Steins;Gate (PC Visual Novel Review)

Gigano

Whose Eyes Are Those Eyes?
Oct 15, 2009
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[HEADING=1]Steins;Gate Review[/HEADING]

The Gears of Fate are Turning...

El Psy Congroo

Introduction:
Steins;Gate is a 2009 Japanese Xbox 360, PC, and PSP visual novel game (with the PC version receiving an unofficial English translation in 2011), created by developers Nitroplus and 5pb [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comics/critical-miss/9104-Critical-Miss-Corpse-Party]. It is a spiritual successor to the similarly themed ChäoS;HEAd [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.264914-Deskimus-Prime-Reviews-The-Madness-that-is-ChaoS-HEAd][footnote]Events from it get a passing mention a few times in Steins;Gate, but it's not at all necessary to have played it before, since they are entirely separate stories.[/footnote] It's to some degree a classic hard science fiction tale about unimaginable technological advances, and their potential (...for abuse), but its peculiar perspective and setting really sets it apart.

The story is centered around the self-proclaimed "Mad Scientist" Rintarō Okabe, whose paranoia and grandiose demeanor are a poor match indeed for the extremely humble advancements to science he have supposedly achieved in the makeshift "Future Gadget Laboratory" of his small Akiharaba apartment. Here he works with a dubious "research group" consisting of the gentle and kind, but also childish, airheaded, and none-too-bright waitress Mayuri Shiina, and the full-on otaku, eternal pervert, and exceedingly skilled hacker Itaru Hashida. Along with the young scientific prodigy Kurisu Makise, they are soon drawn into an elaborate string of mysterious events, involving the ruthless ambitions of SERN [http://public.web.cern.ch/public/] and manipulation of time itself... a mystery that begin with Kurisu's most untimely death.

Can the unbreakable chain of cause and effect be reforged? And if so, at what price?

Story: 9,5/10
Peculiarly, what helps set the above in motion is a circumstantial malfunction in Rintarō's latest gadget, a highly customized microwave oven which turn out to possess a rather unexpected side effect [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serendipity]. If that sounds like the premise for a children's show, then that's because it sounds exactly like that. It really - really - isn't though, as anyone familiar with these developers' past track records would suspect. The plot is both complex and occasionally fairly brutal, and the amount of scientific theory - the vast majority of it real [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/113292-Scientists-Baffled-By-Seemingly-Faster-Than-Light-Particles] - that gets explained and explored in this game is truly staggering.

This mean that the game is off to a slow start, as there's a of lot of scientific groundwork to lay down. While the game does a great job of conveying some very advanced scientific concepts to mere mortals, you'll still have to stay sharp to stay with it. Obviously the traditional problems and paradoxes presented by time travel are touched upon, such as the grandfather paradox [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandfather_paradox] and the Butterfly effect [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect] (which the second ending theme, Butterfly of Fate [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50ypVKRsMKM], seem to be a reference to). Many other theoretical concepts are also touched upon, in order to provide a convincing real world frame for when at last it takes the plunge into the fantastic unknown. It really is surprisingly elegantly handled, injecting a renewed sense of wonder into a world we thought we'd explored every nook and cranny of[footnote]This concept of ?postmodern fable? is even more prevalent in ChäoS;HEAd, which actually made it rather explicit by having a character with a traditional fantasy perspective on the events that took place there, complete with ?Black Knights? and such.[/footnote]. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the game, and where its build-up really pays off.

Aside from its hard science fiction angle, the game is also an almost anthropological study of otaku culture, and a veritable parade of characters who aren't exactly paragons of well-adjusted normality. The initial cast is quickly joined by other characters, whose mannerisms are no less odd - such a part time worker who's just a bit too eager to get with the times, and a journalist who's much too eager to communicate digitally. Set in Tokyo's famous "Electric Town district", most characters are engaged in some rather strange modern subcultures (...with those who aren't being stranger still), making pretty much all of them eccentrics at best. Rintarō in particular, while not as deranged a protagonist as seen in other NitroPlus works, seem to have been completely swallowed up by his own fantasy world (...which unfortunately for him doesn't stay that way), living and breathing for his "Mad Scientist" persona that unfortunately don't go over too well with his actual nature, much less with everyone around him. Though a worker at a catgirl themed maid cafe [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maid_cafe] is more than a match for him when it comes to just rolling with his delusions to places even he can't follow. In short, it's a veritable cultural undergrowth that's put on display here, and the game obviously contain copious references to various memes and nerd culture in general, both western and Japanese. All of which are for once quite naturally integrated, given the characters and setting it portray.

With these focal points - hardcore science and otaku/nerd/internet subculture - Steins;Gate will not be to everyone's taste. Even with plenty of mainstream strengths, such as excellent pacing (once the initial theory is out of the way), suspenseful drama, engaging character interaction, and an elaborate plot that is masterfully laid out, the game's underlying subject matter is simply going to be too alien(ating) for quite a few people to ever appreciate it. If you don't really care about science or internet culture, then this obviously isn't a title worth picking up, despite its uniqueness and considerable merit.

