctive look to call its own, rather than settling on a more common anime aesthetic, even if the characters are designed using the same mentalities.
From the vividly detailed backgrounds that are often crammed with minute details, to the creative approaches to make certain characters pop out with distinctive eye colors or features, and even some of the details used in the placement of characters and how their sprites are positioned. It all feels very polished, meticulous, and structured. The only gripes I have pertain to how text warping is handled in the phone conversations, and how the original font can be rather chunky. Both of which were addressed in a mod that changed the font, fixed the text wrapping, and increased the quality of certain visual assets.
Before moving on, I should also talk about the upcoming Steins;Gate Elite, and why I chose to play through the original Steins;Gate, rather than waiting to review the updated version. The answer to that is rather simple. Steins;Gate Elite does not utilize the visual assets from the original release, and instead incorporates scenes from the anime adaptation, along with newly made footage, in order to make the game less of a straight visual novel and closer to an interactive anime. However, in doing so the game picks up on a lot of visual aspects that I do not like about modern anime, namely the bland and subdued colors and poor lighting. It all looks remarkably drab in comparison to the original, and simply based on that fairly superficial merit, I decided to more or less ignore it… even if it does come with some bonus side stories.
Steins;Gate is a compelling tonally fluid time travel story that genuinely left me impressed. With its cast of endearing characters, the various twists and turns taken in its narrative, and an approach to its subject matter that came off as both unique and well devised. If the game were a bit less lengthy, clocking it at roughly 30 hours, had less rigorous progression requirements, and had a less problematic handling of gender issues, I could easily see this landing up there amongst my favorite visual novels. As it stands though, it is still one of the finer examples of the genre I have played, and I would strongly recommend checking it out.