Time travel is a power that you might think is cool at first, but eventually, you’ll realize how terrible it would really be. Altering one single moment can have an effect on someone’s life you would not have been able to predict. Even if it seems inconsequential at the time, you never know what something means in the greater picture. That’s one of the lessons learned in Steins;Gate Elite, an updated re-release of the original 2009 hit. Messing with the past is inherently dangerous, even more so in the hands of these amateurs.
Steins;Gate Elite centers around Okabe Rintaro, AKA Hououin Kyouma. The self-proclaimed mad scientist is the founder of the fledgling Future Gadget Laboratory, which has produced inventions as silly as its name. As you would expect from someone who willingly calls themselves mad, Okabe is a little off, so to speak. He constantly speaks of the Organization, a group out to kill him, is prone to fits of laughter, and repeatedly pretends to talk on the phone to a party that isn’t there. Despite the insanity and arrogance, however, he is smarter than he appears to be.
Rintaro is only Lab Member No. 001, though, of the Future Gadget Laboratory. His two closest allies, Shiina Mayuri and Hasida “Daru” Itaru, are members 002 and 003, respectively. Mayuri has known Okabe for years and is something of a little sister to him. Although a bit of an airhead, she still pulls her weight for the team, mostly through the purchasing of food. Daru handles the hacking for the FGL, but please don’t refer to him as a super hacker. He may be a total pervert, but his importance cannot be understated.
While the trio has several inventions under their belt, it’s the PhoneWave (Name Subject to Change) that ultimately kick starts Okabe’s time-traveling adventure. Essentially a phone connected to a microwave, the device accidentally has the byproduct of being able to alter time. It doesn’t produce your typical form of time travel, though. Instead, the machine lets a user alter time by sending an e-mail into the past. Along the same time this discovery is unearthed, Rintaro meets noted genius Makise Kurisu under less than ideal circumstances. Ultimately the two will put aside their differences in order to experiment with the PhoneWave (Name Subject to Change), but as mentioned, it’s never smart to mess with the flow of time.
Steins;Gate Elite is a visual novel, with a heavy emphasis on novel, if I do say so myself. Developer 5pb’s effort is a dense, sometimes exhausting tale full of both sci-fi intrigue and engaging banter. It’s not unheard of for other games to poorly explain just why the element of time travel is present (looking your way Life is Strange). So in a way, it’s nice that this title makes such an effort to explain things. Almost immediately, you’re thrown into discussions around the various theories surrounding time travel, and whether or not any of them are possible. These talks branch out into a multitude of topics, from message board time traveler John Titor to the Large Hadron Collider.
It’s not all scientific mumbo jumbo, however. The science behind Elite may push the story forward, but it’s the relationships between the members of the Future Gadget Laboratory that serve as the backbone. From Okabe and Makise’s combative personalities to Daru’s pining for cafe waitress Faris NyanNyan, it’s the character-driven bits that make the tale worth seeing through to the end. Each member of the main cast adds something special to the overall story, and even the more annoying figures become endearing the more time you spend in the world.
Coming in at close to 30 hours, Steins;Gate Elite is a long adventure, one that would possibly benefit from some trimming. You see, the downside to establishing scientific principles and character bonds is that the visual novel can get a little too wordy at times. Long discussions behind the theory of time travel, or scrolling through the in-game message board drag on for longer than I’d like at times. The slow pace of the story is really noticeable in the early hours. 5pb takes a long time to set-up plot threads and motivations that, while eventually paying off, are a little boring to deal with right from the get-go. It doesn’t help that Okabe is at his most obnoxious during these periods, which makes his endless monologuing a hassle to listen to.
Steins;Gate Elite is a visual novel through and through, which means that the gameplay element of the title is rather barebones. The title utilizes a streamlined version of the Phone Trigger system used in the original Steins;Gate. Whenever Okabe receives a new message, you’ll automatically be asked whether or not to respond to it. Certain keywords in each text are highlighted for you to choose, and it’s important to think about your decision, even if it seems inconsequential. Once the PhoneWave (Name Subject to Change)’s time-altering feature is discovered, though, the messages Rintaro can send get more and more important. The title isn’t shy about letting you know when one of these major pivot points arrives, as the on-screen visuals clue you in on it.
The changes made to the Phone Trigger system were definitely welcome, but the obvious big change from the original Steins;Gate to Elite is the use of animated footage. Sourcing animation from the animated series based on the game, the new cutscenes are great at keeping you invested in the wordier parts of the story. Even if your eyes begin to glaze over, there’s usually something on-screen that can hold your attention. The animation, in general, looks great, but I do think the title lost a little bit of charm from ditching the art from the original release. I would call it less of an upgrade, and more of an alternative to the presentation of the Future Gadget Laboratory’s tale.
It may not have needed the fresh coat of paint, but Steins;Gate Elite might be the best way to experience the classic visual novel. Even if I wasn’t super crazy about them, the use of animated cutscenes here is excellent, and really helps move the title along during it’s slower moments. And once you get past those lagging moments, you’re thrust into an intricately designed world with an abundance of heart, intrigue, and intellect. If you’re new to the visual novel genre, there’s no better place to start than 5pb’s tale of time travel run amok.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Spike Chunsoft.
Although Steins;Gate Elite has a tendency to get lost in the minutiae, this updated release is perhaps the best way to experience 5pb's kinetic visual novel.