Steins;Gate is the best visual novel I've ever played.
Read. Experienced. Whatever. It's easy to get hung up on the parlance seeing as visual novels blur the line between books and videogames, reader and player, but it's also completely moot. Not only is Steins;Gate the best visual novel I've ever reviewed (sorry, Danganronpa), but this time-travelling course-correcting masterpiece is almost certainly the finest example of the genre to have ever released.
We already knew that when the PC translation released last year and now Steins;Gate has launched on PlayStation platforms. Does it still hold up? Can it still pack a punch?
You've read the strapline and this review is already shamefully late, so let's drop the pretence and discuss exactly why Steins;Gate is one of the truly essential games of 2015.
Like any great novel, much rests on the plot, which is utterly superb. Steins;Gate hinges around a group of close friends based in Tokyo's eclectic Akihabara district, who have a penchant for all things otaku and a flair for science. Incredibly they manage to modify their microwave into a device that can send emails back through time, which in turn brings them into confrontation with a well-funded rival organisation but more importantly allows them to change the past. Okabe "Okarin" Rintaro, the young de facto leader of the outfit, is the only one who knows when timelines or fate has been altered and narrates the unravelling events over the course of roughly 25 hours.
Things start slow to introduce the cast, but what follows is an uncompromising and utterly brilliant branching plotline that's rooted in plausible science and pulls no punches. There are no paradoxes or weird logical inconsistencies despite its deepening and increasingly complex premise, while an in-game glossary makes light work of any jargon you might have issues with. Twists and turns abound, while big powerful themes of fate, predestination, trauma, love and death turn what could have been a very dry ordeal into a captivating human story. Sensational writing, excellent natural localisation and great Japanese voice acting seals the deal.
I'm loathe to give much more away to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that the deeper you get, the more it makes you think and and more it makes you feel. Just to spice things up, it's often unclear whether Okarin can be taken at face value or whether his inflated ego is making him exaggerate his own importance. The unreliable narrator gambit is one of my favourite narrative devices and will keep you guessing throughout.
So you could experience the story via the anime series (that follows the "true" ending and is currently on UK Netflix), but doing so would rob you of gaming's most fundamental draw: interactivity and choice.
You (as Okarin) drive the game's events by deciding what to send back through time, who to, or even whether to send anything at all. Your actions or inactions then ripple through the storyline in unpredictable ways and lead to serious consequences when it comes to the close. There's one true ending but plenty of bad or merely average ones as the plot diverges, often with utterly heartbreaking moments that can see horrible things visited on your friends depending on what flags you've raised.
Making whatever happens your fault, even indirectly. This level of extra consequence, of agency and responsibility, makes Steins;Gate so much more effective and emotional than a book or TV series as you've got a real stake in it.
All told, it's utterly magnificent, engrossing and engaging, though it would be absolutely nothing were it not for the sensational cast of characters.
From Okarin's seemingly carefree childhood friend Mayuri Shiina to the besotted hacker Itaru Hashida and deceptively feminine and insecure lad Luka Urishibara, Steins;Gate presents a fantastic cast who continually reveal hidden depths and complexities that belie their seemingly stereotypical first impressions. You'll grow to know them, you'll grow to love them, and what happens to them helps drive every plot point and twist home even further. Whether it's joyful or deeply tragic.
There's a little fanservice to keep you keen in terms of the artwork, but it's tasteful, contextual and crucially Steins;Gate doesn't lean on it as a crutch. So many games do, for better and usually worse, but Steins;Gate shows restraint and class throughout. To be clear, I like to be serviced when I'm a fan of something, but it never compromises the storyline and characters for the sake of cheap thrills.
Though capable on PS3, I'd wholeheartedly suggest buying Steins;Gate on PS Vita instead. Sony's handheld is a perfect platform for visual novels thanks to its portability, touchscreen and impressive suspend functionality that lets you pick up where you left off even if the battery dies. More importantly, though, its vibrant screen compliments the gorgeous artwork perfectly, picking out the fine detail and colours.
To be perfectly honest I struggled to find any issues worth mentioning. The artwork is gorgeous, the localisation is exceptional and there are plenty of convenient features built in such as the at-a-glance glossary, quicksaves and manual saves for you to experiment with the different endings. The only occasional annoyance is that contractions or hyphenated words are sometimes split across two lines, which can be a pain but hardly warrants the words I've already given it. The lack of English voice acting is also worth noting, but considering the quality of the Japanese dub and the extraordinary amount of text involved, this is an understandable omission.
In other words it's a perfect example of the genre and a game I'd recommend without hesitation. We have a very special number for that. As one of my last reviews for Dealspwn, and in this industry, I'm thrilled to go out on a high.
- Sensational plot makes no compromises, pulls no punches
- 'Phone Trigger' system gives you real choices with huge consequences
- Beautifully-realised characters
- Gorgeous artwork, excellent writing and localisation
- Slow start, lots of scientific, internet & otaku jargon (explained by glossary)
- Occasionally splits contractions onto two lines. It
- 's annoying. See?
The Short Version: The definitive version of a true modern classic. Steins;Gate presents a truly captivating and uncompromising storyline with exquisite characters, powerful themes and often heartbreaking choices to make. It's a beautiful, essential thing.
Making poor choices is easy when you have the power to change the past, but here in the present, make the right choice and buy this astonishing piece of software.
10 - ASTOUNDING: As close to gaming perfection as possible. The rarest of rare, these should be games that not only look, feel and play better than 99.9% of everything else out there, but bring something new to the table, pushing gaming itself forward. These are fundamentally must-own titles for anyone with an interest in gaming, regardless of genre, with the highest quality in terms of design, gameplay and vision.
Developer: MAGES | 5pb. | Science Adventure Team