If you’ve ever wanted to mess with the world’s delicate power balance, all you need are two phones, a microwave, a 42″ CRT television, and a lot of Dr. Pepper.
Mad scientist Hououin Kyouma (formally known as Okabe Rintarou), super hacker Daru, and cosplay aficionado Mayuri constitute the members of the Future Gadget Laboratory, a lax group that spend their days creating inane devices, visiting maid cafes, and lounging around their lab. As an act of serendipity, they accidentally invent an unusual gadget that functions differently than expected – a jerry-rigged microwave/phone combination that can somehow send text messages to the past.
While working to understand exactly how the “Phone Microwave” works, they become tied up in an unthinkable conspiracy – Okabe’s delusions of a power-hungry “Organization” turn out to be closer to the truth than any of them could have imagined.
This is one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve ever experienced. While the story’s first half is rather slow with setting everything up and bringing all of the characters into play, it eventually goes full throttle and doesn’t let go until the ending. Speaking of the ending, there are six distinct conclusions to the story. The true ending, which was adapted for the anime, is an extremely rewarding conclusion after five bittersweet “failures” that require significant sacrifices. While the first five branch off for individual heroines, the true ending takes the story even further, wrapping everything up succinctly and satisfyingly.
As this is a sci-fi visual novel, there are plenty of realistic and not so realistic ideas worked into the story. Plenty of the bases of the story are grounded in fact (or supposed fact according to John Titor); however, even the ideas that are clearly fictional are worked in to the story and contemporary setting very well. It’s sort of like element zero in Mass Effect – if you accept element zero as existing, its capabilities make perfect sense and seem realistic in-universe.
Expanding on this, the visual novel does a much better job of explaining how things work than the anime. Many very important details are omitted from the anime or simply not explained as well – two examples are everything involving John Titor and Kurisu’s lecture on the legitimacy of time travel, both of which play a large role in setting everything up.
Along with the whole sci-fi shebang are the loads of references to both fact and fiction, such as H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s “Za Warudo!”, and Back to the Future’s 1.21 jigowatts. The visual novel includes a glossary that mentions the sources of various references, whether they’re technological details, relevant to Akihabara culture (moe, otaku, maid cafes, etc), or simply Okabe’s bizarre chuunibyou (read: adolescent delusions) vocabulary – the glossary is a great addition for those who aren’t familiar with most of the references.
As far as “playing” the VN goes, one of the main mechanics is how you use Okabe’s phone. Rather than simply making binary choices from time to time, the phone allows Okabe to communicate with other characters, shifting him towards specific routes based on his text responses. When and how you respond to messages can also impact how things happen – for example, in the middle of a conversation with Kurisu, Okabe can either respond to a message or ignore it temporarily. If the player chooses to respond, Kurisu will comment on how Okabe feels the message is more important than what she’s saying, and it can impact how the rest of the story plays out.
One of the most memorable parts of this VN (and certainly the anime as well) is the voice-acting. Between Okabe’s over-the-top mad scientist laughter, Kurisu’s semi-tsundere retorts, Daru’s perverted otaku nature, and the rest of the cast’s strange but well-executed personalities, it’s stellar all around. The unique visual style is also a big plus. While some of the character sprites can look a bit awkward at first, the CGs always look great.
Unfortunately, the Organization has influenced the translation of the VN, trying to paint Okabe as a villain through subtle changes. As an early example, Okabe says, “Kiku na. Sore ga Mayuri no tame de mo aru.” (聞くな。それがまゆりのためでもある。), which literally means “Don’t listen. For your own sake” (please pretend that is a 100% accurate translation). What they translated it as for the VN?
I’m not normally one of those people who search for every minor leniency in translation, but when there’s a discrepancy that even I can notice, there’s an obvious conspiracy afoot. And with this example in particular, the nuance of Mayuri’s response changes based on what translation you go with. If the correct one, she then thanks Okabe for trying to keep her safe. If the incorrect one, she thanks Okabe for threatening her, making it seem like she’s being sarcastic or something (which she’s not). The Organization has tried to sew in an unsettling relationship between the two characters to influence the readers.
Besides the general translation of the VN, the Organization has also targeted me specifically, somehow causing my laptop to have issues running the program.
As you can probably see, there’s a pretty big issue with this image (you can click to see it at its full size) – all of the text looks awful and the rest of the visuals, while not as noticeably, also look like crap. This happens whenever I run the VN in windowed mode, which is what I default to so that everything’s in the native resolution. While this seems to be a very rare issue (I couldn’t find any info on similar issues online), it’s still very disappointing. It forced me to run the VN in fullscreen mode, which still isn’t perfect but is at least readable.
As a more universal problem, the menu and general user interface are set up in a really annoying manner. If you drag your mouse to the right side of the screen, Okabe’s phone is brought up. If you instinctively click away from the phone to close it, you actually open up its menu – you need to right-click or hit backspace to put away the phone. There are also no quick-save, load, auto, etc. options on screen at all times. You need to use the oddly slow main menu or keyboard shortcuts to trigger these.
Technical issues aside, this VN is still worth every second. The story is excellent, the characters are memorable and have top-tier voice-acting, it looks great, and it’s a fun and interesting experience from beginning to end. The anime is one of my favorites, but the VN is still better. Easily.
El psy congroo.
+ Great sci-fi story
+ Unique art style
+ Six very different endings
+ I AM MAD SCIENTIST Dr. Pepper simulator 2014
+ Fantastic voice-acting
+ Better than the anime
± Some side characters don’t feel very important
± Rare technical issues
± Dense with technical terms in the first few hours
Read time – About 30 hours
Price – Around $30 (US) for either a physical or digital copy from JAST USA.
Recommendation – If you’re new to the series, pick whichever medium is more appealing to you – the visual novel or the anime. If you’ve already enjoyed the Steins;Gate anime, read the VN for the full experience and alternate endings – the VN does a much better job of explaining all of the intricacies of the story.
Also, Steins;Gate is loosely a part of the “Science Adventure” series which includes the VNs Chaos;Head, Robotics;Notes, and the upcoming Chaos;Child. While branching out into the other works is optional, it’s interesting to see what other sci-fi shenanigans take place in the same universe, even if Steins;Gate is the clear peak.
Many bottles of Dr. Pepper were enjoyed during the production of this post.