I find it hard to talk about Steins;Gate, not because I have nothing to say, but because I have so much I would say but can’t. Some things in life are best experienced blind, when you let yourself go on a journey and you aren’t quite sure where you’ll end up. Just feel it and don’t read any more about Steins;Gate than you have to. Have you ever fallen in love with a book, a video game or a TV show which captures your heart and mind, wanted it to take root in your soul and let it flourish into a tree, pluck the fruit from that tree and pass it out to everyone you know just so they can try a bite? That’s how I feel about Steins;Gate, and this review is me offering you my gross soul-fruit. If you still are in need of convincing, then read on and I will try my hardest to preserve your innocence.
Could Steins;Gate be the visual novel that wins over the visual novel skeptics?
Steins;Gate, inexplicable semicolon and all, follows the life of less-than-typical college student Rintaro Okabe (or as he likes to be known, mad scientist Hououin Kyouma) and friends during the events of one less-than-typical summer break. As befits a mad scientist, Rintaro is a great proliferator of dastardly pieces of technology dubbed the “Future Gadgets”, all assembled within his laboratory. It’s only a pity that these so-called “Future Gadgets” are mostly useless junk, such as a ray-gun fused with a remote control that’s only capable of turning the channel up, though never down again. However, this all changes with the creation of the latest Future Gadget, the Phonewave (name subject to change) and its ability to send e-mails back into the past, though naturally this function was completely accidental.
Yes, Steins;Gate is a story about time travel, or more accurately a story about what it means to be able to manipulate the causality of events to your will. Steins;Gate explores these concepts in excruciating detail, from a moral and spiritual aspect right down to the nitty-gritty science of it all. Though perhaps this attention to detail is just as much a flaw as it is a boon. Steins;Gate starts off very slow and builds from there, gaining momentum and never stopping until it reaches the climax. By building such strong foundations at the beginning, the end becomes all the more rich. You start off feeling frustrated, because although you are enjoying the characters and their interactions and the science is certainly interesting, you just want to continue unraveling that juicy mystery the game keeps teasing you with. However, when you reach the end and you view the bigger picture, you realize you wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
As for the characters themselves, we have already spoken briefly about the main protagonist who serves as our narrator (however unreliable he may be in that role), though in actuality I’ve hardly scratched the surface in regards to how brilliant a character he is. The same could be said for any other character in Steins;Gate, as they are all extremely likable and memorable in their own ways. From the scientific genius and usually level-headed (unless Rintaro Okabe is in the room) Makise Kurisu to the child-like innocence of Mayuri, the cast is diverse and serve to give the story a much-needed heart since it deals with quite a few high concepts.
Much of the characters’ likability stems from the amazing voice acting they each receive. While I have absolutely no understanding of the Japanese language, the voice acting still managed to capture the emotion so perfectly that it transcended the language barrier. As strange as it sounds, I’m almost glad this visual novel doesn’t have an English language option for voices, as I would have most likely picked that and lost out on these amazing performances. While we are on the subject of sound, I should mention that the game’s soundtrack is wonderfully atmospheric, particularly in the scenes where things are getting very tense. I also found myself lingering on the main menu when booting up the game just to enjoy its wonderfully ominous theme.
Progression is both typical and atypical for a visual novel. Yes, it essentially boils down to a route system where the choices you make lead to different endings and then ultimately a true ending, but how Steins;Gate goes about it is quite interesting. Instead of being prompted with choices that seem to scream “Be careful, this choice is important”, you are given a much more subtle and natural way to affect the story’s progression via the texts Rintaro receives on his cellphone. You could be forgiven for thinking on your first playthrough that there is no branching story, just a linear set of events, as receiving texts (even just opting to read them instead of ignoring them) and replying to them doesn’t seem like you are making choices that change what happens in obvious ways. It at first seems like just a nice way to keep in touch with certain characters when you aren’t physically there with them. As I said, it’s a very interesting and unique system, and while I laud its originality, the lack of a clear way to see the different endings could make people reach for a guidebook.
Could Steins;Gate be the visual novel that wins over the visual novel skeptics? Probably not, since I can see how a slow-starting plot coupled with long drawn out talks regarding physics and psuedo-science could be an obstacle for people. There is a well-received anime adaptation of this game, and I feel like telling skeptics to watch that and then, if they enjoy it, come back to play the visual novel — this could make it a less daunting experience. For people already well-versed in visual novels, however, this one is the crème de la crème and it demands your attention. El Psy Congroo.