It’s a question that’s forever levelled at games that favour narrative and limited interaction over player agency and engagement – at what point does a game become an interactive movie? Steins;Gate Elite is arguably the closest to answering that question with its focus on story telling rather than gameplay. Originally developed as a visual novel for the Xbox 360 then ported to other formats, it inspired sequels and even a manga run of comics and an anime. This is where the latest iteration comes in – it’s the original story, but using the anime scenes as part of the game. It’s a notable reworking, but will it do anything for those who aren’t familiar with the series or haven’t ever experienced a visual novel?
A quick primer… and it’ll have to be quick because there’s a lot going on in the game… you “play” Rintaro Okabe (aka Hououin Kyouma, aka Okarin) who’s inability to decide on a moniker marks him clearly as a mad scientist. Well, that and the fact he’s founded his own institute and is in constant fear of the Organisation stealing his research. At the tender age of 18 though it seems more like late adolescent fantasy than anything to take seriously. That is until he attends a lecture, discovers a body in a pool of blood, sees a strange object crash into a building, then witnesses everyone in Tokyo disappear. Oh, and he invents a machine using a microwave and a phone that can send text messages into the past. Aided by his friends Mayuri and Daru, they team up with a prominent scientist Kurisu to figure out that these messages are affecting the timeline, and from there it’s all about manipulating events to their own satisfaction.
It’s a great premise – sending messages back to warn or inform, and you’d like to think that the real trick with the game is to figure what to send and when and make things go your way. Surprisingly (or sadly depending on your outlook), that’s not what’s on offer in Steins;Gate Elite. With this being an update of a visual novel, things proceed without much involvement from the player. In fact, it’s nearly 90 mins in before a controller button is pressed in anger, and even then it’s just the extent of selecting a response to a text message. It’s a bit disappointing if you don’t know what you’re in for. That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy with it, there’s certainly a lot of charm and character built in.
Okarin, despite his lead status, is a bit of a joke to his friends and is constantly on the receiving end of a ribbing about his paranoia, and it manages to deliver some decent laughs. It’s probably down to the fact that the companions and characters encountered throughout are distinct and well fleshed out, usually through a combination of conversation and Okarin’s internal monologue. Even pieces that might be impenetrable like the unique parts of Japanese culture (or things just made up for this game) that struggle to come across in translation are covered in a glossary that’s accessible at any time. It’s a mechanism that doesn’t really interrupt the flow of story and gives some background information on what’s going on and it’s absolutely essential for being clued in.
How the visual novel works in practice is up to you really. Each section (stills or animation) has text scrolling across the bottom of the screen, whether that’s actual dialogue or internal thoughts. If you speak Japanese you can skip a lot of the speech, though Okarin’s monologue is never spoken, so there’s always going to be an amount of reading to do. I couldn’t for the life of me find an English dub option, though it is listed on the box, and my only thought it maybe it needed selecting at the new game stage (yet I don’t remember seeing an option). Even with the original voices, with options to change the text speed, alter the volume of individual characters, and set up an autoplay mode it’s possible to view it as a film with no need to click a button to get the next set of words. Or nearly that anyway… there are a few points like text messages or chatroom sections where you do need to pick an option or get through everything on screen. Just make sure that you enjoy reading though, there’s 30 hours of this to watch.
Considering Steins;Gate Elite more like a manga animation than a game, the presentation is top notch and bears all the hallmarks of a typical Japanese animation. It’s great in places with solid voice acting and sound design. The way it’s played out and directed is well considered, and there are multiple branching paths to the end depending on choices made, you just might not know what impact or change might have happened. It’s hard to pick fault in the way it runs or flows because everything is seamlessly linked together and works for what it’s portraying. The controller elements aren’t massively intrusive, and keeping everything to single button presses might take complexity away, but does deliver a more unbroken film-like experience.
However, despite the interesting story with the way it twists and turns through time coupled with the great characterisation, it’s a bit of a tough sell for anyone but fans of the series or manga enthusiasts. Steins;Gate Elite doesn’t feel or play like a game, and I suppose it’s not really trying to be. Get involved with it for the story and it’s worth your time, just make sure you know what you’re in store for in advance… like a text message from the future.
A PS4 review copy of Steins;Gate Elite was provided by Spike Chunsoft’s PR team and the game is available now for around £50 on Switch, Steam and PS4, and the standard version includes an additional 30 hours of story DLC.