Sure, Michael Bay and countless other bad sci-fi movies have tried to convince us otherwise, but robots are awesome. As a kid, I spent countless hours watching Inspector Gadget, playing with my Transformers, and building anything I could get my hands on. I wanted to be a scientist, largely because I thought that if I knew science, I could build robots. As I got older, my interest waned, partially because I’m not very good at science, but also because, well, it’s just not cool to love robots when you’re 35.
Robotics;Notes ELITE helped me remember the joy of robots, the joy of creation, and put simply, the joy of science. After all, this is the third entry in the “Science Adventure” series, encompassing both the Steins;Gate duology and the Chaos;Head duology. This is a 5pb game, though, and they can’t seem to shake their bad habits of opaque event triggers and distasteful humor, which means that despite all of the joy this game brings, there are some warts. That, coupled with other flaws, keeps this from reaching the heights of earlier games in the series.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the “ELITE” moniker in the title. Steins;Gate ELITE was a complete, from the ground up, animated reimagining of the original game, and I was hoping for the same here. However, it turns out this version of Robotics;Notes is a port from the Vita that never made it to the West back in 2014. The 3D models are upgraded from the original, and there are some added cut scenes from the 2012 anime along with a few adjustments to the story. In the end, the presentation is similar to what you’d see in any other visual novel. The graphics are solid and the models are expressive as they move during gameplay. The music is unobtrusive and nicely underlines the mood of a given moment, but it doesn’t stick out otherwise.
The lack of fancy upgrades means that the story needs to carry the day in Robotics;Notes Elite; thankfully, it does. Set mostly in 2019, the narrative follows the members of the Robot Club at a high school in Tanegashima, a small island in southern Japan. It focuses mostly on Kaito, a fighting game savant who actually has little interest in robots, and his best friend, Akiho, the incredibly optimistic, if not incredibly talented, leader of the Robot Club, whose almost lifelong dream is to build a giant robot based on her favorite childhood anime. While they struggle to achieve their dream, they begin to uncover a plot to destroy the world involving virtual reality, monopoles and a lot of other scientific mumbo jumbo. Basically, it’s every robot-loving, anime-obsessed teenager’s fantasy come true: the high school robotics team saves the world.
This story leans into a lot of tropes we’re familiar with, and it’s not without flaws. The pacing of this game is deliberate, to put it mildly. There is a lot of character and world building. A lot of lengthy conversations about science. But mostly, it works. The first 80% of the game builds up the conflicts and mysteries, both the personal ones and the world-threatening ones, remarkably well. But it takes a long time—and I mean an exceedingly long time—to start answering any of those questions or resolving any of those conflicts. Some will find this tedious. For me, though, once the game starts addressing the questions, the answers are surprising and satisfying, although the ending itself is rushed. While it manages to bring the varied tones and stories juggled throughout the narrative to a believable and appropriate conclusion, it just needed more time to breathe.
Thankfully, the characters here are universally outstanding. They all feel significantly more grounded in reality than previous “Science Adventure” games. Sure, they play on a lot of familiar tropes, but they all felt like people with the same insecurities and dreams who I’ve met in real life. The bonds they share and the joys they experience from the things they create jump off the screen. The slow pace of the narrative makes our investment in their struggles and our satisfaction in their solutions and triumphs even more rewarding. This strong character work is supplemented by an outstanding localization, and while Spike Chunsoft only included a Japanese audio track, the voice work is magnificent.
Like its predecessors, Robotics;Notes ELITE has some problems with gender, representation, and a single-minded focus on the male protagonist, but these are minor in comparison. Ultimately, it feels like a step in the right direction for 5pb. Kaito even manages to call out some misogyny and overt sexualization from time to time.
This brings me to the most frustrating part of this game: it is so difficult to access most of it. Similar to other “Science Adventure” titles, there are multiple routes in this game. The way you access these paths is by interacting with the in-game version of Twitter, “Twypo.” You receive multiple messages each day from your friends, and you have the option to respond to some of them with one of three things. Your choice to respond, not respond, and the “correctness” of your response will allow you to enter three different paths that are chronological, though depending on how you interact with the triggers, you could see them out of order. There is an option to go back to each day and adjust your choices, but you must interact, and interact correctly, with dozens of different …twypes? to access these routes. And these routes start about one-third of the way through the game. It’s incredibly annoying. The game also never really bothers to explain this mechanic. I spent 68 hours on this game, and at least 8 of those hours were spent going back to different days and adjusting my responses, never knowing which one triggered the game to continue. I would recommend, heartily, that you make liberal use of a guide if you want to see the vast majority of what this game has to offer.
The game does offer a little more gameplay, and it’s actually pretty fun. Since Kaito is obsessed with Kill-Ballad, you spend a fair amount of time in the game getting engaged in “fights.” These boil down to hitting the correct button combinations, as they flash on the screen. It’s not much, but it’s a nice break from the mounds of text you’ll wade through.
It’s difficult to live in the shadow of a giant like Steins;Gate. In fact, any comparisons between Robotics;Notes ELITE and that classic of the genre do this game a disservice. Is Robotics;Notes as exciting and emotional as Steins;Gate? No, no it’s not. The ending in particular pales in comparison to the emotional, adrenaline fueled ending of that game. But nonetheless, the strength of the character and the intrigue in the plot make this visual novel worth your time.