How do you create a sequel to a visual novel that ended so perfectly, so immaculately, that the very idea of a sequel itself sounds almost impossible?
Warning: This is a pseudo-review + afterthought dump about Steins;Gate 0. I will discuss some story spoilers for the first Steins;Gate, but I’ve done my best to avoid any major spoilers for Steins;Gate 0. So if you haven’t played the first visual novel or watched its anime adaptation, please stop reading now.
Steins;Gate 0 solves this problem with a clever twist from the start: It inserts itself just before the True End of the original Steins;Gate, deviating from what actually occurred in the first game. Before Rintaro decided to travel back in time to save Kurisu a second time, there was actually a long chain of events that happened first. This is the premise of S;G0: Can you guide Rintaro back towards the first game’s True End?
Steins;Gate was released in 2009 during the Xbox 360 and PS3 era. All of the sprites and CG images for the sequel have been upgraded to a higher, 1080p resolution. It’s refreshing to see old cast members like Faris, Luka, Itaru, and Kurisu updated with newer and prettier sprites, although some old graphics have been re-used from the first game for some scenes. All of the original Japanese voice-acting cast have reprised their roles, and a few BGMs and songs have returned (some of them have been rearranged for the sequel).
Phone conversations are back, and once again interacting with your phone is essential to the story’s outcome. This time, Rintaro has upgraded to a smartphone, and instead of using e-mail, the characters now communicate using a new app called Rine, a clear reference to the popular real-world messaging app Line. It even comes with stickers.
There’s also a new Amadeus app that functions exactly like a phone call. Amadeus is the key to unlocking the six different endings — answering or not answering the calls from Amadeus will drastically change the story’s path. The app itself, plays a key role in S;G0’s narrative. The story goes to great lengths to explain why using Amadeus is dangerous, and in one path, even specifically warns the protagonist to avoid using it.
From a visual novel standpoint, Amadeus is a better alternative to the first game’s e-mail replies. To unlock the True End in Steins;Gate, you needed to choose the correct e-mail reply to a particular character across multiple chapters. If you missed one of the correct reply “flags”, the True End would become inaccessible. This makes it impossible for a normal player to obtain the True End without referring to some sort of guide. And it’s easy to understand why the writers used Amadeus this way. I had no problems unlocking five of the endings (the sixth True End is an epilogue that is unlocked for one of the endings once a certain condition is met). All I needed to do was to create a save point during each Amadeus phone call, then reload that save to play a different route by making a different choice with Amadeus. This means that every player’s full playthrough of S;G0 will differ depending on which order of endings they unlock.
I feel that this non-linearity in unlocking S;G0’s endings is a response to one of the criticisms of the first game: It was a very linear visual novel. Yes, Steins;Gate had multiple endings. But those are just paths that branch off from the main route. The entire visual novel experience of Steins;Gate is a linear path from Point A to Point B. S;G0 addresses this by making each route drastically different from the others. The sequel essentially becomes a traditional visual novel, and I think this is the game’s biggest mistake because of the very nature of its story: The series deals with themes of time travel, causality, and alternate world lines. When you create five different paths, each treated as separate world lines, the potential for confusion and plot holes is very high.
One route, the Twin Automata path, features a lot of development and backstory for two of SG;O’s main characters, but does not offer much resolution plot-wise. Why not transfer all of that character development to the other routes, and then cut out the Twin Automata path altogether? It would have made the entire story more focused. Another character’s fate in SG;0 will change completely depending on which path you are on, and there are some deliberate red herrings designed to further confuse you. When it’s time for everything to converge at the True End, it all feels very shallow and poorly executed. There is no satisfaction once you’ve unlocked everything. It feels as if the writers were trying too hard to rush out multiple routes and endings, but became lazy and couldn’t figure out how to tie all the loose ends together.
Again, it’s very difficult to discuss these story issues without spoilers. Many Reddit fans from this thread (beware: that link DOES contain spoilers) also share my sentiments. Reddit user anonynamja sums it up best (I’ve edited his quotes slightly for readability):
I’m of two minds about this. Let’s start with the fact that the unexpected success of Steins;Gate meant there were all sorts of spinoffs in that franchise, including the Epigraph trilogy of light novels. Because S;GO is something of a Frankenstein combination of the work of several authors, it lacks the cohesiveness / elegance / economy of the original. As others in this thread have mentioned, some new characters feel extraneous, shallow, and tacked on. Some headscratchers seem like pointless red herrings and loose ends.
Granted, the original game wasn’t fully consistent either when put under a microscope but at least it felt convincing with tight storytelling. But S;G0 really makes me wonder if there was a central unifying vision or if its design by committee.
Should you play Steins;Gate 0 then? If you’re a fan of the first visual novel or anime, then the answer is a resounding yes. It’s worth playing for the new characters, the amazing new music, and the story behind Amadeus. Many of the old cast (Kurisu in particular), have greater character development in the sequel. And there are some genuinely inspiring and awesome scenes in SG;0.
But just remember to lower your expectations when comparing it to the first game. The original Steins;Gate was a masterpiece that is unlikely to be matched for years to come.