Steins;Gate 0 – No, Seriously, Don’t Invent Time Travel

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Steins;Gate

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When I finished playing Steins;Gate back in 2015, I found myself in that state of mind where, even though everything was neatly wrapped up, I was hungry for more from its world and characters. Even if it was an entire story just about the characters living their lives, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye yet. Fortunately, there was an anime adaptation to throw myself into and a movie that acted as an epilogue of sorts (both of which I loved). But then I found out that a full-on sequel was coming to Japan very soon and would be out in the West the following year… and I had no interest in playing it.

“But you just said you wanted more Steins;Gate!” you cry. True, but Steins;Gate 0 isn’t a sequel in the traditional sense, instead continuing the story in an alternate “bad” timeline. Considering how much I loved the first game’s ending, I was worried that the sequel could potentially undo how perfect it was. Plus, I didn’t want to see more bad things happen to the characters after they got their happy endings, so I skipped it.

Cut to 2018 and the anime adaptation began to air on Crunchyroll. I had an account at the time and when the first episode went up, I thought “Eh, why not? I’ll give it a shot.” And sure enough, I got completely sucked in. I’m not sure what it was but it did enough to make me see it through to the end, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But even I could tell that certain elements had been changed or removed in order to fit the narrative in an anime format (I even saw some comments complaining about how certain scenes were cut). Curious, I decided to play the game myself and go through the full unaltered experience of Steins;Gate 0 myself.

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Before we begin, though, we need to recap how the first game ended. Self-proclaimed mad scientist Okabe Rintaro and time-traveller from the future Amane Suzuha used the latter’s time machine to go back and prevent the death of teen genius Makise Kurisu, since it’s her death that will kick off a chain of events that will eventually result in World War 3. Unfortunately, they fail as Okabe accidentally kills Kurisu himself. They return to the present with only enough fuel to make one more attempt but Okabe is too distraught to try. However, thanks to a good slap round the face from his best friend Shiina Mayuri and a rousing video message from his future self, Okabe regains his determination and tries again. This time, he succeeds, opening the way to the Steins;Gate timeline where Kurisu lives, World War 3 never happens and everybody lives happily ever after.

So how does Steins;Gate 0 follow on from this? Well, it doesn’t. Like I said earlier, Steins;Gate 0 isn’t set in the same timeline as the first game and instead focuses on the future Okabe from that video message. This is the story of an Okabe who never had a future self to give him a much needed pep talk. This is the story of an Okabe who gave up, who ran away and tried to forget about everything he went through and just try and live a normal life until war inevitably breaks out.

But fate has other ideas as Okabe winds up meeting and befriending Hiyajo Maho, a colleague of Kurisu’s, who has been working on an AI called Amadeus – an AI based off of Kurisu’s memories. Unable to draw himself away from something that looks and acts exactly like the girl he loved, Okabe can’t help but be dragged back into a world of science and conspiracy, and he’s quickly forced to embrace the reality he’s chosen for himself and everyone he knows.

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This is a much darker tale compared to the first game. Sure, Steins;Gate had plenty of despairing moments and scenes, but they were mostly reserved for the second half; the first half was very lighthearted and full of “shenanigans.” And while Steins;Gate 0 isn’t without its moments of levity, they’re almost few and far between and always have a shadow hanging over them – something to remind you that most of the other characters are blissfully unaware of the horrors to come and those who do know are putting on a front, pretending that everything’s okay.

Despite this bleak narrative, though, it doesn’t become too overwhelming to the point where you become apathetic towards it. Those aforementioned bright spots are in just the right places to take your mind off things, and since you know that this game will ultimately lead to the first game’s ending, you know things are going to work out eventually. At the same time, though, that knowledge doesn’t undermine all the horrors that Okabe and his friends end up enduring. This story does matter and, if anything, it actually enhances the first game’s conclusion and shows how much work Okabe had to do in order to pull it off.

Speaking of Okabe, he is a complete husk of his former self in this game. The guy who would have fake conversations on his phone, laugh maniacally, and call himself Hououin Kyouma is gone. While he acts like a “normal” teenager now, studying for classes and attending after-school clubs and the like, he also comes across as perpetually tired, having traded his white lab coat for an all black ensemble. Even when he smiles or laughs, it always comes across as forced. Hell, the game more or less states that he suffers from PTSD and depression (he’s on medication and everything), and he occasionally has flashbacks to the moment he killed Kurisu, causing him to nearly throw up. And the few times we see his face, he almost looks like a walking corpse, somehow being paler and thinner than he usually is. It’s a sad and realistic depiction of his character.

