Steins;Gate is a conundrum soaked in Dr. Pepper and covered with instant ramen.
Originally released for the Xbox 360 in Japan in 2009, Steins;Gate is part of 5pb. and Nitroplus’s “Science Adventure” series of visual novels, which focus on different types and aspects of science fiction in a present-day setting. Despite an odd launch platform (the Japanese Xbox 360 has a famously low install base with really niche exclusive titles), the game has gone on to be quite popular, spawning various ports and spin-offs, manga and anime adaptations, and more. Thanks to localization efforts from JAST USA and UK-based publisher PQube, Steins;Gate became available in English for the first time over the past two years. JAST USA handled translation for the PC version in 2014, while PQube released a translated version for PS3 and Vita this past August. As far as I know, JAST USA and PQube use separate but similar translations. My thoughts are coming from the PS3 release. For a more straightforward review, feel free to read Rockmandash’s TAY review, which covers the PC version.
I’m a fan of visual novels, so when an official English version was announced, I got pumped. ...Then I forgot about JAST’s release (it’s only available from their own store, JList, and RightStuf, so visibility could be better). BUT! I made sure to pick up the PQube release. With a digital download available on PSN, it’s slightly more accessible than the PC release, but for some reason, physical versions for both PS3 and Vita are only available through Amazon. If you happen to have a PSTV, the game is compatible with that too, though I’m not sure how well it upscales. The PS3 version runs at 720p.
Steins;Gate follows Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed “mad scientist” and gadget inventor based in modern Akihabara. With his talented hacker friend, Itaru “Daru” Hashida, and his airheaded childhood friend and cosplay hobbyist, Mayuri Shiina, he has formed the Future Gadget Lab, a workspace to invent hybrid gadgets out of mundane objects, such as CRT monitors, vacuum cleaners, and toy guns. Through a series of encounters, they are joined by Kurisu Makise, a young genius neuroscience researcher somewhat struggling to fit back into Japanese society after extended study in the US; Suzuha Amane, a part-timer working at the CRT shop downstairs from the lab; Luka Urushibara, Rintaro’s friend and caretaker of the local shrine; and numerous other interesting characters that get sucked into the mystery.
After tinkering with a microwave that is being set up to operate remotely via text message, the team accidentally discovers that the gadget-in-progress has the ability to transmit text messages to the past. The branching storyline details the team’s quest to understand the inner workings of their experiment, an increasing number of people who become interested in their work, the ramifications of their actions, and the looming shadow of CERN—err, I mean, SERN.
As usual for the visual novel genre, the pacing of Steins;Gate is incredibly slow. The writing is extensive, from the chirpy banter between characters to Rintaro’s observations and deluded monologues to considerations on time travel theory, quantum mechanics, and particle physics (with a little handwaving). On top of that, Steins;Gate wears otaku culture on its sleeve, adding in numerous references to anime and manga, doujinshi, 2ch memes, and even a few nods to Back to the Future. I don’t much care for otaku culture, but thankfully, the game includes a Tips section, an in-game encyclopedia that further elaborate topics of discussion, making it hard to feel lost during the numerous conversations.
It has been a very dense read, but I’ve been enjoying every bit of it, thanks to the fully voiced dialogue. The voice acting is engaging and appropriately emotional. Mamoru Miyano’s work as Rintaro makes him one of the most expressive characters I’ve ever seen or heard in media, and you barely ever see his face. Mayuri and Daru are charmingly dopey and loopy-sounding. Kurisu is hilariously tsundere, and the constant bickering between Rintaro and Kurisu becomes a high point each chapter. You may even start laughing maniacally along with Rintaro. I won’t judge.
Most visual novels feature a limited amount of interactivity, usually consisting of response choices in dialogue or options to influence the main character’s direction. Steins;Gate has an all-in-one solution in the Phone Trigger system, which allows you to take calls, correspond with other characters via text, or customize Rintaro’s phone wallpaper and ringtones to your liking. It is also the critical mechanic in determining the path of the storyline, which relies on the phone calls you make and the text replies you send. While that sounds like it’s important all the time, calls and texts are primarily flavor text and world building, so it can actually be easy to overlook.
Most of the texts Rintaro receives have highlighted keywords that can be selected to form the basis for his reply. Unfortunately, for some reason, you can’t check the different ways Rintaro replies with each keyword; once you select one, you are locked into sending it until you reload your last save or quicksave. I haven’t been able to get around this, and it’s turning into an annoying oversight. I’d prefer not to resort to save-scumming just to find the funniest or most appropriate response or because I didn’t reply during a limited window of time.
I find the art for the game interesting. The background art is well-detailed, especially the outdoor shots of Akihabara filled with signs for all of the hobbyist shops. Character designs were done by huke, whom you may know as the designer for Black Rock Shooter. huke’s use of big expressive eyes and cloudy, sparkly, grating-like textures adds a hazy dream-like quality to the character art. On the other hand, I do find it a bit strange that the female characters lean heavily on typical anime proportions, but the male characters look pretty average in comparison, even the oddly huge Daru (as you can see above on the left side of the header image). That probably wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t for the super tiny lips drawn onto all the girls’ faces.
The first several hours are full of comedy and new meetings with dashes of drama, but it doesn’t take long for the mystery and suspense to kick into full gear. The primary characters are young adults living alone in Tokyo who are mainly defined by their hobbies and interests. Other than that, their lives are pretty easygoing. It’s a huge change of pace when the gravity of their new experiments rises to the surface, and events very quickly take a darker turn. At that point, Steins;Gate uses all of its capacities to shake up your expectations. I felt chills. I experienced dread. I got pretty upset. I got misty-eyed. It’s strangely compelling. Even a bunch of weirdos can be lovable underdogs that you just want to root for. An exchange with Suzuha sums up my thoughts of the cast succinctly:
When I met you, you were all so strange and unique and over the top... I was kind of shocked at first, actually. But before I knew it, I started to enjoy spending time with you.
The next article will cover my last Four in February game for the year. Until then, El. Psy. Kongroo!