Change the Future, Change the Past. Find Steins Gate and Change the World
Every so often a game comes along and I lose my tiny little mind. Sometimes it takes me by surprise. Sometimes I see it coming. I saw Steins; Gate coming from seven worldlines away. Sleepless nights, finger cramp, a whole week of Coronation Street missed. Steins; Gate is a game that must be played until your eyeballs melt, your fridge empties and the theme songs echo in your head while you sleep. Turn off your phones, book some holiday and prepare for yourselves for one of the best visual novels ever made.
With the aid of a microwave, a mobile phone and a bunch of bananas, a group of eccentric teenage scientists discover time travel. Guided by their leader and the main protagonist Okabe Rintaro the group of friends find their brilliant discovery has devastating consequences. By changing tiny events, new and terrifying timelines are created. Okabe must find a way to change his terrible future and save his friends. Can everything be set right or will fate, God’s Will or Steins Gate get the final say?
Sounds exciting, huh? Understatement. Steins; Gate is an electrifying story comprised of countless layers of jeopardy, uncertainty, fear and exhilaration. Believable time travel isn’t the easiest of subjects to fictionalise. Fine, the whacky Doctor in his blue box does just fine, but he is one of only a few modern exceptions, and even the Who writers muck up now and again with overly complicated plots that suffer loss of impact through confusion and cliché. Time travel is a risky subject, but done properly in a visual novel format with multiple choices, it works beautifully.
Visual novel fans will be familiar with Virtue’s Last Reward. Steins; Gate functions in a similar way. Play through the story once and enjoy it, but you can’t fully appreciate it until you play through the alternate endings. Only by doing this can you get access to the entire story. Both games rely on alternate realities or alternative timelines. In Virtue’s Last Reward you accessed these other realities by choosing to enter different doors with different characters. In Steins; Gate, you can affect reality with your mobile phone. By choosing who to call, who to ignore and what text replies to send, massive differences occur within the timeline and whole new worlds are created. Your choices are tiny and seemingly inconsequential, but the theory of relativity, cause and effect, is watching you like an eagle watches an oblivious little mouse. Ignore a seemingly pointless phone call that you took in your first playthrough and in the new timeline, someone dies.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect. Someone in Mexico trips over a LEGO Batmobile and on the Isle of Wight there’s an avalanche. Clog the toilet and Granma chooses not to visit, instead goes for a curry, chokes on an almond, goes to hospital, sneaks outside to the car park for a fag, drops the lit butt in a puddle of petrol and blows East Surrey Hospital sky high. Oh if only you could go back in time and not eat Granny’s frozen toad-in-the-hole which caused the clogged toilet in the first place. But would that stop the hospital blowing up or is it fate that it will blow no matter if you avoid the toad-in-the-hole, drive Granny to Littlehampton for the weekend or bump her off with some well-timed parallel parking? Maybe something even more terrible will happen? Maybe Granny’s toad-in-the-hole will cause the eradication of the entire human race. That, my friends, is Steins; Gate.
Ninety five percent of Steins; Gate is reading. The label on the packet says visual novel and you can take that as pure Gospel. This is a book in the form of a game. Most of the time you will be thumbing through story and dialogue. If that’s not your thing, turn away now. If it is your thing, you’re in for a treat. This is Japanese storytelling at its best and if you’re a fan of anime, manga, Doujinshi, Yaoi, cosplay or Japanese video games, you’ll feel very much at home. Steins; Gate is set in Akihabara, the real life otaku culture capital of Tokyo and the world. If you’re going to get those Monokuma slippers anywhere, it will be in Akihabara. Otaku references and Japanese name suffixes can get confusing, but for the uninitiated there is a dictionary for all unusual terms. This dictionary will flag up the moment you first encounter an unfamiliar word and accessing its meaning is made super easy so not to interrupt the flow of the story.
The plot revolves around teenage protagonist Okabe Rintaro. To say that Okabe lives in his own little bubble is to declare that bunnies hop and celery is rather unpleasant. He’s a strange young man and often a total jerk. If he was a friend of mine, he would get his precious Dr P poured all over him on a daily basis. But there is a depth to Okabe that isn’t immediately obvious. He’s what you would call an unreliable narrator. Not only can you not trust a word he initially says, you can’t trust his thought process, his narration, either. Okabe’s “normal” state of mind is, ironically, anything but. In a wonderful reversal of ordinary fiction tropes, rather than being driven mad by incredibly stressful and dangerous events, he is more or less driven normal (aside from one particularly dark alternate ending). It is only when things begin to spiral that we begin to understand what kind of person Okabe Rintaro truly is.
Joining Okabe on his deadly time divergence adventure is a fine line-up of well thought out characters, and even though the story takes quite some time to really get going, the very early death of one of them sets a perilous, mysterious and intriguing tone from the very beginning. Steins; Gate manages its story beats very effectively. Even through lots of scene and character setting, jokes and exposition, the shocks and twists are delivered at precisely the right times to ensure you’re up until the early hours of the morning and the cat goes unfed. Don’t expect to complete Steins; Gate in a weekend, though, and don’t rush it. The story is long and winding and it’s just not worth the risk of missing important plot points.
