Visual novels are an acquired taste. Heavily anime-based, and lacking in the kind of interactivity most gamers crave, they tend to please a certain subset of gaming culture without truly breaking out of stride. That was, until Steins;Gate arrived and pulled the genre up to new heights.
Amazingly, Steins;Gate 0 continues the stellar work of its predecessor by playing to its strengths and maintaining the delectable baited hook of asking ‘what if?’ once more. Yet its best trick is shifting the focus around between multiple characters.
The original Steins;Gate visual novel proved to be a class apart from others within its genre. The characters became endearing, the twisty-turny time travel plot kept you on the hook, and it was (and still is) just generally well-written. Steins;Gate 0 isn’t a direct continuation or prequel to the original, but rather it takes advantage of the timeline-hopping to bring us to a darker version of events.
Fan of the first Steins;Gate will remember protagonist and mad scientist, Rintaro Okabe, had made his way to the beta worldline having saved his own from the future nuclear war that will ravage the world. Here he is met by this worldline’s version of girl out of time, Suzuha. She wants Okabe to save the beta world from the same apocalyptic fate as the alpha line, and to do this he must once again try to do the one thing he desires most, yet knows is almost impossible, save Makise Kurisu, his true love, from being killed. Of course she does die, and sickeningly, by Okabe’s own hand.
This ends up with Okabe flat-out refusing to go through it again, despite the implications of his refusal. In this timeline, even the encouragement of his future self is not enough to sway him, and we’re left on the beta worldline with a bitter, heartbroken shell of a man instead of the arrogant, maniacal genius once dubbed ‘Hououin Kyouma.’ Most importantly, we find him without the time travel equipment he himself created, which he destroys in his quest to return to some kind of normalcy. It doesn’t appear to be working though as despite months passing, there’s no sign of the upbeat madman we once knew. Could a chance encounter change all that though? That’s where Steins;Gate 0 really starts, by answering that question.
The chance encounter itself is with a former colleague and friend of Kurisu called Maho. She’s a deceptively young-looking neuroscientist who lived in the shadow of Kurisu’s brilliance, and she still both resents and regrets the feelings she has for the now deceased woman. When Maho learns Okabe knew Kurisu (he doesn’t mention of course that he didn’t know this worldline’s version) during her stay in Japan, she asks him to become a tester on a project she had been working on with Kurisu. What she neglects to tell Okabe is that the project is that of a sophisticated A.I. and it just so happens to use the brain data of one Makise Kurisu, setting up a reunion with something resembling her, and with her personality and memories, that’s equal parts creepy and heartbreaking. It’s this odd reunion that will shape how and where your playthrough will take you.
Steins;Gate 0’s story branches into two different main paths that have their own further branches after that. Which path Okabe travels is determined by your interactions with the A.I. (dubbed Amadeus). Each time you make a decision involving the A.I. interaction, the worldline shifts somehow. You don’t see it, and it takes a second playthrough to really appreciate the differences, but it sets up quite the intriguing question regarding why things change at all.
Okabe’s life isn’t the only thing new with this worldline, his darkened demeanor has caused the personalities of several others in his life to alter as a result. Our girl out of time Suzuha also lacks the zip that personified her alpha counterpart thanks to Okabe’s refusal to comply with her world-saving mission. Here she kicks her heels, lecturing her future father and hoping against hope that one day Okabe will change his mind. You get to see the world through Suzuha’s eyes fairly frequently—one of several characters you’ll have this with beyond Okabe—and it’s disheartening to see her so abject because of her failure to complete her mission. Being stuck in the past is one thing, being stuck knowing what horror awaits the world in the years to come is enough to break her spirit.
Elsewhere Maho is profiled in a similar manner, and you get to go deep into her conflicting relationship with Kurisu, and her burgeoning one with Okabe. Despite her intelligence, she can’t seem to escape the lingering shadow of Kurisu, and she remains as bitter as she is saddened by her friend’s demise. She may be a new addition to the cast of familiar faces, but she fits right in, compensating a little for the lack of a real Kurisu, but having her own personality with it.
Beyond this lies many fascinating new looks at old characters. This may be a mainly established cast in name and appearance, but the beta worldline throws up new traits, and subsequently new information about the people we’ve come to know. Daru, for example, is much like he was through Steins;Gate, but burdened with the knowledge of who his future wife is, and co-existing with his future child Suzuha, he’s finding it difficult to step up to the pressures of fate, so he continues to live a slobbish, awkward life.
Mayuri’s story is probably the one that sees most striking progress in character development, with new details on her future that evolve into some heartbreaking scenes for the character. I won’t elaborate further because it’s important enough that spoiling it would deny you the investment it deserves. A more robust side to Mayuri is welcome because it doesn’t prevent her from having the meek, sweet personality of before, but rounds her out as a person far more effectively.
The game has multiple conclusions, though I’ve seen just two myself. What I have seen were satisfying end points that tied up stories in surprising and affecting ways. Front and center is Okabe’s journey, almost a reverse of the first game in many ways, and he becomes more empathetic than he ever was in the original, in part because the narrative load is shared between several characters this time round. Life seems to be out to torture him into becoming more selfless, and it’s what drives his story so effectively. Other threads wrap up with similar flourish, especially Mayuri’s as she further pulls away from the swirling vortex of Okabe’s presence and becomes a better character for it.
Steins;Gate 0 offers up a fine semi-sequel to Steins;Gate, taking fans to some interesting places outside the established story, whilst weaving familiar beats into it. A riveting, absorbing set of tales that grow the characters you know in new ways, it’s not necessarily better than its predecessor, but it is a great continuation of it. Some segments drag on a little longer than they should, and some clearly aren’t as interesting as others, but these are small complaints for a visual novel of such quality.