[IMG, alt=Although since this game absolutely adore any technology from around that time anyway...]http://img827.imageshack.us/img827/5551/reference.jpg[/IMG]
Quite an old reference you got there, young lady.

Artwork & Sound: 8,5/10
What most immediately springs into view is the highly stylized character design, with sharp lines, prominently colored eyes, and the unique texturing which is also put to general use (...well almost unique [http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=11318]). The latter adds quite a bit of vibrancy to the characters and backgrounds, while still retaining a low key coloring, and personally I find it appealing (though it's probably a "love-it-or-hate-it" kind of thing).

Most people who've ever heard the name "Steins;Gate" before will know it from the recent anime adaptation of one of the paths, and while the anime was deservedly a success, it did not succeed in capturing the lustre of the visual novel game CG's all too well. And there's also the fact that the visual novel game format - with its innate emphasis on branching lines of cause and effect - lends itself exceedingly well to time travel stories. This, combined with the far greater level of story detail, and the alternative outcomes available in the game, would lead me to recommend that fans of the anime check out the game. Even if they've obviously been spoilered on some rather major events.

As for the aural presentation, there's little to fault, and a few things to praise. The voice actors are all very well chosen, and considerable resources obviously went into securing this (Rintarō is voiced by the same guy who voiced Light Yagami of Death Note fame; though you wouldn't know it except when he really plays up the "Mad scientist" act). And if you happen upon one you don't like, they can all be individually muted. The music is overall pretty good, if perhaps another "love-it-or-hate-it" thing. Aside from fully fledged songs, including the rather catchy Technovision [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-Hn_I3hDfg] and a few new tracks from in-verse indie rock band PHANTASM, the Back Ground Music span the usual range from casual everyday themes [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkbp3TAf6XI] to those instilling great urgency [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx9LDyk9BCc], and everything inbetween [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzXqcxRQbhE].

The production values are sky high, and Steins;Gate is overall artistically solid in both aspects as well. But it's in the visual department that it really shines.

[IMG, alt=There is actually not many action scenes in the game, despite it partly being a Nitro+ production.]http://img155.imageshack.us/img155/2904/nytbitmapbillede.jpg[/IMG]
Jack Carver and friends go to Japan!

Interface & Tech: 7,0/10
The interface of Steins;Gate is not perfect. Unlike the traditional choices presented in most visual novel games, the interactive element comes into play through the protagonist's smartphone. The phone is used to control certain events, as well as communicate through - or simply ignore - calls and emails. Your communicative choices then affect the world around you, ultimately determining what path the story will take.

The idea itself is great, but the implementation of it could've used a few improvements. Once you've chosen a line to reply to in a mail, and the protagonist write out his answer to it, you cannot go back. Meaning that you'll have to save before clicking it, then load to see how he'd more specifically reply to the other choices. Depending on how meticulous your playing style is, this can be quite bothersome [...especially if like me you didn't think to use the quick save/load function. Thanks, Evilsanta]. Learning how to use the phone, and even just how to access it (...press P!) can at first be a bit daunting as well.

Considering that the English patch is currently in its beta phase, it's a very stable and polished game, but it's still not without flaw. The occasional spelling mistake and other text box oddities still appear, and there's no guarantee one won't run into a crash (I for one didn't experience any). A finished translation patch is expected around December never, although the current one is more than serviceable. Installing the core game can be a bit finicky too, although I'm more than happy to help.

[IMG, alt=In the background: Mayuri and Daru completely ignoring him.]http://img14.imageshack.us/img14/9734/rintaro.jpg[/IMG]
You keep on telling yourself that, Rintarō

Final thoughts:
It might be low on more physical action (if not on the physics one), and require your undivided attention to eventually make heads and tails of it all; but it ultimately still succeed in being grand scale hard and soft science fiction, a story whose heavy musings on advanced scientific concepts blends in seamlessly with a thrilling drama and a curious character piece. Its somewhat slow start and initially slightly daunting interface is quickly forgotten, when the story blossom and unfolds its layers.

While it is presumably far too niche appeal to ever become anything but a cult classic, there's no denying the meticulous attention to quality; within its limited scope, it performs masterfully. There is little doubt in my mind that this is one of the better and most unique visual novels that's been translated into English so far, and that it deserve far more attention than it'll ever get. But oh well, such is the choice of Steins;Gate.

[HEADING=1]Final Score 9/10[/HEADING]
An official English copy of the game is now available [http://www.jbox.com/product/SG001], at $40 + shipping.

Anime:
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.187959-Higurashi-no-Naku-Koro-ni-Kai-When-they-Cry-2-user-review#5770913]
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kira OVA 1 [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.302761-Anime-Review-Higurashi-no-Naku-Koro-ni-Kira-OVA-1]
Mardock Scramble: The First Compression [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.351010-Mardock-Scramble-The-First-Compression-Anime-Review]

Games:
Assassin's Creed 2 [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.158316-Review-of-Assassins-Creed-2#3940624]
Steins;Gate: 8bit [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.353403-Steins-Gate-8bit-PC-Game-Review]
Swan Song [http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/326.301706-Visual-Novel-review-Swan-Song#12038332]
 

Evilsanta

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Apr 12, 2010
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Might check it out. The story and the setting sounds really interesting.

