The visual novel is an interesting style of game – an ostensibly Japanese curio that’s increasingly gaining traction in the mainstream (that is to say, outside of the hardcore JRPG/anime audience). The terribly stylised Steins;Gate is a prime example of this – offering up enough of the genre’s bizarre storytelling whilst being accessible to anyone that isn’t really too au fait with the associated anime series, or visual novels in general.
You are Rintaro Okabe, a would-be mad scientist. This character deconstructs the archetype for the better; Rintaro Okabe isn’t a wackily outrageous Back To The Future Doc or Krieger from Archer. He’s more of a man that’s been driven insane by time-travel and schizophrenia, a man so brilliant he reminds us of Rick And Morty’s titular professor more than any other genre rival. He can identify changes in the many timelines he jumps through, and using a microwave that can send messages back in time (yes, you read that correctly), he and his ragtag crew attempt to alter the future.
Now, this is an incredibly smart way for the visual novel to operate – it’s reminiscent of the old Fighting Fantasy/Goosebumps books of the early Nineties: you choose your own ending. Well, in a way. Because of the intricate temporal set-up of the story, your actions influence just about everything around you, and because most of the game is presented as a wall of text with supporting interactive artwork, the game can take you a lot further out of its main story than you’d expect.
All in all, the story becomes a pretty heavy lesson in causality, touching on philosophical themes outlined by the likes of Heidegger or Schrödinger. Deny a phone call from a past version of one of your friends trying to help you out, and it could affect anything – from the ‘you’ of your timeline to the entire dimension you find yourself in at the time. It’s all the best bits of Danganronpa but with a story concerned more with the butterfly effect than with detective mysteries.
It’s slow, though, we can’t deny that – the term visual novel is key here; it’s not a visual novella or something. That, and the Japanese-only voice acting might deter some (and the many typos…) but it’s a genuinely interesting story to try and wrap your head around, and a perfect game for the Vita, to boot. Even if you’re not a fan of the sort of Japanese games that take their stories too seriously, we still recommend Steins;Gate. It’s a curious entry that couples great art with a smart and self-aware approach to sci-fi narrative – that in itself is something to be celebrated in gaming, right?