Steins;Gate 0 Review

It can be said that this is an final ultimatum from the god to the people who can fight.


A cursory glance at any given popular-niche Japanese series will tell you that success begets adaptations, and Steins;Gate was no different.  Following the original visual novel’s release in 2009, the characters, concepts, story, and world expanded well into the mediums of manga, audio dramas, light novels, and the creme de la creme that is a quality anime adaptation.  In response, the development team began working on supplemental materials in the form of the side story compilation Linear Bounded Phenogram and the romantic comedy spin-off My Darling’s Embrace, but that was not where their ambitions ended.  Far from it.

Instead, their ambitions billowed and rose to the form of a fully-fledged successor by the name of Steins;Gate 0.  A title that is technically an interquel to the true ending seen in Steins;Gate, with its canonical objective being to fill in the gaps left in the otherwise tightly packed original title.  Gaps that are filled using a scattering of new ideas, characters, and scenarios… most of which were based on a series of light novels dubbed the Epigraph Trilogy, as they were seemingly quality enough to serve as a basis for the “true sequel” to Steins;Gate.  

Steins;Gate 0 Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, PS Vita, Switch
Developer: MAGES. Inc.
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft

Previously on Steins;Gate, time-traveling chuunibyou everyman Rintaro Okabe went on a prolonged and soul-crushing time-traveling journey filled with death, despair, and international conspiracies where he battled against causality time and time again, all in the pursuit of an idyllic peaceful timeline.  But right as this future is within his grasps, Okabe fails to save the life of main female protagonist Kurisu Makise, gets slapped with a hefty dose of untreated trauma, and falls into a deep state of depression. Thus causing him to give up on his time travel exploits entirely and accept the dark future presented to him, knowing that the world is effectively doomed to be decimated by a malicious international battle for power while being convinced that there is no way for him to fight for a better future.

Now, four months after this inglorious failure, Okabe finds himself thrown into the limelight of world-shifting decisions once again as he meets Maho Hiyajo, a colleague of the late Kurisu, who appoints him to be a tester for the Amadeus system.  An artificial intelligence based off of digitized memories that in no way has any harmful applications whatsoever, and just so happens to be loaded with the memories of Kurisu Makise. All of which serves as the starting point for yet another adventure filled with the three things one can expect from Steins;Gate.

Grounded explorations of sci-fi concepts from people who clearly adore the subject matter.  Routine indulges in trashy anime tropes, as best exemplified by how Maho, the new female protagonist, is a 21-year-old woman who looks like she’s 10 and is referred to as a “legal loli.”  Along with genuinely strong character moments and development, making the cast of oddballs and weirdos feel like a group of developed people once everything is said and done.

However, while the core tenants of Steins;Gate remained unsullied, and the general vibe is retained about as well as one could expect given how this was a sequel with ideas borrowed from other creators, the story structure of 0 is considerably different.  Instead of the mostly linear structure of the original, 0 is divided up into four mostly separate storylines that explore different events, characters, and circumstances in order to offer a broader look at this world and spin the common starting point into wildly different directions.  When I first realized this, I assumed this meant that the story was taking inspiration from the likes of the Zero Escape series, with each branching timeline offering a fragment of a greater story that culminates in a revelation rich finale.  But that was just me being optimistic.

In execution, this shift leaves the underlying story of Steins;Gate 0 fragmented and unfocused to the point where the game lacks much of any true unifying narrative.  This in and of itself would not be so bad, but the end result in all of these four major permutations is a far cry from the quality of the original release.  They’re often disjointed, features numerous world line shifts that make it difficult to follow at points, and is riddled with so many bizarre choices and unanswered questions that I felt the need to do a fan wiki and forum deep dive after completion. 

These questionable decisions range from minor footnotes such as how Maho is apparently a god at racing games and knows how to use a gun thanks to all the time she spent at the local shooting range… even though she is a 1.4 meter tall scientist who spends most of her free time working on science stuff.  To major ones, such as how the path to the true ending route involves a 14 year time skip with no insinuation as to how Okabe and friends managed to escape from an armed militia while wounded and clutching a hard drive filled with valuable information on time travel technology.

This puts 0 in a very… unique position.  While I could effortlessly go on a 1,000+ word tirade about every little detail that I had a problem with, from the inexplicable way that world lines shift to the way certain characters are handled, I did ultimately enjoy the vast majority of the game.  The banter, character chemistry, and composition of individual scenes remains as solid as steel and makes for a very entertaining minute-to-minute story.  

Learning more about Kurisu during her time as a grad student.  Seeing Maho hang out with the rest of the Future Gadget Lab crew.  Watching the once boisterous and zany Okabe Rintaro be reduced to a dark husk who can only get through some days by self-medicating. Watching how the creative team spun together government conspiracies and artificial intelligence into some genuinely compelling directions.  All of this is good, well-written, mostly well-localized, and compelling content that makes the game well worth playing for fans of the original, but the story that everything is built around simply cannot match the tight and concise narrative it attempts to succeed.

Beyond the story bits, Steins;Gate 0 also boasts a noticeable shift in its presentation, retaining many of the same backgrounds, sprites, and visual trappings from its predecessor while offering entirely new sprites for most characters and featuring a distinctive shift in its overall art style.  One that veers away from the more stylized and abstractly lit sprites that served to give the original an iconic art style in favor of a more painterly style that comes with more neutral poses.  

It is a change that, on principle, I was not overly fond of, but the end result is a collection of visually enticing characters whose expressions, poses, and spiffy new wintery outfits that left me positively giddy at first sight.  Everybody is dressed in attractive fashions that reflect their personalities, looks fabulous as all heck, and their vocal performances are honed by the experience and familiarity of a cast that has been bringing these characters to life for half a decade or so.

It’s all stylish, and that overbearing sense of style extends even to the little things.  Such as the rust-riddled retro-futuristic flair of the UI that evokes the grungy and retrofitted efforts of the characters as they attempt to advance scientific fields while lacking the technical means, in addition to evoking Okabe’s decaying spirits, turning something that was once gleaming and cutting edge into something worn and dated.  Or the presentation of characters, often shoving the large character sprites right up to the camera to evoke a sense of intimacy and space as they converse with whoever is in the rotating protagonist chair at the moment.

But there are also a few areas where the presentation falters.  Like the occasional inconsistencies with backgrounds, where there is no obvious style guide for how background characters should be drawn.  Several instances of repurposed character sprites from Steins;Gate that look jarring when put next to the newer sprites.  And a few questionable applications of the game’s CG budget, often favoring more comedic moments than more visually complex setpieces, despite the amount of focus the script affords these set pieces.  E.g. showing a character getting grabbed and hugged for 30 seconds instead of showing a bunch of wild war dogs going down on a mountain of insect-filled corpses that mortifies the protagonist. I get that they were following the rule of moe, but come on, don’t tempt the guro fiends like that.  Theys good people.

In summation, Steins;Gate 0 should be a great title that does great things, and definitely has the ideas and talent behind it to forge an extension to Steins;Gate that’s just as quality as the original.  The visual stylings, the banter, the mix of goofy nonsense and sci-fi concepts— it’s all there.  However, the story this is all built around is lousy with minor idiosyncrasies that either feel like plot holes the fan community needed to fill in lieu of the writers, or explanations that I look at and say “that makes sense, but that’s also really stupid.”  Steins;Gate 0 is a title that I enjoyed my time with while playing, but also one that I like increasingly less the more I think back on it.

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