Game Reviewby James Beckett,
Despite its foibles, I still consider the Steins;Gate anime to be a solid science-fiction romp, and I've long meant to double back and play the original 2009 visual novel on which the 2011 anime was based. This year provided the perfect opportunity for just such a return to Steins;Gate with MAGES./5pb.'s multi-platform release of Steins;Gate Elite, which is one of the more interesting experiments in “remastering” a video-game I've yet seen. 5pb. has taken the script of the Steins;Gate visual novel and combined it with hours of screenshots and animated footage taken directly from the anime, along with some new animation to cover the un-adapted routes of the VN that the show never covered. What ostensibly makes this experience “elite” is how it packages the complete story of Steins;Gate with the anime trappings that fans might find more appealing when compared to the static backgrounds and character sprites that make up most visual novels.
Having never played the first edition of the visual novel, I can't speak to whether or not Steins;Gate Elite contains glaring alterations or omissions to better fit the anime footage, but so far as I can tell, this is the same Steins;Gate that players encountered back in 2009. Our hero is Okabe Rintaro, a self-styled mad scientist who kills time in between college classes by taking on the mantle of “Hououin Kyouma” and running his own private Future Gadget Laboratory, which mostly consists of smashing household appliances together and seeing what happens. He's joined by his best friends, the ditzy Mayuri and the rotund otaku Daru, who are perfectly content to mess around with their humble gadgets in the summer heat. Everything changes, however, when Okabe and company learn that their combination telephone/microwave is actually a functional time-machine. More specifically, Okabe discovers how to use the machine to send text-messages back in time, altering the course of history and shifting reality to new world lines that only he can fully remember. Things quickly become more complicated when Okabe's fate begins to intertwine with those of his friends, as well as a brilliant young scientist names Makise Kurisu, who joins Okabe in his scientific ventures while warning him of the dire consequences that come with changing history.
Though its rough edges have only gotten rougher in recent years, Steins;Gate remains as entertaining and thrilling as ever, deftly blending the comedic, romantic, and science-fiction elements of its story into a thoroughly engaging stew of visual-novel tropes that have been executed with verve and skill. My biggest gripes with the story involve how badly its handling of gender identity issues have aged – without spoiling anything, Luka's character arc stands out as a black mark on an otherwise fun story. But overall, I'd say the product ends up amounting to more than the sum of its parts.
The gameplay in S;G Elite remains identical to its 2009 counterpart. You read the text of the story and occasionally influence things by either responding to texts Okabe receives from various characters or choosing whether or not to send the time-travel messages (called “D-Mails”) and alter history. There are multiple routes to access based on the choices you make, but the system isn't all that complex, and most of the alternate character routes pale in comparison to the “True Ending” of the game. Some of the non-canon endings contain interesting time-travel tropes and character interactions, but they're mostly pit-stops you have to get through in order to unlock the entire story.
Aside from the plot, there's one other aspect of Steins;Gate Elite that might draw the attention of old fans and newcomers, and that's the integration of footage and visuals from the 2011 anime. This is honestly something that I'm torn on, because on the one hand it's an impressive feat; 5pb. pored through hours of footage and went through great lengths to make the marriage of text and animation relatively smooth. Characters' lip flaps match up with their spoken dialogue for much of the novel, and several of the story's most dramatic moments utilize entire animation sequences from the anime to better convey the action and emotions of a scene. On the other hand, there are several occasions where the visual quality varies distractingly between still shots and animation cuts, and while it's nice to have the new animation for different characters' new scenes, much it still feels slapdash. Very brief animation cycles are repeated over and over, scenes that feel like they should be fully animated consist mostly of single frames, and so on.
This leads me to my biggest issue with Steins;Gate Elite, which is that I don't know if this “Elite” reimagining is going to be all that useful for more than a few niche gamers. Many fans who are likely to purchase a visual novel have already had plenty of time to play the first version of the game, which has been available on consoles for years. In that sense, there's little here for people who've already watched the anime, and the new stuff isn't exactly what I would call essential material. While I found it enjoyable to revisit this world and its characters, I often found myself thinking that it would be easier and less-time consuming to just watch the anime. If you've never experienced the Steins;Gate story at all, this could be the definitive experience for you. If you've spent time with previous copies of either the visual novel or the anime though, this might not seem like much more than a curious novelty.
I played Steins;Gate Elite on PS4, which came with the pre-order bonus of a digital download of STEINS;GATE: Linear Bounded Phenogram. This visual novel presents itself in the classic style of the first Steins;Gate game and offers hours of content across ten stories that cover various “what-if” stories starring all your favorites from the Steins;Gate cast. Seeing as many different writers worked on these tales, they range in quality but are largely quite entertaining, especially after you've gotten to know the cast in the main game. One story covers the surprisingly involved twists and turns that surround the “Alpacaman” figure that gets maybe ten seconds of screen time in the main game, another gives Daru the chance to shine as the hero of the story, and so on. Given that these stories haven't been legally available in the West since their 2013 Japanese release, they won me over by virtue of their novelty alone.
I'd almost go as far as to say that Steins;Gate Elite may be worth a purchase just for the opportunity to play Linear Bounded Phenogram. (If you're playing on the PS4 anyway; if you're playing on the Switch, you can get a retro 8-bit adventure, fittingly called 8-BIT ADV STEINS;GATE, which I did not check out.) Otherwise, adjust your expectations accordingly if you're going to dive into Steins;Gate Elite for its own sake. It's not as smoothly presented as the anime, and the story itself doesn't have anything new to offer that can't be found in the original game. It's an impressive achievement, but by the time it was over, I walked away from Steins;Gate Elite with little more than an especially strong feeling of déjà vu.
Overall : C+
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B
+ Neatly marries anime footage to the visual novel's story, new footage for extended routes, Linear Bounded Phenogram is a decent game in its own right
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