Spoiler Warning: While this review contains no spoilers for “Steins;Gate 0”, as a direct sequel, this game expects intimate knowledge of its predecessor. If you have yet to play “Steins;Gate”, stop reading now and pick it up – it’s superb. Tutturu!
While a vibrant genre within the niche otaku subculture, even the most enthusiastic supporters of visual novels would have been hard-pressed to realistically hope for a western release. However, just like the glorious rebirth of light novels with Sword Art Online, all it needed was one key title to convince audiences. Following on from the critically acclaimed anime adaptation, pQube Games’ Steins;Gate triumphantly led that charge and now, its ground-breaking sequel has arrived.
I’ve been gushing over Steins;Gate 0 ever since I first went hands-on with the game in September and now, having played far beyond the opening chapter now, I am more than happy to report that my enthusiasm for the game has not deflated one bit and in fact, is even stronger than before.
As implied by their name, visual novels live and die by their narrative, with characters and their stories being essential to the game’s success. While it may initially appear that players have little interaction with the game, the occasions where we are given control to make a decision, such as responding to a question or even choosing to answer a phone call, we end up altering the direction of the story and its ending – ultimately actually giving players more control than the average linear action game.
A dramatic opening scene that gloriously refuses to hand-hold the uninitiated, our reunion with Rintarou Okabe isn’t with the same excitable, self-proclaimed “mad scientist” we know and love, but rather, a broken man. Returning from the time-machine with his trademark white lab coat drenched in blood, his latest attempt at saving Kurisu Makise’s life had failed and now, the memories of countless repeated tragedies have finally taken their toll. In a severe state of shock, Okabe resigns himself to the believe that destiny cannot truly be altered and refuses to time travel again; ultimately making World War III inevitable. Months later, Okabe is headed down the path of readjustment through therapy and developing a deeper interest in his studies. For all intents and purposes, you could say his life was finally getting on track, until a fateful encounter throws a spanner in the works, pulling Okabe back into a life he wanted left behind.
That spanner, is Maho Hiyajo – an unkempt, youthful-looking woman hailing from the Victor chondria University in America, where she worked alongside the now-deceased Kurisu Makise on the “Amadeus System”; a revolutionary program that uses a person’s recorded memories to create an A.I. replica of the individual. Following their meeting at a lecture discussing the new technology, Okabe is invited to help test the Amadeus System, by interacting with a virtual Kurisu Makise. Communicating with an avatar of a loved one with no memories of the time they spent together is a heavy burden for the broken Okabe to bear, but is just the start of the twists and heart-wrenching of Steins;Gate 0.
How noticeable yet natural Okabe’s drastic change appears is testimony to how carefully and spectacularly writer Chiyomaru Shikura balances development of the game’s iconic cast. His white lab coat may be replaced with a contrasting black suit and reminders of his “Hououin Kyouma” persona illicit reactions similar to embarrassment over past chunibyo, but the consistency in his narrative voice, interactions with those around him and occasional slips into teasing bad habits while conversing with Amadeus Kurisu all comfortably convince us that these changes aren’t just on face-value to justify a new story; that they are a natural progression of a character, who at his core, is still Rintarou Okabe. This is reflected in other cast members as well, whose circumstances may differ in this alternate world-wide, but still retain their three-dimensional individuality.
The story of Steins;Gate 0 is engrossing, unpredictable and above all else, thoroughly enjoyable. The narrative grabs you from its opening and leaves you desperate to find out what happens next, but wonderfully, Steins;Gate 0 respects your time despite its lengths. While we may wish to shut ourselves off from the world and storm through the game in a single marathon sitting, the world doesn’t always let us and Steins;Gate 0 appreciates that. Books don’t have save points, so neither should visual novels – just like how you can pop a bookmark on any page, you can save your progress at any stage with no hassle, making it perfect to drop in and out between the chaos of every day life. This convenience is magnified with the PlayStation 4’s wonderful Remote Play feature, allowing me to quickly jump between my TV and Vita with little notice – so should your family come barging into the front room demanding the TV at the last minute, you can quickly get to safety before X-Factor starts!
If you enjoyed the original Steins;Gate, then you will no doubt love this instalment – which is a successor in more than just the narrative timeline. Even in a year with so many hit, beloved games, Steins;Gate 0 is a stand-out, game of the year contender. If you need something to read over Christmas, you’ll get more enjoyment out of this than a Danielle Steel novel!
Title: Steins;Gate 0
Certificate: PEGI 16
Developer: 5pb., Nitroplus
Distributor: pQube Games
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Vita.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4
Released: Out Now!
Disclosure: A copy of “Steins;Gate 0” was supplied by pQube Games, the distributor, for the purposes of this review.