Imagine if we managed to create a working time machine? How long before the future, past, and present were altered irrevocably – and would it be fun and games or trauma and death? Steins;Gate was a massively acclaimed visual novel developed by 5pb. and Nitroplus back in 2009 telling of humanity's first time-travelling misadventures.
Steins;Gate 0 is weirdly both a sequel and also a concurrent experience to the original Steins;Gate, which this time explores another set of multiple plots thanks to the use of time travel dynamic. We say "game" but this is actually better described as an interactive movie-cum-novel, where you won't need to master any complex controls – mostly just tapping a button to advance the text dialogue subtitles or choose a response on your in-game mobile phone.
Don't let the simplicity of the set up or controls put you off, though: the 'RINE' app which is how you get to send and receive messages to and from the characters of Steins;Gate 0 on your virtual smartphone is the key to unlocking a huge engaging mystery that will suck you in and leave you emotionally drained.
Caution: describing the story of this game is spoiler-tastic for those who haven't played the first so skip this paragraph if you're planning to start with Steins;Gate before tackling this one. The plot(s) of Steins;Gate 0 see you dealing with the traumatic aftermath of the death of 18-year-old genius Kurisu Makise, who you (Rintaro) failed to save. Broken and disillusioned that there is any way to stop the "world line convergence", you vow to give up on time travel. The Rintaro Okabe you control in this "Beta time line" is a mess – just waiting for the inevitable global destruction he has foreseen. But before you can say "what about the Alpha time line?" you're back up to your neck in time travel plot strands which see you delving into the research of Kurisu, which include a cutting edge artificial intelligence called Amadeus. When you meet a neuroscientist by the name of Maho who worked alongside Kurisu in order to develop Amadeus, things start to get more confusing. Amadeus you see acts like an A.I. copy of Kurisu. Still with us? Well, this is just the beginning, and it's probably better if you find out the plot(s) for yourself from here.
"Playing" Steins;Gate 0 might simply be an exercise in reading and button pressing, but it's when you choose a RINE response that the timelines split, which will alter the story and the ending. There are several endings you can access through your actions, so if you get into the characters and the high-tech mystery they are caught up in, you'll find yourself wanting to experience the different time lines for yourself.
It is really worth saving at the points where responses are required so that if you manage to balls up the entire world by annoying Amadeus, you can hop back and pick a different one which will set you on another path. This kind of playthrough is ironically like having your own time machine in order to correct negative timeline fluctuations.
The good news is that Steins;Gate 0 continues the high quality levels of the original in terms of having well-written characters that you'll definitely want to engage with – be that in a love or hate fashion – and an art style which is absolutely gorgeous. Some of the minimally animated shots are just epic to behold, and many screenshots would work as superb pieces of art for fans to hang on their walls.
The soundtrack is strong, too, with Exorcist-like strings and jingles which never overpower the visuals but do a good job of putting you on edge at key moments. There is a wealth of thinking packed into the game plot as well, so it's highly likely that if you take this head trip you'll come out the other side considering both advanced scientific concepts and moral dilemmas.
If there are any negatives to note then the main one is probably just the general lack of interactivity. There are some huge sections where it's a read-'em-up only, so just be aware of this before going in. The glacial speed of the auto advance means that you might be tempted to fast forward through some of the scientific lectures, but to do so will massively weaken the experience, as we found after trying it that we'd completely lost the plot after one skip forward.
Steins;Gate 0 is essential for fans of the original and a fascinating experience for newcomers. A great continuation of the classic virtual novel and anime world, it's not a format for everyone, but if you have the patience for leisurely paced sci-fi, then this is a worthy investment.