By Drew Hurley 02.01.2017
Without doubt Steins;Gate is one of the greatest visual novels of all time, and even the anime adaptation showed its absolutely amazing story. Smart and enthralling, it is a truly original, memorable, and unique time-travelling tale. That said, it felt like the story was complete, which is worrisome since often extraneous sequels are produced just because a game was popular and made enough money. Surely 5pb knows better, though? They wouldn't just make a tacked-on sequel, right? They must have a story worth telling here?
Because of Steins;Gate's focus on time-travel and the way this sequel is designed, it is not worth discussing picking up Steins;Gate 0 without playing the original first. Yes, there are the usual exposition-rich moments that cover many of the events of the first entry, but this is a complex tale, with many layers and many subtle nuances that need to be experienced first-hand. Not to mention it deserves to be played, because it's damned magnificent. Suitably, it's also not a good idea to read this review without playing the original, so spoiler alert: the time-travel aspect means this review will be filled with spoilers.
The original Steins;Gate saw an eccentric chuunibyou scientist named Rintarou Okabe (though back then he'd prefer to be called Hououin Kyouma, member 001 of the Future Gadget Laboratory), who accidently created a time machine with his microwave and had to deal with the repercussions. Paradoxes, changing the universe's timeline, other time travellers, and an evil organisation called SERN who planned to take Okabe's device were all obstacles Okabe had to face and overcome.
This new story will instantly confuse many members of the audience, as it seemingly continues after the "Kurisu" ending, or the "beta" timeline, where Okabe has abandoned his Hououin delusions and any hopes to change the future. After losing his Christina, he's a broken man after losing Christina; fate used him as its device and placed her death at his feet. In this timeline, he destroyed his time machine and has accepted his fate. There is much more that meets the eye here though, as this is not really just a sequel but also a side story, and to some extent a prequel to the "Steins;Gate" ending of the first game.
Kicking off when Okabe has tracked down Kurisu's best friend, a young-looking girl named Maho, who has invited Okabe to test her latest AI. The project is called Amadeus, and the AI is based on Kurisu—it has her looks, her voice, her personality, and even her memories. Like the original, the gameplay is based around making dialogue choices with Okabe's phone. This time the choices are made during conversations with Amadeus, and each reply (or lack thereof) causes the worldline to shift to a new branch. There are multiple endings to acquire, and the story branches massively from the very first chapter. Each branch has a few endings, and while the only way to see the true ending is to complete both paths, it's definitely worth experiencing them all.
The first game stood out so much because of the strength of its story and, just like the original, the story here is marvellous. It is rich and complex, and while tonally it feels darker, with a serious and at times bleak narrative, it still manages to include genuinely hilarious and touching moments. Watching this group of friends come together after a great loss and try to lift spirits for Christmas and New Years are particular highlights, and the writing conveys very real friendships and natural dialogue. Amadeus is the core of narrative, but there are many other elements that each plays a role in making this such a special story. It takes the time travel aspects, like the multiple worldlines, paradoxes, and time travellers, and then combines them with conspiracies, betrayals, and fantastic characters for a truly memorable tale.
The alternate worldlines of the series are very noticeable here—after all, this is the "beta" worldline and so not everything seen in the first game still holds true here. The beloved and memorable cast from the first game fully returns, even Kurisu as Amadeus, but the familiar faces may not be quite as players remember them. Okabe isn't affected by this yet is still in for the biggest change; his new dour and broken persona was only glimpsed occasionally through the internal monologues of Steins;Gate. Watching him move out of this slump and grow is great, and will make fans love the character even more. Daru is still the pervert that he has always been, but now is attempting to grow up and accept his future as a married man and father, while his time traveling daughter Suzuha has grown cold towards Okabe since he refused to change the future, but at least her time-travelling companion has shown up!
Each of the characters is slightly different, but they are still just as strong ever, while the writing and the voice actors' performances are absolutely top tier. It's hard to say much about them without unnecessary spoilers, but Maho especially is a breakout star and a worthy stand-in for Kurisu, and elsewhere the other time traveller, Kurisu's mentor, and Daru's future wife all keep to the same high-quality standard fans have come to expect.
Without doubt, this is a must-play for fans of the series, managing to be a perfect accompaniment and semi-sequel to the original. Though the first game indisputably felt like a complete tale, Steins;Gate 0 nonetheless feels like an essential part of that story, and is so integrated with the original that it mostly feels like the whole story is finally being told. The voice actors' performances, the stunning art, and the superb soundtrack all combine for a final product that is absolutely top tier. Every aspect of this game is polished to perfection. Again, this is, regardless of medium, one of the finest time travel stories that has yet been told.