By: Brian Gunn
Steins;Gate has sort of a storied history among visual novel fans. It was one of the first to really gain some traction and exposure beyond the niche in the western markets, and it is one of the best-selling games in the genre.
It is has been frustratingly annoying to obtain, however. Despite an original PC release of 2009, it only recently released on platforms like Steam. Does it live up to the hype?
Steins;Gate is a relatively straightforward visual novel. You won’t be doing much more than hitting the confirm button to read the next chunk of dialogue. There are a few small twists on the formula, though.
First off is a dictionary you can access when the game goes into either big scientific concepts or extremely niche subcultures. The second is the addition of the main character’s phone, which you can bring up nearly anytime to browse received messages, and reply to some, which ends up playing an important role in the story.
There’s a unique anime style to the characters of Steins;Gate, one that is thankfully not mired in most of the trends of the time. Characters are lanky and detailed in muted color patterns, and all seem to have no real nose. I did find some of these designs grating at the start, particularly the character of Mayuri, who looks like she’s about to sneeze about half the time, but they grew on me.
Music is an area where the game shines. There’s wonderful themes put to effective use, though some of the dramatic songs used during comedic moments get a little old, with the gag repeating far too much. All of the dialogue is voiced in Japanese and fits the characters well, especially the lead.
Steins;Gate takes place in the Akihabara district of Japan. Rintarou Okabe is our intrepid lead character, a university student that fancies himself a mad scientist. In a makeshift lab he and his friends have accidentally created a time machine that allows email to be sent to the past. However, what starts as a quirky and comedic adventure regarding time travel eventually turns quite dramatic.
“Eventually” is the key word with Steins;Gate. The story is incredibly slow paced, frequently only getting interesting toward the end of chapters, and then dialing back. And in general the beginning of the game is frustratingly slow compared to the back half. Just as something interesting happens, someone explains a bunch of in-depth science or the cast feels a need to journey into otaku land.
I was certainly caught off guard how heavily the story leans into the obsessive Japanese fan and online worlds. There are constant visits to maid cafes with girls wearing cat ears.
Okabe is also an irritating character at times. He’s frequently off in his own fantasy world pretending to be a mad scientist and fighting against made up enemies, trying to sow chaos into the world. He’s extremely hard to like for a large section of the game, but eventually things with him pay off.
Events can be changed via the game’s phone system. By ignoring or receiving certain calls, you’ll find yourself put onto one of the game’s many paths. There’s a true ending to unlock that can take some time, especially if you don’t resort to using a guide, as some of the triggers determining things can be a little vague.
I did experience some technical issues in the game, mainly with the quick save system. Upon starting the game again, sometimes the saves would be mysteriously missing. This is resolved by manual saving, but it still was a small annoyance.
Steins;Gate is an interesting tale full of great music and some great twists. It does, however, take a long time to really get going, and those that don’t want to get immersed with a bunch of otaku “scientists” for 10 hours before things get interesting may want prefer to watch the anime adaptation of the game.