Ensuring the story never spills over into the melodramatic is a healthy dose of comedy. I’ve always found bananas to be hilarious both in shape and syntax, so long-running jokes about Mayuri’s banana stash was a welcome form of comedy relief. Also included in the lighter parts of the story is a focus on a boy who looks like a girl. It’s not hard to look between the jokes and see the deeper gender identification issues nestled inside. Though these issues are tackled in true slightly inappropriate Japanese fashion, the writers deserve a nod for some touching moments and the supportive reactions of the others characters, including the biggest jerk on the planet Okabe Rintaro. This is probably an early indicator that our unreliable narrator is not the perfect arsehole we think him to be.
You can expect the initial playthrough to come in at around 15-20 hours. That’s a whole lot of story, but there’s more. There are many different endings, one each for most of the main characters. You’ll need to repeat play to find them all and get the whole story. If you’ve got that kind of dedication you have enjoyed Steins; Gate exactly as the developers have intended and you’ll be well on your way to the platinum. Fellow Virtue’s Last Reward Platinum holders, I’ll see you on the other side. One tiny word of advice – don’t give up until you find the true ending. All the endings are terrific in their own way, but the true ending is something very special. It will answer questions you forgot you had and give you a mental breakdown along the way. Yep, even this very last section of story will totally screw with your mind. You’ve absolutely not understood Steins; Gate until you’ve found that elusive ultimate ending.
Lots of trophies to pop in this game. Forty-one plus the platinum. Some will be earned merely by playing and a nice little bunch can be earned by fiddling with your in-game mobile phone. Yeah, back to that phone. Your first playthrough will explain the principles of a timeline divergence. Once you begin searching for those alternate endings, your phone will transform from Interesting Doobrie that Pops up Now and Again to Essential World-Saving Indispensable Time-Changing Device. If you’re ever going to find that true ending, you’ll need to closely monitor all mobile phone activity. No action is too small for the Butterfly Effect. This essentially means that the “playing” part of this game really occurs after the first playthrough. So sit back and enjoy the story first time around. When you begin searching for the true ending, things get fast and frantic.
It is worth noting that Steins; Gate doesn’t have any puzzles. While that could be a tad disappointing at first, it will become apparent quite quickly that puzzles and challenges would only serve to interrupt the flow of this story. Look at it like this. Would you have been pleased if Tolkien put a word jumble and a spot the difference in the pivotal chapters of Lord of the Rings? I seriously doubt it. Steins; Gate is all about the story and to introduce anything that would disrupt it reeks of a bad idea. Besides, finding those endings is enough to satisfy any puzzling impulses.
Graphically, Steins; Gate is lovely. Nice anime style characters and painted backgrounds. A lot of the animation tends to repeat itself but depending on the route your timeline takes, you will discover additional scenes called CGs. These add extra reasons to keep playing and there are various trophies available for finding them. The excellent voice acting is in its original Japanese with English subtitles, and the gentleman who voices Okabe is particularly enthusiastic and comes across as a true nutcase. You can manually skip through the dialogue or if you want to give your poor little thumbs a rest you can set it to auto and relax. Steins; Gate is, I’m happy to report, compatible with PSTV and if there ever was a damn good use for that little gizmo it’s a game like this.
You’ll have plenty of save slots so don’t be afraid to use them abundantly and, best of all, you have a fast forward button. I love this game but I’m no masochist. I cannot and will not sit through twenty hours for every ending. Use the save points and the R button to fast forward to find the divergence points, but beware you don’t fly straight past new plot, dialogue and CGs. Luckily the fast forward will stop you when you get to critical timesplitting moments that need attention, such as a decision where you need to decide which character to phone or whether to phone anyone at all, but it won’t stop for every phone action. However if you’re familiar with any given section and wish to skip large chunks press the Start button to zoom through and automatically stop at each and every phone action. This function is fantastic if you’re trophy hunting or you know exactly which divergence point you’re looking for.
The Vita was made for indies and Japanese madness. Steins; Gate is a beautiful and memorable piece of madness that deserves awards for its storytelling. Every time I get scared that the Vita may one day fade from existence, something like this comes along and absolutely proves that not only is the Vita alive and feeling spiffy but it is also an essential tool to bring games like this to console users.
Steins; Gate is a long and deep story that thunders along at a cracking pace, delivering shocks and emotional punches. This is a puzzle-free visual novel and the first playthrough is best enjoyed with a cup of tea and your feet up. Once you’ve reached the first ending, the game is on. Use your in-game mobile phone to make seemingly innocent choices that will actually change the course of history, creating multiple timelines in your desperate search to save your friends and find the One True Ending. And believe me, you will not rest until that happens. Beautiful graphics, great story, catchy music and a big fat loot drop of trophies including an attainable platinum, Steins; Gate is as close to perfect as they get.
S J Hollis Rating – 10/10