Reviewing something like Steins;Gate is difficult – because, well, aside from judging the quality of the writing, what else is there to say? That’s because Steins;Gate – part of the Science Adventure series, alongside Chaos;Head, Robotics;Notes and Chaos;Child – is a visual novel. While I’m not the most educated on the genre, I do consider myself a fan of a handful of VNs, notably Danganronpa, and I can’t help but feel like Steins;Gate isn’t quite on that level.
Out here in the west, most people know Steins;Gate and it’s fellow SA franchises best for their anime adaptations, with Steins probably being regarded as the strongest of the bunch. This praise isn’t entirely unearned either, the anime adaptation featuring some sharp writing, likeable characters, and some unique visual flair. Much like the anime however, the visual novel version of Steins;Gate suffers from an incredibly slow opening, and has a tendency for it’s plot to pointlessly meander at times.
The slow opening aside, though, there is one major difference between the visual novel and the anime – and that’s the characters. While the game does an impeccable job of characterizing it’s cast – you immediately know what kind of person everyone is, and they feel true to these initial impressions throughout – they’re also, by and large, an incredibly obnoxious and unpleasant bunch to interact with. There’s no better example of this than Okabe Rintarou – that’s Hououin Kyouma, Mad Scientist, to you and me – the game’s protagonist. In the animated series, Okabe is pompous, brash and arrogant, but as the show progresses, an underlying softness to his character shines through, as cracks appear in his façade. It takes a lot longer to warm up to Okabe in the game – as reading his inner monologue only serves to paint him as entirely delusional, especially in the early going.
Okarin’s kind of a dick.
I do appreciate that Okabe is more of a character than your typical player-surrogate visual novel MC, but god he’s hard to like, and things don’t get any better for the rest of the cast. Right hand man Daru is about as one-note a character as you’re ever likely to find, local cat-maid Faris NyanNyan is just the worst, while Lukako is about as offensive as a portrayal of someone struggling to come to terms with their gender identity could be. Moeka is insufferable from the minute you meet her, and Kurisu, the game’s “main girl”, is a generic cut-and-paste tsundere stereotype (who also happens to be a genius). The only two characters you’ll meet and not immediately hate are Suzuha – the girl working part-time at the CRT repair shop downstairs – and Mayushii, Okabe’s childhood best friend.
It’s a shame, too, because buried underneath it all there is some charm and complexity to the story. Things get bogged down early on under scientific terms spewed out by the grandiose lead and uppity foil, but once things get going, the story takes some really cool twists and turns, that are worth seeing, even if the characters never quite win you around. One major twist is telegraphed from pretty early on in the game, and even if you haven’t seen the series, you’ll see it coming the moment the game starts building toward it. Otherwise, things play out pretty naturally, and it’s fun to rediscover major plot points I’d forgotten over the past few years.
The story isn’t entirely linear either, so it is possible to have things play out in a way that differs from the “true” canon of the game and series. Being a visual novel, there isn’t a ton of interactivity to the game, and what there is mostly consists of answering (or not answering) various text messages received from the various members of your harem.
Get used to this joke. You’ll be seeing it a lot.
Steins;Gate is a game that desperately wants you to think it’s funny; but it’s sadly not. It reuses the same jokes over and over and over again until you’re sick of seeing them – and a lot of the time they aren’t even very good to begin with. It’s got that awkward problem of trying to translate Japanese humor for the West; this is never easy, but given the majority of jokes are wordplay (for example Okarin’s constant calling Kurisu “Christina”) they don’t quite play in English, even if you understand the basic context.
I can see how these would be funny if I was a native Japanese speaker, but even if you get a chuckle from them once, it’s difficult to imagine them still being funny the 500th time the game throws them at you. One gag I do admittedly like involves Okabe reacting to situations that put him in a bind by pulling out his cellphone and having a manic conversation with a blank screen; nobody on the other end of the call. All the same, this one joke that kinda works doesn’t make up for the rest – and especially not the constant jokes made regarding Lukako.
Lukako is a young boy, who has the features, “mannerisms”, voice and overall appearance of a teenage girl. The game loves to remind you of this at every chance it gets; and while they do try to present Lukako in a better light as the game goes on, it never feels like it’s being particularly well done either, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a huge sore spot with a lot of players.
The search never ends.
The game looks gorgeous – with some of the nicest and most distinct character art I’ve seen in any VN, and it all fits the tone of the game perfectly. There’s also references aplenty, in the first hour or two alone you’ll run into some pretty on the nose nods to Golgo 13, Back to the Future, Mad Max, Ghost in the Shell, and, most frequently, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Heck, there’s even an early scene where Okabe, feeling like time is at a standstill, starts hooting and hollering about “The World” being activated. Little touches like that give the game a really great sense of grounding in reality – despite the bonkers storyline – as does its use of real life people and organizations; the plot essentially revolving around CERN (SERN here), the IBM 5100 (or IBN 5100 in S;G) and John Titor, who set forums alight in 2000 by claiming to have come from the future. When the game is in full swing and at it’s best, the writing can sparkle, but it gets bogged down in forcing it too frequently to truly shine.
It really is a shame that Steins;Gate both struggles to grab you out of the gate, and misses with so much of it’s humor, given that there’s clear potential for this to be a great visual novel. Stick with it long enough, and you’ll find yourself wrapped up in Okarin and Co.’s wild ride – though it’d be hard to fault essentially anyone from packing it in after an hour or two. Steins;Gate is a visual novel purely for fans of the genre, that lacks the bells and whistles to keep outsiders entertained for the majority of it’s roughly eighteen hour story. If you aren’t already a fan of VNs, then do yourself a favor and watch the anime instead. If you are, you can probably add a star or two to this score.