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The rest of the returning cast aren’t that much different compared to how they appeared in the previous game, but they are enough noticeable changes. Daru, while still a bit obnoxious with his perverted tendencies, has actually begun to act a bit more seriously due to his future daughter coming back in time and he makes some genuine attempts to learn how to be a supportive father while also trying to help her despite Okabe’s insistence that they don’t meddle with time. And Mayuri, while chipper as ever, has a layer of underlying sadness to her as well. It’s clear that she knows how much Okabe is still hurting but he refuses to open up about it with her, meaning she can’t help him.

There’s a lot I could write about the returning characters (even though some of them have much smaller roles this time) but I need to also mention the new cast members. A part of me was worried that the new characters wouldn’t necessarily “fit” in this world – that they’d feel out of the place, which I think is always a risk when it comes to including new characters in a long established setting. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Maho is a great addition, having a pretty relatable backstory and characterisation, and it’s gripping and entertaining seeing how both her and Okabe get tangled up in each other’s worlds (though it is annoying how she winds up being included in Okabe’s “harem,” which is a subject I could rant about for an hour). Her boss, Leskinen, is also very entertaining in how friendly and overtly enthusiastic he is. It’s also kind of funny seeing what an American character written by Japanese writers is like.

Mayuri’s cosplay friends are… fine and unobtrusive, though they don’t feel like they add all that much to the proceedings, barring a few moments. Hell, Amane Yuki should’ve been interesting since she’s Daru’s future wife and mother to Suzuha, and while they are some mildly humorous antics involving the three, she’s a pretty bare-bones characters with a generic nice-girl personality. The most interesting of the new cast members, though, is arguably Kagari but I can’t really talk about her without getting into some massive spoilers. Let’s just say I found her whole story arc to be engrossing and pretty twisted, especially once I began to piece everything together from the multiple playthroughs.

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See, much like the first game, Steins;Gate 0 is a visual novel where the story diverges down different routes depending on the player’s choices. However, I think it does more with it than the first game did, where the only moments where you could change the story path were specific moments that immediately resulted in an alternate ending. Here, the six different endings aren’t as easy to reach and the key moments where you can make a change aren’t as telegraphed. They’re still relatively easy to figure out, though, as they usually involve deciding whether or not to answer a phone call or something similar, though I wouldn’t blame you for looking up a guide if you were struggling.

Fortunately, there are multiple save files to use, an auto-save feature that makes a new save file each time and a skip function that can fast-forward through any scenes you’ve experienced at least once, meaning it’s pretty easy to get back to these important moments when replaying for more endings. Funnily enough, the true ending is really easy to get this time around – I actually unlocked it before seeing two of the other endings – but I’d encourage you to try and unlock all six since some routes leave questions unanswered that end up being revealed in another one, like the identity of the mysterious, leather-clad biker woman, as opposed to the last game where only two of the endings actually mattered – the others simply changed who Okabe hooked up with.

You can also receive text messages from other characters for one-off side conversations that help further flesh out Okabe’s relationships and this is handled a lot better than the first game too since, rather than selecting a highlighted key-word and it generating a reply without any of the player’s input, you’re instead giving a small handful of possible replies, allowing you to decide how the conversation flows. They’re purely optional as well, unlike the first game where a very specific set of choices involving the texts was needed to reach the true ending.

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Another aspect I really like is that sometimes the perspective will jump from Okabe to another character, like Suzuha or Maho. Aside from allowing us to experience more of the story and world during scenes where Okabe isn’t around (meaning we don’t have to hear about the events later from a third-party), it also gives greater insight into these side characters. They’re told from a third-person perspective, unlike the rest of the game, but they still manage to explain what these characters are thinking and feeling. It’s these sections that make Maho as good of a character as she is, and one in particular involving Luka made me really appreciate him more as a character considering his role in the overall story is really minor.

If you were like me and were hesitant to give Steins;Gate 0 a look, I can happily reassure you that you’ll be more than satisfied with what it offers. It’s not without some faults that it unfortunately carries over from the first game (why do some people think girls being naked is inherently funny?) but as a weird continuation/alternate tale/prequel hybrid, it gets everything right. The story and characters undergo enough change for it to be engaging without sacrificing what made it endearing in the first place, and it retroactively improves the first game’s ending, which is just ingenious. To discuss it in any more detail would unfortunately veer into spoiler territory.

Between the anime and this game, I’m thrilled to have been dragged back into this series, and with there being a number of related projects in the works to celebrate its 10th anniversary, I’m now much more interested to see what exactly could be in store in the future. I ain’t inventing a time machine to find out, though.

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