Dammit Steins;Gate, look what you did! I haven’t played one of your games in over two years and I’m crying after two hours. I couldn’t help it. Visual novel Steins;Gate Linear Bounded Phenogram is like spending time with an old friend. It’s just so natural to laugh along with all the jokes and share in moments of pain.
Instead of a prequel or sequel we’re going sideways, as Linear Bounded Phenogram takes place during the Steins;Gate story. Basically, a way of giving fans an inside scoop on what could have happened to characters around the original plotline. Don’t worry, things are made clear as you play, and you’ll be fine as long as you’ve read Steins;Gate. If not, well, good luck.
We jump straight into some classic Hououin Kyouma antics. He’s using the time machine to dress as an alpaca to turn himself into the Alpaca Man of justice. I mean, did you expect anything less? There’s some great humor here that helps to naturally slip back into the world. Yet, as is to be expected with this series, the tone soon shifts and things become pretty heart-breaking.
Right when things get interesting, the story ends. You see, Linear Bounded Phenogram isn’t one long story, but a collection of tales. On the one hand, this allows for an interesting look at ‘what if’ scenarios across different worldlines. However, a number do suffer from slow pacing. I suppose it’s an issue you’re bound to face when each story is only around 2 hours long. A lot of time ends up lost in setup, only for things to wrap up after a brief payoff.
Ultimately, my attention focused less on the stories themselves and more on who was telling them. Linear Bounded Phenogram finally allows other members of The Future Gadget Laboratory to speak, giving each one their own story. In the past, Okabe Rintaro always got the limelight. Everything I knew came directly from his commentary. Now think about Suzuha’s war zone of a past, or how precious Akihabara is to Faris. Of course, these hugely varying backgrounds result in very different priorities and world views.
In other words, what’s happening is important, but the really interesting bit is just spending time inside people’s heads. A lot of effort has gone into staying true to each character’s way of speaking, and their previous characterization. I love seeing how Daru’s nerdy chatter and proud ‘gentleman perv’ status translates for his inner thoughts. Half the inappropriate questions he comes up with are blurted out in moments of panic, bless him. I also found new respect and empathy for characters like Luka, who used to annoy me. A classic ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ situation. I kinda want to go back and re-play the original with all this new knowledge in mind.
The stories themselves, encapsulate an important moment of realization for that character. These are all pretty deep, from learning how to trust others, to sacrificing personal happiness for a friend. Take Kurisu’s story, which takes place during the height of Okabe’s despair. She finds herself battling a lot of inner demons, while desperately searching for a way to save him. This plot also cleverly links into a section of Steins;Gate, giving a whole new layer of meaning to that moment.
Luckily all the usual banter between the gang makes for some well-needed laughter breaks. Mr. Brawn’s tale is particularly great at this. After winning the lottery he searches for a way of using the money for his daughter’s happiness. Naturally, wires get crossed, D-mails come into play, and the whole thing is just very sweet and heart-warming. While not all the stories have the impact or fun of Kurisu’s or Mr. Brawn’s, there wasn’t a single one I didn’t enjoy.
I will say, though, there’s very little player involvement going on. The phone system is still in place, where the current character will receive text messages from friends. Yet while you can choose how to reply to some of these, the only reward is said varying responses. There are no alternative pathways or different endings. I get that Linear Bounded Phenogram is keeping its sideways stories simple. It’s just hard not to be disappointed when player choice is such a big staple of the series.
So there’s a lack of impactful choices and some distracting text wrapping. Phone messages still do a good job of showing off character relationships. We get Mr. Braun messaging Okabe to ‘shut up’, Luka receiving loving messages from concerned parents, and surprisingly girly chats between Kurisu and Moeka. They’re all lovely touches of detail that you’d only get when having the owners phone in your hand. At least that’s something.
Before wrapping up, it’s worth noting that the art, music, and voice acting are, as ever, most wonderful companions. A lot is kept the same as the original, from the Japanese casting to art assets, and a familiar soundtrack. In other words, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. We do get some new CGs and character costumes, however, which keep things from getting visually stale. Same deal, again, for the music. Great new tunes are subtly sprinkled in, including my favorite version of the ‘Gate of Steiner’ theme.
Fans of the series will have no trouble settling into the familiar world of Steins;Gate Linear Bounded Phenogram. The characters, art style, music, and story we love are all here. Seeing from new perspectives not only adds a new layer to certain moments in the original game but a higher connection and empathy with each lab member. Sure, when it comes down to it we’re just getting more of the same. Yet, you won’t catch me complaining when ‘the same’ is this good.
This review is based off the PlayStation 4 version of the game. This review copy was provided by Spike Chunsoft.
Steins;Gate Linear Bounded Phenogram is a collection of stories made for the fans. While some certainly hit harder than others, the different viewpoints allow for an even deeper connection with these beloved characters.