The Visual Novel. A category of game that slips most western gamers by, yet it makes up over 60% of all PC games sold in Japan. Most gamers in the West are usually oblivious to this genre of games while others debate whether they can actually be defined as games at all. For those that are unaware Visual Novels are basically interactive books with static graphics (usually anime) and a strong story narrative with interactive elements to direct the course of the game to a particular ending. Most of these games are never translated or even ported to home consoles so it’s quite a treat that western gamers are now able to experience one of the best in the genre in recent years; Steins;Gate.
The story follows the exploits of the mad scientist Hououin Kyoma (Okabe) and his fellow Future Gadgets Lab members as they accidently discover a way to send text messages back in time using a microwave connected to a mobile phone. However Okabe is the only one who can clearly see the changes in time as he jumps from one worldline to another. Their time travel escapades soon get out of control as a colourful cast of characters are introduced as well a slew of plot twists you won’t see coming. The plot is an enjoyable one injecting complex Sci-fi notions with humour but overall it has a darker plot as eventually Okabe and his friends find themselves in danger and he even has to witness the death of some of them over and over again. Basically it just shows how even the smallest decisions can affect the future in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Just how much can Okabe take, and is it possible for him to save his friends?
The world is perceived through the eyes of the mad scientist Hououin Kyoma. Or Rintaro Okabe if you’d rather use his real name. Founder of the Future Gadgets Lab his goal is to spread chaos across the world and seek Steins Gate as he is pursed by the mysterious Organisation. But is that all just in his head. Unlike other Visual Novels the protagonist actually has his own personality, he’s not just an empty shell that you imprint yourself onto. Of course Okabe would be nothing without the rest of the interesting and strong cast of unique individuals each with their own story to tell. Following Okabe with his experiments are his fellow Lab members, his right hand man, super hacker and pervy otaku Daru (Itaru Hashida) and the free spirit, dedicated cosplayer and hostage Mayuri Shiina. Along the way he also meets the scientific prodigy Makise Kurisu, the socially awkward Moeka Kiryu, cat girl waitress Faris, feminine boy Luka Urushiba and parttime warrior Suzuha Amane.
The story centres around the effects of time travel so a lot of in depth details are given on current theories and the laws of physics. There are some occasions where you’re going to scratch your head in confusion as you try to connect the dots. There are some pretty long discussions on these matters which the characters try to simplify down for explanations to other members of the lab but they can still be a bit much. Even with the addition of a tips menu. Whenever an important reference is made a new tip appears in the menu to give some further explanations of these terms. Handy for when you need to brush up on your ’Naked Singularity’ knowledge. Of course this also goes for general otaku terms such as maid café’s, Chunnibyou or even just otaku if you’re not familiar with that.
Unlike other visual novels which give you clear decision making moments Steins;Gate’s choices are a bit more subtle. During the game you will receive a number of texts and phone calls from the other key cast members. Texts can give you multiple choices with which to reply back with, even deciding not to answer is an option and these can determine which ending route you get. The same applies to phone calls choosing to answer them or not. Unfortunately it’s not always clear which choice to make or even how Okabe will respond, and with no way to cancel out of a decision once you’ve made it can be rather frustrating if you want to lead the game in a certain direction. Of course as the game has multiple ending scenarios, to avoid rereading everything again you can fast forward through sections, which is really handy and saves a lot of time if you’re a completionist and want to view every ending.
There’s a huge catalogue of Visual Novel games available and it may be hard to keep up with but you can normally tell which the best are if they receive anime or manga adaptions. Steins;Gate is no exception, receiving a fantastic anime series in 2011, it followed the true ending path of the game. So for those thinking ‘why play the game when I can watch the series?’, well the game goes into the story in far more depth than the episodes ever could. Plus there are a total of 6 possible endings, one for each of the 6 female cast members. True if you’ve already seen the anime you are going to have a slight advantage shaping the future towards the true ending however there are a couple of variables to consider such as phone calls and text messages.
Be prepared for one long story as completing the game can take between 20-30 hours depending on your chosen route. This may sound quite boring as all you’re really doing is tapping the X button to advance the plot for the majority of the time but it’s a very engrossing story and one that’ll keep you entertained for long sessions. The artwork is gorgeous which is a good thing as you’re going to be staring at the same stock character and environments CG pieces for long periods of time. The voice acting is only available with the original Japanese cast but the translation is professionally done. There’s are some grammar mistakes which can pull you out of the experience a little but these are very rare encounters so it’s really only a minor issue in the long run.
Steins;Gate is a great game with a deep, well-written story that’ll hook you in and won’t satisfy you till you’ve reached the game’s conclusion. It’s not a game that’s going to appeal to everyone; it can get a bit heavy with its otaku culture references and the deep technical science lessons can leave your head spinning. However If you’re looking for an engrossing story, a mad protagonist with an over active imagination, a plethora of stunning CG artwork and a bit of insight into Japanese Culture then Steins;Gate is just the game for you. El Psy Kongroo.
This review was originally published on the site GamersFTW which unfortunately has now been taken down.