Spiritual successor to Chaos;Head. Steins;Gate first gained mainstream attention of the casual fans through it’s anime, in which was also from where I first watched it (I did heard of the visual novel beforehand though); being an extremely good adaption and with it’s palpable success-I assume, is what propelled JAST USA to license it.
I believe time travel stories are something done to bits. From the little that I had come across however, Steins;Gate is one of the most captivating ones I had ever seen. You are put into the shoes of Okabe Rintarou; a self-proclaimed mad scientist who, by some extreme stroke of fortune, invented a time machine of sort, through some bizarre banana-turning-gel experiments. His possess the ability to send, not people, but text messages into the past. Later on, when the story gets more serious, he and his lab members created an improved time machine, which compresses the time traveller’s memory and experiences and send them to the time traveller’s body of the past. We all know from our experiences with time travel stories that meddling with time, a natural law and order of the universe, has consequences; and while time travel is definitely a basis of the story, the central focus of the narrative is Okabe fighting against fate itself.
I feel a general complain about Steins;Gate is the pacing, but I think I’m one of the rare among the few who are quite fine with it, and actually think the pacing is great. The beginning parts of the visual novel is admittedly slow, but it served as a great introduction and development to the cast, while excellently foreshadows the rest of the plot to come. The seemingly light slice-of-life atmosphere here helped with the introduction too, and the length of it is just right in my opinion. The story shifts into a very serious mood midway into the narrative, and the transition while sudden, still feels pretty smooth, probably due to the foreshadowing in the first part of the visual novel. One other thing that I feel Steins;Gate really deserves praise too, is their explanations and infodump. The time-travel theories and mechanics in Steins;Gate are handled pretty well-they seem coherent enough, and follow their own rules to the book, making it easier to follow; unlike some other time travel stories, their thoeries sometimes get so far-fethced players required extreme leaps in logic to comprehend. The way it uses real life elements like SERN, IBN 5100 and John Titor (some of these names are changed slightly in the visual novel) is brilliant too. While I loved I/O, another visual novel I played a while back, these two aspects of Steins;Gate is what I would actually love to see in I/O, proper pacing and infodump which avoids making the story unnecessarily long and draggy, yet, still feels like a large-scale story. Because the narrative seems to have a clear idea of how things should unfold, everything seems to tie in conclusively, perfectly and beautifully by the end.
The story aside, characters are a fun part of Steins;Gate. They all have their quirks, and interactions between them are fun and entertaining. Admittedly, some of them is obviously conformed to certain archetypes
*coughKurisucough* Yet each character has reasons to act like the way they were. Most of the characters are given ample attention and development for the player to care about, and thanks to the slow pacing on the beginning parts of the visual novel, the build-ups of most of the characters are solid. Additionally, you, as the player, are at times given the mentally herculean task of whether or not to save your friend, who you had been with for the majority of the time. What the visual novel did great is that through it’s attention span given to it’s characters, it really makes the player care about them, making that choice in the end that much harder. Characters in Steins;Gate are definitely top-notch, no doubt about that, though I did notice Okabe’s characterization to be hypocritical, if not slightly. Steins;Gate uses a branching structure similar to that of G-Senjou no Maou or Grisaia no Kajitsu (is there a proper name for this?), to those unfamiliar, I will try to explain the best I can – typical visual novels usually start with a common route which branches into different routes. However, visual novels like G-Senjou no Maou, Grisaia no Kajitsu, and Steins;Gate, use a structure where everything happen in “one straight line”, with other heroine’s routes as a sub-branch and with the main canon heroine on the very last branch.
