Steins;Gate 0

"Steins;Gate 0 is a great game with one glaring flaw: gratuitous filler."

What is it that defines humans as individuals? Specifically, though admittedly just as ambiguous, what is it that makes us uniquely "us?" Some would say that our experiences and the associated memories ultimately shape who we become. What if you were able to extract the memories from a human, digitize them, and employ them in a highly advanced artificial intelligence (AI)? Would that AI "be" that person, or is there something more to humans that science can't yet explain? The practical benefits of having a way to access the memories of someone no longer with us is fairly obvious, of course. It mitigates the risk of losing vital knowledge when a genius passes away and allows for the preservation of important information. What happens when that information is so valuable that countries would go to war to obtain it?

Steins;Gate 0 picks up where the original Steins;Gate left off, though not from its "true" ending. Instead of the idyllic epilogue conveyed by said ending, you're met with a guilt-racked Rintaro Okabe struggling to come to grips with failure and the Future Gadget Lab members unsure of how to help him. Scarred by his battles against space-time, Okabe now requires both anxiety medication and therapy to treat his recently acquired post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a very different character than the mad scientist Hououin Kyoma that greeted you in the first Steins;Gate, and he's all the more interesting (and frustrating) for it. Self-reflection and acceptance of his inability to effect change drive both Okabe's character arc and the main narrative. While the original Steins;Gate examined the consequences of altering the past to change the future, Steins;Gate 0 asserts that fatalism and inaction can lead to ramifications just as dire.

Steins;Gate 0's story is still rooted in time travel and the repercussions of altering the past, but it's heavily supplemented and strengthened by elements of brain science and human memory. The result is another narrative steeped in science, pseudo-science, and science fiction that throws a lot of technical jargon at you. The TIPS system does a great job of adding context to most of it, though, and it never gets too complex to grasp. Don't let the technology-rich story dissuade you, however. It's balanced nicely by an exploration of human imperfection through characters motivated by feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, love, and betrayal. The examination of these aspects of the human psyche is made possible by the addition of points-of-view (POV) for characters other than Okabe. Most of the new POVs are through Suzuha Amane and new character Maho Hiyajo, but several others get the spotlight depending on your route. This new feature adds a depth to the cast that isn't possible through Okabe's POV alone.

The overall story found in Steins;Gate 0 is exciting, somber, heart-wrenching, and thought-provoking all at the same time. Unfortunately, it's bogged down by mountains of needless dialogue and entire scenes that serve no clear purpose to the narrative as a whole. The superfluous content is boring at best and borders on fan service at worst. The artificial lengthening of a game is nothing new, but there's so much filler in Steins;Gate 0 that it actually detracted from my overall enjoyment of it. I consider myself a very patient gamer, particularly when it comes to dialogue and exposition, but even I found myself thinking "alright get on with it already" at various points. The typos and grammatical errors are also distracting at times, bottoming out with an exchange where the word "Kochel" was instead written as "K?chel" several times. That being said, the localization is wonderful and manages to appeal to a Western audience while still retaining the unique elements of Japanese culture with which said audience may not be entirely familiar.

Unlike the original Steins;Gate, the decision trees in Steins;Gate 0 are not influenced by the messages Okabe receives from the other characters. Instead, his interactions with an AI dubbed Amadeus affects which route you take and which ending you unlock. The result is a simpler, less interesting system when compared to the more complex trigger system of the first game. That's either a positive or a negative depending on your personal preference, but I found it a disappointing step back in terms of gameplay.

The audiovisual quality of Steins;Gate 0 is fantastic. The character art in particular is sharp and charming, even while limited to a handful of animations per character. The impressive amount of detail in some of the backgrounds adds additional personality to their respective scenes but is subdued enough that it never steals away attention. Musically, Steins;Gate 0 hits all the right notes when it comes to matching each track with the tone of a given scene. Although I don't speak Japanese, the raw emotional power of the voice acting easily bursts through the language barrier and resonates long after the credits roll. The background noise and gritty, neutral color palette put the finishing touches on an atmosphere that enhances the solemn nature of the story.

Steins;Gate 0 is a great game with one glaring flaw: gratuitous filler. It's tough to rate games like these because nuances aren't easily conveyed in a numerical score. The core components are good to great, but the overall package is bogged down by unnecessary content and the game feels longer than it should. I was able to mostly overlook it, but I recognized I was close to the tipping point while reading seemingly endless discussions about Christmas parties and cosplay. Some may not mind the excess, while others may be turned off completely. Still, Steins;Gate 0 is a worthy successor and well worth your time if you are a fan of the original. Fans of visual novels in general would do well to check this one out, but be sure to either play the original Steins;Gate or watch the anime before taking a crack at it, lest you be completely lost from the get-go.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.

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