Released on seemingly every conceivable platform over the last decade, Steins;Gate has long been considered the standard bearer for the visual novel genre. While a popular medium in Japan, it’s one that hasn’t gained a lot of traction elsewhere and may leave western audiences perplexed. For the uninitiated, a visual novel is essentially an audio book accompanied by still images, music and voice acting with minimal player interaction.
While Steins;Gate Elite, available now on Nintendo Switch and PS4, retains most of that formula, the still images have been replaced by footage from the 2011 anime adaption — along with some animation created exclusively for the game to account for differences between the source material and the anime. This makes for a much more dynamic and visually interesting experience, even if you’ll still spend plenty of time reading information in front of paused images.
As for the actual story, Steins;Gate is told from the perspective of Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed mad scientist, bent on plunging the world into chaos. In truth, however, his character possesses a greater flair for the dramatic than for science. He and his fellow lab members, Daru, a walking otaku stereotype, and Mayuri Shiina, an airheaded but sweet girl, embark on a sometimes epic, often silly adventure to unlock the secret of time travel.
As with most visual novels, Steins;Gate has only a few key points that require user input. These moments can completely alter the outcome of the story, however, so you’ll want to choose wisely. Rintaro will receive emails and phone calls from a variety of characters over the course of the story, and it is up to the player to decide whether or not to respond to them.
Accessing the “true” ending requires a specific combination of responses and ignores, so finding it can be tricky. Considering that the story can take up to 40 hours to finish, finding every ending can turn into a monumental task. Determining which calls and emails produce the desired effect is also tricky because of the sheer volume of correspondence.
Easily the most intriguing parts of the story deal with the various theories of time travel, all of which stem from real life. The characters provide in-depth explanations of several of the most widely accepted theories, including a few more obscure ones.
The real world tie-ins don’t end there, either. A prominent character, John Titor, is also the subject of an urban legend. Titor plays a similar role here as he does in the legend, so time travel enthusiasts may recognize him from Internet forums circa 2000. Numerous actual products make appearances as well, some of which border on product placement, such as Rintaro’s love for “Dr. P” soda or the “IBN” computer company.
One of the more unusual themes in Steins;Gate is the juxtaposition of deadly serious, mature content, with utterly silly humour. Both moods jar the player out of the current situation, which, depending on your perspective, may or may not be a good thing.
The silliness tends to distract from the more philosophical conversations, as the humour often leads to lengthy tangents, resulting in characters forgetting their original intent. This also hampers the pacing, since the extended humour scenes typically end up feeling like filler. Maybe the humour is geared toward a Japanese audience, but only a handful of the many jokes hit the mark for us.
Steins;Gate features tons of unusual vocabulary, ranging from obscure scientific terms to Japanese words. To help with this, the developers included a “Tips” section in the menu to find definitions for tougher words and phrases. If you didn’t pay much attention in science class or are unfamiliar with Japanese culture, this list will come in handy.
Although Elite does add a more pleasing aesthetic, the game is still exclusively in Japanese with English subtitles (read: no dub). The Japanese voice actors perform consistently well, but it’s still unfortunate that it’s the only language available. Each actor speaks with plenty of nuance and emotion, though, and Rintaro’s mad scientist laugh only gets funnier with time.
If you haven’t experienced a visual novel before, Steins;Gate Elite is a great starting point. Its complex scientific and philosophical questions merit some thought, even if the slow pacing caused by comedic distractions proves less effective.