The Visual Novel genre seems to have found its home on the PlayStation Vita in recent years, with titles such as Danganronpa, XBlaze and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward enjoying success on the handheld.
For the uninitiated, Visual Novels are interactive stories that tend to sacrifice gameplay in favour of anime-style art and brilliant narratives. Some of the titles mentioned above do add puzzles or other gameplay elements, but you will find that Steins;Gate avoids these to deliver one of the best stories I have seen in a video game.
A tale of teenagers and time travel, you are the self-proclaimed mad-scientist Okabe Rintarō – the founder of the Future Gadget Laboratory. The Headquarters for this operation is in a spare room above a TV repair shop in Akihabara. Okabe has enlisted his friends, the ditzy Mayuri Shiina (Mayushii) and ‘Super Hacka’ Itaru “Daru” Hashida, as Lab Members to aide him as he attempts to make ‘Future Gadgets’ – which often turn out to be pretty lacklustre.
The story begins when, after a conference at Radi-Kan, Okabe finds famous teen scientist Kurisu Makise face-down in a pool of blood. Shocked at what he has seen, Okabe flees the building and sends an e-mail to Daru telling him of the events that have unfolded. This e-mail causes a major change in the world, with Daru receiving the mail seven days before Okabe sent it.
The latest of Okabe’s Future Gadgets, the PhoneWave (name subject to change), is the cause of this time-travelling e-mail. A microwave with a phone attached, the PhoneWave was built to allow the Lab Members to set the microwave remotely, so that when they return to the lab their food would be ready and waiting. This machine unintentionally happens to allow users to send e-mails to the past, thus being able to change the future.
This is the start of what becomes a gripping story of these teenagers racing to be the first people to successfully build a machine capable of time-travel. Each of the characters that you meet along the way are brilliant additions to the story, and at times, outshine the insecure, oft-arrogant, Okabe.
Steins;Gate does start off a little slow, but as you make your way through the game’s chapters and realise there is a lot more to the story than the time travel theme that features heavily you will find yourself become addicted to finding out what is to become of the game’s multi-layered characters.
In true visual novel style, the story in Steins;Gate is text-based – so prepare to read through thousands of lines as you make your way to the game’s thrilling climax. Accompanying the text is a brilliant soundtrack that changes depending on which character you are conversing with and fits the mood of the game perfectly. The characters are brought to life via an amazing Japanese language voiceover – with each role played to perfection by the respective voice actors.
The lengths that developer 5pb have gone to to make Steins;Gate accessible to all those that play it is quite commendable. With all of the science behind the story and the constant nods to popular culture (both Eastern and Western), a glossary has been included to help with some of the words that you may be not so familiar with. I thought this was a great addition to the game, and found myself learning quite a bit whilst playing through the story.
Steins;Gate, like other games in the genre, has multiple endings for you to work towards. The ending that you get is dependent on the choices that you make as you progress through each of the game’s chapters. These choices are presented to you are known as ‘Phone Triggers’, where your decision on how to respond to an e-mail, whether to answer or reject a phone call or whether to send a D-Mail (the time travelling e-mails are named these, with the D standing for DeLorean in a nod to Back to the Future). All of your choices will affect the future, with the Butterfly Effect being one of the many scientific theories that are prevalent in the game.
Making these choices is pretty simple, your phone can be accessed almost all the time during the story. You will see a display in the top left of the screen that acts as the front screen of Okabe’s mobile phone and this will alert you to any incoming calls or new e-mails that you receive. A quick press of the triangle button will display the phone on the screen, and here you can read your e-mails and choose how you would like to reply to them. When you receive an e-mail that you can reply to, you will notice that two to three keywords in a mail are highlighted blue. These words serve as the choices you can make in the game and selecting one of them will alter the response you send, ultimately altering future events.
It is testament to the brilliance of Steins;Gate when a game with minimal interaction and a lack of ‘gameplay’ had me hooked to my Vita for over a week. Your first playthrough of Steins;Gate will last in the region of 20-25 hours, and if you want to go for all the endings you can look at about 40 hours in total. I found myself looking forward to getting home every night so I could get back into the wonderful wit and humour that features in the strong narrative – often playing until the battery died on my Vita.
Steins;Gate is arguably one of the best games in the Visual Novel genre, and definitely up there as one of the best games on the PlayStation Vita. Days after completing the game I still have bits of the story running through my head, from little catchphrases like Mayushii’s chirpy, song-like ‘tutturū’ that she says when greeting people to Okabe’s megalomaniac monologues that often end up with him talking into his phone like he is on some secret mission. The lack of gameplay and the amount of reading that is involved will mean that some people will not be fans of this game, but Steins;Gate definitely has left me wanting more and I feel that any person that enjoys a good story will find this game extremely enjoyable.
For a game about time-travel, it sure has taken a while for Steins;Gate to reach Western shores. All is now forgiven though, as the thrilling twists, fantastic characters and the eccentric humour make the wait worthwhile. Steins;Gate now has me wishing that I could time leap back to the day I started the game, just so that I can experience it over and over again!