"By the time I reached the end of my first run, I felt like I'd had just about as much as I could stand of Steins;Gate 0. Yet, something persuaded me to persevere..."
Much like restarting a video game or loading an old save, the heroes of time travel stories have as many chances as they require to return to the past and set right what went wrong. We've seen it time and time again in works such as Chrono Trigger, Shadow of Memories, Virtue's Last Reward, and even the first Steins;Gate.
Imagine you're right in the midst of a traumatic event of soul-destroying proportions. If you had the ability to go back in time and prevent it, would you? What if you used this ability tens, hundreds, thousands of times, and failed every single time? Would you persist? Steins;Gate 0 poses a human answer to this chilling question.
Set in the immediate aftermath of its predecessor's bad ending, Steins;Gate 0 shows us a different side of protagonist Okabe Rintaro, one irrevocably changed by his repeated time travel failures. Formerly a posturing, otaku-tinged "mad scientist" wannabe, the Okabe we see is understated, shy and self-serious as he throws himself into a neuroscience degree at Tokyo University. Realistically, anybody who went through Okabe's experience would be left too crippled by PTSD to pursue such a difficult field, but that wouldn't make for a very eventful story. Like the original Steins;Gate, Okabe serves as our primary narrator, and reading his self-loathing and symptoms of impostor syndrome in social situations is, realism aside, a believable and well-realized portrayal of life with high-functioning depression. Okabe's characterization is definitely the zenith of Steins;Gate 0.
As Okabe attends his classes, he soon runs into Professor Leskinen and his assistant Hiyajo Maho, visiting from America. As they quickly become friends, the pair ask Okabe if he wishes to beta-test the Amadeus System, a perfect backup of the human mind that functions as a learning, sentient AI. It just so happens that the mind in question is that of Okabe's former lover; the woman he repeatedly tried and failed to protect. Okabe is faced with a crisis: does he wish to speak to a simulacrum of his lost love—a backup of her brain made before the two ever met? Or is it just too painful to bear?
A little Jonze's Her
, a little Frictional's SOMA, it's a fantastic dilemma and a great setup to a story. Unfortunately, what could've been a strong work of speculative fiction is instead constantly bogged down by meaningless fluff and padding. For every interesting scenario, there's ten of the rest of the Future Gadget Lab Crew prattling on about comic conventions, sharing quiche recipes and comparing their Sexy Santa Claus cosplay. Not only are these scenes numerous, they drag on far longer than reasonable and add little value to the plot. Steins;Gate 0 could've been a tightly paced five hour story, but its constant need to veer off course makes it several times that length. A single playthrough will take quick readers a good fifteen hours, and that's not counting the usual multiple playthroughs required to see the "true" ending. Worse still, a lot of this writing is filled with typos, as well as bizarre grammatical errors. A character in a motorcycle outfit is named "Women's with Riding Suit" in the script. This is one visual novel that would've benefited from an extra round of proofreading.
Like its prequel, Steins;Gate 0 handles choices through the Phone Trigger system, in which you choose to answer or ignore phone calls and text messages. Luckily, the system has received a much-needed overhaul: In the original Steins;Gate, texting presented a number of hotlinks, which you'd choose from to send a message. However, clicking a hotlink would lock you into that message, and often Okabe would send something insensitive or horrible to his friends. 0 allows you to preview exactly what Okabe is going to say before sending a message, and
it creates a new quicksave each time a choice comes up. This is a huge improvement, though it's still terribly obtuse what effect your choice may have, if any. Complicating matters further is the new Amadeus Trigger system, where you choose whether or not it's a good idea to answer calls from the titular AI.
Also in keeping with its prequel, Steins;Gate 0 is privy to inappropriate tonal shifts. A lengthy discussion about preventing World War III is capped off with resident perv Daru's daughter-from-the-future describing his molestation of her as a teenager while goofy music plays. Some of these scenes come dangerously close to crossing the line; a standout scene of inappropriate cheesecake sees the titanic rear-end of a latex-clad lady assassin fill the screen as she writhes and dies in agony, accompanied by sentimental music. A little raciness is one thing, but attempting sexualized violence and pathos at the same time is in laughably poor taste.
By the time I reached the end of my first run, I felt like I'd had just about as much as I could stand of Steins;Gate 0. Yet, something persuaded me to persevere, and I reloaded some older quicksaves to put my knowledge of later developments to use to achieve a different outcome. Surprisingly, I had fun doing so and felt a little like a time-traveler myself. With extra insight at my disposal, what was previously meandering now had purpose, and I was able to look past the endless filler at how to reach my goal. It still could've been a hell of a lot shorter, but chasing different endings was more compelling than I had been led to believe.
I feel incredibly conflicted about my time with Steins;Gate 0. Its plot raises some really fun questions, and during its very best moments it can be read as an allegory for the overzealous influence of American hegemony on post-war Japan. When it works, Steins;Gate 0 knocks it out of the park. But more often than not, it doesn't work, and is instead content to waste your time with shallow "slice of life" baloney that you've seen a million times before in other visual novels. There is value to be gleaned from Steins;Gate 0, I just wish it wasn't so well hidden.
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.