I have an immeasurable love for time travel stories. The idea of characters bending the laws of time and space to alter their decisions and then dealing with the unintened consequences is just so damn cool to me. No matter the story, though, you always end up with a triumphant conclusion. The protagonist achieves their goal, overcoming numerous setbacks and sacrifices along the way. You get the good ending.
What if you didn’t? What if the protagonist struggles and struggles, but they fail? This is what Steins;Gate 0 is all about.
The visual novel Steins;Gate came out back in 2009, and while there have been a number of different spinoffs and alternate versions and adaptations, there’s never been a pure sequel until now. In the first game, you follow the story of Okabe Rintaro, a weirdo 20-something in Japan who dons the cheesy persona of “Hououin Kyouma” and acts like a mad scientist involved with shady government agencies and advanced technology. That is until the day he meets an actual genius scientist girl who reveals the secret of actual advanced time travel technology to him and finds himself fighting a grand conspiracy across parallel dimensions.
The more Okabe messes with time travel, the worse things get, and eventually, he has to force himself through countless time leaps and timelines in order to prevent the death of his friends, and even the start of World War 3. Okabe succeeds, but only because, in his darkest moment of wanting to give up, a message from a version of himself from a different timeline gives him the help and motivation he needs to save the day. It turns out that this other version of Okabe comes from a timeline in which he gave up on saving his friends and let that dark moment of failure consume him. Steins;Gate 0 takes place in this timeline, and tells us the story of how a beaten and broken Okabe came to recover himself and help save the main timeline.
This game is fairly inaccessible if you haven’t experienced the story of the first Steins;Gate, whether having played that as a visual novel or watched the fantastic anime adaptation. The game provides a brief overview of where it takes place canonically, but from there, you’re expected to already know the characters and events that has occurred.
The first game and the anime series often went in-depth on how things work and feed you plenty of information. The sequel is no different. You meet new characters, as well as learn about new organizations, new technologies and effects of time travel. There’s a lot thrown at you, but the game gives you a convenient dictionary feature with definitions for every piece of jargon and slang you hear in the game. They’re even organized by type, as well as labeled fictitious or not, given that so much of the game involves real organizations, technology, and phenomena.
More importantly though, you get to see these familiar characters in a brand new light. Okabe is distraught and depressed, abandoning his mad scientist persona and trying his best to become a normal college student. Other characters also have new experiences and insights thanks to their involvement in the events of the first game. One great example is with the character Daru, the geeky computer nerd who learns that the woman who traveled back from the future to help them save the world is actually his daughter. She stays in the current timeline, yet Daru ends up caring about her like a father would, and seeing him take on this mature role was a great bit of character development.
You get further insight into each character and their place in this timeline depending on which story route you go down. There are 5 routes and a final epilogue, and the length of each one far surpasses the lengths of the various routes in the original game. In most visual novels, you advance the story and reach various endings by making dialogue choices. In the Steins;Gate series, though, your story outcome is determined by a unique system that feels much more natural and engaging than forced dialogue options.
Throughout the game, you’ll have moments where your phone gets a phone call or a message, and you can press the shoulder button to bring it up and answer. Whether you answer or not, as well as the type of reply you choose to send to text messages, all affect the path of your story. Some text messages seem innocent and unrelated to the main story, while some seem a bit more crucial to your relationships with characters. Choices big and small ripple along the narrative and cause any number of events to occur. It’s a great parallel to the butterfly effect struggle that is so central to the narrative of Steins;Gate.
It isn’t just the narrative of the game that is so sharp and well-executed. The visuals, too, are better and more refined than anything from the first game. The character art in the first game had a sharp, if exaggerated, art style, and Huke, the artist responsible for those visuals, returns for the sequel, making some frantastic improvements. Characters look sharper and cleaner, and even illustrations look dynamic and gorgeous. Visuals are so important in portraying the narrative of a visual novel, and Steins;Gate 0 excels in that regard.
Just as much as the visuals help propel the game, the audio work in Steins;Gate 0 does an amazing job at capturing the mood of the story. Music is haunting and solemn, and in dire moments, the suspenseful action-oriented tracks help make your heart beat faster. There are a number of iconic pieces of music from the Steins;Gate series that return at pivotal moments in this game, and it gave me goosebumps every time.
The voice acting, too, is phenomenal. While the game only features Japanese audio, every piece of dialogue is fully voiced, and the cast from the first game returns in full. The voice actor for Okabe captures the changed mental state of the character perfectly. Okabe goes through so many different levels of pain, and growth, and struggle throughout this game, and his voice actor captures every drop of it in his performance. You don’t need to understand Japanese to feel the hollow and defeated sound of Okabe’s voice that tells you just how distraught he is.
Steins;Gate 0 is phenomenal. Every part of it is bigger and better than the game that came before it. Rather than a tacked on sequel storyline that disturbs the perfect ending of the original, it explores a wealth of material hidden between that story’s many layers, and ends up creating a narrative that almost rivals that of the original. It’s a game that is, without a doubt, for a specific crowd, and while it’s inaccessible to newcomers, the entire point is to explore another side to the narrative in a manner that would be lost on new players.
Go and play the first game, because if you like that one, you’re going to love this one. And if you’ve already played the first game, well then, what the hell are you waiting for?
Version tested: PS4