A good review too. Althought the "choice system" sounds like pain when you are first introduced to it.
 

Gigano

Whose Eyes Are Those Eyes?
Oct 15, 2009
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Evilsanta said:
Might check it out. The story and the setting sounds really interesting.
You certainly should. Not liking its setting a story elements is pretty much the only thing that should keep anyone from playing it (...at least anyone who're also fine with the minimalistic gameplay found in VN's).

A good review too. Althought the "choice system" sounds like pain when you are first introduced to it.
I couldn't find any info on it, and hence had to figure it out for myself; but it's really not that hard once I did. You can bring up your phone at any time by pressing "P", which is used to make calls when the game request it of you, (not) answer calls from various characters, or (not) reply to e-mails by pressing one of several blue words underlined in them. That's pretty much it.

The real problem is that once you click one of the blue words in a mail, the reply is typed out, and you can't go back to see what replies clicking the others would've yielded. At least I haven't found any way to do so.
 

Evilsanta

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Apr 12, 2010
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Imperator_DK said:
Evilsanta said:
Might check it out. The story and the setting sounds really interesting.

The real problem is that once you click one of the blue words in a mail, the reply is typed out, and you can't go back to see what replies clicking the others would've yielded. At least I haven't found any way to do so.
Well, Your method of saving before replying isn't that bad.

I don't think it will that big a deal to me as I would save before any event/choice. By the way you wrote I should asumme there is no quick load or quick save?

Anyways I will try and get a physical copy when I get the money to.
 

Gigano

Whose Eyes Are Those Eyes?
Oct 15, 2009
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Evilsanta said:
...

Well, Your method of saving before replying isn't that bad.

I don't think it will that big a deal to me as I would save before any event/choice. By the way you wrote I should asumme there is no quick load or quick save?
...actually, there is a quick save/load function.

I honestly don't know why I haven't thought to use it, force of habit, I suppose.
 

Gigano

Whose Eyes Are Those Eyes?
Oct 15, 2009
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Great, now I wish I'd read the VN instead of watching the anime. Oh well. The anime didn't impress me so much, the VN looks like it has more potential. Not coming back to it though.
 

Deskimus Prime

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Jan 26, 2011
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I am on this like something that is very much on something else. I wasn't sure if the patch was readable, but if you got through it just fine, that's good enough for me.

Great review, too. Out of curiosity, whose route did you follow? I hear the game is much less generous with its happy endings than the anime.
 

Gigano

Whose Eyes Are Those Eyes?
Oct 15, 2009
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poiumty said:
Great, now I wish I'd read the VN instead of watching the anime. Oh well. The anime didn't impress me so much, the VN looks like it has more potential. Not coming back to it though.
It has the time to go into greater detail, the alternate routes, and being in Rintarō's head is quite amusing. I'd call it a significant upgrade.

It's time consuming though, and the anime spoiled quite a bit, so if you weren't that much of a fan then it probably won't be worth going back into it.

Deskimus Prime said:
I am on this like something that is very much on something else. I wasn't sure if the patch was readable, but if you got through it just fine, that's good enough for me.
It is, and the new version even fixed the line cut-off problem (...and the unfortunate inability to get past chapter 2). A few imperfections linger here and there, but I didn't run into anything noteworthy.

Great review, too. Out of curiosity, whose route did you follow? I hear the game is much less generous with its happy endings than the anime.
Mayuri's. Although "ended up on" is probably a better description than "followed".

I'll probably take a break, then go for Kurisu's or Amane's next.
 

Perditio

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Oct 29, 2009
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Good review, it's on my to-play list after Kikokugai and Persona3.

I'm kind of regretting watching the anime first, but I just got sick of waiting (I saw a PV for the VN back in '09 and was amazed) - even though the anime was very well done, the artstyle was what really caught my attention. Ah well, at least I can pick up the little nuance things that I would have missed first time through.

You may also want to include a link to the translator's site, for those with the inability/unwillingness to use google.
 

Gigano

Whose Eyes Are Those Eyes?
Oct 15, 2009
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Perditio said:
Good review, it's on my to-play list after Kikokugai and Persona3.
I'll more than vouch for Kikokugai as well. It's an incredible action VN and quite a bit more to boot.

I'm kind of regretting watching the anime first, but I just got sick of waiting (I saw a PV for the VN back in '09 and was amazed) - even though the anime was very well done, the artstyle was what really caught my attention. Ah well, at least I can pick up the little nuance things that I would have missed first time through.
It's a bit unfortunate that the anime ran so shortly before this release came out of nowhere. Though on the other hand it might've helped speed it up, and all the added details, (late) alternate branches, and the vast visual upgrade of the CG's remain.

Don't know why they didn't use this texturing in the anime, the character design look quite flat compared to it - Rintarō like a different guy altogether - and Black Rock Shooter already made use of it. Would've probably taken too long to implement or something.

You may also want to include a link to the translator's site, for those with the inability/unwillingness to use google.
Right you are. Done and done.