Visual novels are a love-hate relationship. I want to love them so dearly. I love narratives like a dear friend, excited by all the new ways he finds to excite me. Although they keep disappointing me, falling into expected pit-traps. Steins;Gate being a classic example.
I wanted to love it. Especially as I had heard very good things. In the end though, I simply liked it. While bogged down by some anime tropes, it still had pleasantly tense and interesting moments surprisingly frequently. Where it was marred the most for me was the unexpected: while trying to reinvent the visual novel ending system, it ended up overly complex to the point of demanding a guide to navigate it. So, I walk in with concern for Steins;Gate 0. Especially as Steins;Gate was self-contained as a story. Let’s take a deep breath and walk into this review together.
Oh, before we get into the meat of things: if you haven’t played Steins;Gate, you probably should. We’ll be hitting spoilers pretty hard and fast. These include non-standard ending spoilers not featured in the anime, so if you’ve only watched the anime and plan to check out the visual novel of Steins;Gate 0, here’s your last exit before spoilers. You can instead skip to the bottom, as the conclusion will lack any spoilers.
Steins;Gate 0 is a visual novel by 5pb, Nitroplus and PQube (who did the localization, important to note). Steins;Gate featured the time traveling adventures of Rintaro Okabe who, after a little slip, ends up on a time line where his childhood friend Mayuri keeps dying over and over. However, if he returns to the prior timeline, his love interest Kurisu gets an acute case of the dead. Through various hijinks, Okabe saves both and they all go home and drink pink lemonade.
…So it may be surprising to learn Steins;Gate 0 doesn’t follow this path. Instead, it assumes Okabe fails at rescuing Kurisu, she falls on his knife and Okabe retreats back in the time machine covered in blood. There he announces he is too emotionally defeated to do it any more. Future be damned, he can’t take it. Suzuha then announces that he has 6 months to get his act together. Otherwise she’ll have to travel without him as the non-rechargeable battery would be in danger of running out.
Along with PTSD caused by the events of Steins;Gate, certain events emerge that allow him to communicate with an AI Kurisu. Torn between knowing it isn’t Kurisu, and his love and regret for her, Okabe must face the pain of his decision to give up. His umbrella from his misery being part of said misery. Knowing that his weakness will also damn the world to the Third World War.
So to say Steins;Gate 0 starts off strong is to undersell how bold it strides out. Wielding an unsuspecting downer beginning as a fishing line, it hooked me. Drew me into believing this would be an atypical journey. Admittedly, one I hoped would be dark and paved in bittersweet moments.
…Except, well, sadly this goes to waste. It sadly doesn’t use this concept as a leaping off point to gut-punch you or drench you in a darker atmosphere than Steins;Gate. Instead, the story plods about. Rather than cutting you, the plot is weak, blunt and ineffective in application. A problem that rears its ugly head in multiple ways.
The most noticeable is just how loose it is. Time-travel is back, but rather than a horror-inducing Monkey Paw style cause-and-effect it is never quite clear why anything happens the way it does. One significant moment has you pick between you answering the phone and letting a girl hear the message, or letting a girl answer the phone and hear it. This choice having dire repercussions that feel random rather than meaningful to the choice.
As well as this, plots kind of just happen. They come and go like the breeze, leaving little to signify that they were ever in town. Often feeling more like padding than something significant. I recall Steins;Gate using plot points to tell us about the characters, who they are at their core. Even side characters got a hard study into what makes them tick. In comparison, all but two of the newly introduced just appear and go. Each one of these three characters only existing to drive the plot or scene forward and nothing else.
However, with all my complaints, these two I mention make interesting additions to the cast. Especially in absent of Kurisu, Maho serves as an excellent grounding pad to the energetic absurdity always pleasantly floating around the Steins;Gate 0 cast. If I had to nit-pick, she does feel like she’s trying to fill the shoes of Kurisu (in multiple ways) rather than being defined as her own person at times.
A second female character, Kagari, makes for an unusual character study which contains an arc. Although sadly she never manages to be a significant presence. She is always trapped by the haphazard machinations of time travel to define what she’ll be today (although said options being spoilers). On top of this, while it is interesting, her backstory never quite manages to work for its sympathy. Just more coming, going and being a slave to whatever time manipulation has occurred.