Because everything happened in one flow, everything that happened with the exception of heroine’s sub branches, can be regarded as canon events, and this can make Okabe’s characterization appear hypocritical, aforementioned, especially if you’re going for other heroine’s routes at the moment. It’s as if Okabe was okay with sacrificing [insert character’s name] and all of a sudden, he was not okay with sacrificing [insert character’s name]. This is not bad per se, since Okabe is a character obviously designed for us to feel his struggles and hardships as he fought against fate, and of cause, the narrative did one hell of a great job with it. This hypocritical side of his also painted even more complexity to his character, and I can’t help but feel that it is produced as a “side effect” due to said branching structure. In the end, it still works well though, since like I said, it really does adds a bit more complexity to his character, and highlighting his flaws, whether or not if it’s intentional or a coincidence.
A unique thing about Steins;Gate is that instead of using the typical dialogue-choices interface, you will be using a cell phone for the majority of the visual novel, which other than involving said dialogue (or more like text) choices, which is actually what effects which routes you will be branching to; you will also be using it to check storyline text, dial/receive calls, check attachments, browsing 2chan and to initiate the PhoneWave (name subject to change). While using your phone to dial or receive call is definitely obvious, you, as the player, can also choose not to receive the call, or not to look at the text messages despite clearly receiving the notification tones, and so on. During storyline progression when you need to make some calls, you can also choose a number of people to call, in which your choice also cause some level of effect to aforementioned elements. These can actually effect a number of things; from perhaps a few changed dialogues, to the routes and even accomplishments, the latter similar to how you earn accomplishments on PS3/Vita. I remember there was one accomplishment where you even had to even dial the wrong number a number of times. All these are fun features and additions, but can be just a bit frustrating without looking at a guide, especially if you’re trying to access a certain heroine’s route. If more information is needed, the added glossary also helps when you need to know more in regards of some of the scientific/technical terms mentioned by the characters.
In a creepy sort of way, the visuals are definitely great. Huke’s art style, who you might be familiar with his works on Metal Gear Solid and Black Rock Shooter, is an almost perfect match for Steins;Gate. As you can see, the colors are a very monotonous, unlike most modern visual novels where strong, vivid colors are more of a common thing. And if you scrutinize the illustrations, or even just in the middle of the visual novel with sprites/background, they look very “faded”. It’s almost feel like someone was recording the whole thing with his phone or video recorder in a very poor quality. It’s brilliant, and it gives a sort of sense and immersion that something feels wrong.
I also have high praise for Steins;Gate OST. Newcomers to the visual novel are greeted with haunting melodies and chord progressions in the form of the intro song in the menu “Gate of Steiner”, which after a while, shifts into a more hopeful tone in the chorus. It uses string, synth orchestra and electronics in an almost orchestrated arrangement. For those who had finished the story, I’m sure this song would relieve a lot of memories of the visual novel-just from the melodies alone. “Gate of Steiner” also has various rearrangements throughout the OST, like “Believe Me”, “Solitude” and “Fake Verthandi”. So in a way, “Gate of Steiner” is pretty much the flagship theme of Steins;Gate. Some songs like “Suspicious eyes” evoke sense of anxiety and some like “Chaos Mind” shifts the tone into a more darker, creepier mood. There are also some songs like “Quiet Air” which I believe was used during the more calmer moments of the visual novel. “Yanabayashi” also deserves a noteworthy mention for it’s creative fusion with modern electronic synth and traditional Japanese instruments. There are also upbeat songs like “Noisy Times” too, in fact, there just seem to be a wide array of different emotions and atmospheres in Steins;Gate, and Takeshi Abo did a great job composing a variety of different tracks each with a different feel to them. A number of them may be odd playing as standalone, but when played with the visual novel, the songs feel extremely natural.
Steins;Gate is an excellent visual novel, in fact, I personally find it difficult to discern any issues at all. Engaging plot, thrilling atmosphere, interesting characters, great artwork and soundtrack and an extremely satisfying ending. It had great ideas and concepts to work with, and follow them coherently and meticulously. I think those who are a fan of sci-fi story, and especially those looking for a time-travel story in visual novels; there are undoubtedly a number of them, but Steins;Gate is definitely the one to try – it is one of the best visual novel I had stumbled upon in recent years.