An outsider looking in may assume that in order for a visual novel to get localized, it must have some sort of gimmick. Hatoful Boyfriend was picked because it was a ridiculous comedy about romancing pigeons. Amnesia: Memories was localized because it already has a successful anime series associated with it. The countless hentai games picked up by MangaGamer and JAST make it over because sex sells. But sometimes, all a visual novel has to be is good to find its way outside of Japan.
That’s why we’re seeing Steins;Gate on the PS3 and Vita. The game is both a notable and important visual novel. It’s inspired anime series, prequels and sequels. Thought-provoking discussions have spawned due to its use of time travel in the narrative. Here’s the problem, though: the PlayStation 3 and Vita releases don’t give the game its due.
To put it simply, Steins;Gate is a story about the ramifications of time travel. It begins with Rintaro Okabe, a self-described mad scientist under the alias Kyoma Hooin, and his childhood friend Mayuri attending a press conference concerning the discovery of time-travel technology by Dr. Nakabachi in Akihabara. The conference seems to be a bust, but it’s filled with strange happenings. To start, a machine of some sort crashes onto the roof. Rintaro meets a woman named Kurisu who recognizes him somehow, despite having never seen her before. Later, he comes across that same woman fatally stabbed in a hallway after the briefing.
It’s a watercolor world, which is fitting given how tenuous reality is.
When Rintaro and Mayuri escape the building, even weirder events occur. He sends a text message to his friend, Daru. After he does, the world somehow changes. No one is around, which is unusual for Akihabara. Even odder is another metal object resembling a satellite crashed into the Radio Kaikan building he was just in. It’s then that Rintaro learns the text he sent to Daru arrived seven days before it was sent. He, Mayuri and Daru, as the Future Gadgets Laboratory, realize they have created a Mobile Microwave that can send text messages into the past as a sort of time machine and begin using DeLorean Mails to alter the timeline and change events in the world.
Like all visual novels, Steins;Gate is focused on telling a tale. Players read text, look at beautiful characters, listen to some pleasant voices and hopefully savor the story. The voice acting is well done, but the game truly excels when it comes to visuals. The designs are gorgeous. It’s a watercolor world, which is fitting given how tenuous reality is. It’s appropriately hazy and dreamlike.
Sadly, timeline isn’t the only instability. The translation and localization don’t do a very good job of making the title attractive. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate. With a visual novel, the text has to engage the reader. It must flow well and be pleasing to follow. Steins;Gate reads awkwardly. It’s a complicated game to begin with, and syntax issues, dry delivery and a suboptimal localization don’t make it any more pleasing.
Especially since some of its nuances are going to make it a difficult game for people to immediately accept. Even if you’ve played a visual novel before, Steins;Gate may prove a daunting endeavor. That’s because you aren’t making specific choices. Rather, you’re reacting to Rintaro’s cell phone, and the “decisions” you make are based upon how you respond, if you do at all. That means there’s substantially more reading and less interaction than a typical game in this genre.
Also, Rintaro isn’t exactly the easiest person to connect with initially. The character is a self-described mad scientist and behaves accordingly. He can be unpleasant and impolite person, and his conspiracy theories may push away the average reader. Perhaps it was intended to be humorous, but the gravity of the events make it difficult to not take him seriously. He develops as a character of course, which is quite satisfying, but it takes time. Sadly, it’s time one may not be willing to invest with the translation not being the best and interactions limited.
If someone is willing to push forward, they’ll find an extraordinary game hiding within Steins;Gate.
Which is a shame, because the elements of time travel explored in Steins;Gate are fascinating. Especially since Rintaro is the only one who can tell when the timeline has changed, and the extent of the changes made is extraordinary. If someone is a fan of parallel universes and alternate realities, this could be the definitive visual novel for exploring connotations of the butterfly effect.
But even then, it’s something that might alienate Steins;Gate players. This is a very complex game. The terminology, theoretical explanations and timelines could be too much for some to handle. Perhaps the best way to describe it is a title that challenges the player. If someone is coming to be entertained, being made to think and analyze the storyline may be too much. Think of it this way. An ordinary visual novel may be a high school class, and Steins;Gate is a graduate-level college course.
If you’re willing to push forward, you’ll find an extraordinary game hiding within Steins;Gate. Sadly, it’s buried, and only the most dedicated will go far enough down the rabbit hole to reach the wonderland at the end. As for the rest, they may well be turned off by a lackluster localization, unlikable protagonist and minimal interactions. It’s unfortunate, since there are interesting things done here, but those with a more casual curiosity may be better served watching the animated series.