Although while we’re on the subject of character development and arcs (something absent from the rest of the main returning cast), we should talk about Rintaro Okabe. In Steins;Gate, he started off as something of a crude man-child. A being prone to declaring himself as mad scientist Kyouma Houoin. Then due to reasons like watching his childhood friend fall under a car over and over, I recall he dropped the chuunibyou act and did what developmental psychologists would call “grow the bloody hell up.”
Well, to the fortune of those who liked his chaos-causing scientist act, you can live in the fortune that Okabe’s character arc is now a character circle that loops back. As maturity has been confused with being inherently miserable and needs to be purged with napalm. While adequately explained, it feels retroactive and a form of regression rather than further character development.
So with the stumbling around, there may be hopes this all climaxes with a finale that wraps everything up with a flourish and a tight bow. A bit like the original. Well, I wish I could confirm. There is a cliff-hanger scene that leaves everything dangling uselessly, and then a cutscene with Japanese audio and Japanese subtitles. Maybe the sole text on the screen and sole audio made everything make sense and plucked on the heart-strings in ways linguists will study for decades trying to recreate. I sadly wouldn’t know due to the translation over-sight.
Something that reappears bits here and there. There is the expected typo that occasionally rears its ugly head with a cigarette-stained toothy grin. What was the most alarming moment is how all the non-English alphabetical characters (e.g. the “é” in “café”) have been replaced with question marks. Fortunately they appear in such a way where, while jarring, they can be understood.
So, with all the writing out the way, a hanging question mark remains. One dangling over my main criticism of Steins;Gate is its ending determinate system. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is fortunately getting the true ending does not require 21 steps (I counted).
It does, however, require completing one particular ending (requiring 3 steps) and then doing two more steps. While they’re less random (as all but two choices focuses on if you respond to Amadeus), there is still an element of blind luck of what ending you’ll head to based on your actions. So a walkthrough is still incredibly helpful. Still, a great improvement over what once was.
Speaking of which, the aesthetics are still incredibly pretty to stare at. Each one like a painting, made more majestic when the character art is part of the background art. While it is easy to grumble on the small shortcuts they make (e.g. animation), it is clear a lot of work went into it and it paid off.
So, let’s get to the final score of Steins;Gate 0. This was a tricky one. In the end though, I think I’m going to have to go with a 6 out of 10. The majority of the worth of a visual novel is in its narrative. A narrative that sadly is unfocused, flounders and doesn’t really add a whole lot to the world. Rather than leaping off its predecessor to do something new, it gets yanked on the choke chain and proceeds to remind everyone of areas in which Steins;Gate excelled, by doing it worse.
Although, let’s be honest to each other. You were going to buy this game, or have and just trying to feel out if your opinion is correct or not. I scared off the unfamiliar with spoiler warnings. You’re someone familiar with Steins;Gate, and most adore the original. If you’ve yet to play Steins;Gate 0, temper your expectations. It will not match the original at all for writing. Even if I still have personal grievances with Steins;Gate‘s writing.
However, suppose I have to apply a recommendation tag. The original I recall warning off (on another website, sorry) as “while decent, there are plenty of other visual novels that are more enjoyable and more accessible.” That you should only play it with a walkthrough. Steins;Gate 0 should only be played by fans of Steins;Gate, ones invested enough in the narrative to want to read more for the sake of more. Which this doesn’t look like the end of the tale, but SIMPLY THE BEGINNING OF THE CHAOS THAT MAD SCIENTIST HOUOUIN KYOMA WILL BRING TO THE WORLD! DECIEVE YOUR OTHER SELF! DECIEVE THE WORLD! THIS IS WHAT WILL NEED TO BE DONE TO REACH THE STEINS GATE! FWHAHAHAHA!
…Good luck delivering a narrative in the next iteration that cuts deep and punches hard…
…El Psy Kongroo.
A PS4 Review Code for Steins;Gate 0 was provided by PQube for the purpose of this review
- Improved ending system from Steins;Gate, although still all kinds of awkward
- Nice aesthetic
- Wonderful grim start, with thought provoking premise
- Anti-climatic finish
- Plods around the main plot
- Introduces new characters, some who never really get any development
- Some minor translation hiccups, including the ending