Ever since PAX West, I’ve kept myself busy with everything ranging from personal projects to, of course, video games. I started off September by reaching both endings of Alphadia Genesis, a mediocre indie JRPG, and completing the *Mute route of Hate Plus, the sometimes frustrating sequel to the excellent Analogue: A Hate Story. Instead of going on at length about them here, here’s my reviews of Alphadia Genesis and Hate Plus on Steam.
One game which I ultimately chose not to write a Steam review for, because my feelings on it are that mixed, is the action platformer Apotheon. One of the top tags on its Steam store page is “Metroidvania”, which is a wildly inaccurate descriptor. As you all probably know, the defining feature of Metroidvanias is areas that can’t be accessed without the right tools, which must be obtained in a certain order. Apotheon does have skills to collect, but most are enhancements at best, and the only real obstacle blocking off areas is the plot. In other words, this game is more Shovel Knight than Axiom Verge.
We had skipped PAX West (formerly PAX Prime) last year, and missed it terribly, so deciding how to spend our 2018 Labor Day weekend was a no-brainer. As usual, the whole process of obtaining the tickets was a white-knuckle affair—most especially and unexpectedly a few days before the show, when one of our PAX friends’ passes got lost in the mail. Fortunately, he was able to get things sorted out, and after a week of preparations on our end (including taking care of our own little emergency involving a pet sitting cancellation), we all met up in Seattle. This even included one of our group who had decided to skip PAX, but wanted to be in town nonetheless. PAX was here!
The following four days were packed with panels, games, and some delicious food, including some from longtime favorites Juicy Cafe and MOD Pizza. Downtown Seattle’s Rock Bottom Grill, our regular post-show spot, had since closed, but the Gordon Biersch in a nearby mall was a decent substitute; it was also the location of the first post-PAX Cheap Ass Gamer meetup that I organized seven years ago.
I beat Frog Fractions 2 this afternoon (or is that Frog Fractions 3?), a game that’s much longer, more incoherent, and harder than its predecessor. It’s also the first game I’ve Kickstarted which has since come out, which is funny since it’s the only one whose release was obfuscated on purpose, rather than openly falling into some form of Development Hell. There is one part I must spoil, since it involves hardware: at some point, there’s a section which, out of the blue, requires a microphone or similar audio input. However, this section is optional, but the game doesn’t tell you that it is. I don’t use a microphone when PC gaming, and anyway, my offbeat setup makes hooking one up uniquely frustrating. Also, there were no alternative control schemes offered within the game for this part. To me, this particular section wasn’t very well thought out, but Frog Fractions 2 is, in many ways, not a friendly or approachable game. Though it is never unfair (aside from the microphone thing), it does demand a decent amount of imagination and cleverness from its players.
Finding it within Glittermitten Grove is easy enough—I just used the same basic approach as one does with Frog Fractions—but once I got there, what confronted me was a place which got more and more difficult to deal with the further I dove in. Without giving away too much, Frog Fractions 2 is full of funny and weird moments, but in other aspects, it’s a different beast.
On another end of the humor spectrum, I went through all three of the playable Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice DLC episodes. The first, a full-length case titled “Turnabout Time Traveler”, was not nearly as good as its equivalent from the previous game. Instead of an orca at a musically-inclined aquarium, the client is a bride who claims to have relived her wedding reception thanks to a time machine. Oh, and of course, there’s been a murder, and she’s the main suspect. A few of the arguments made in court are sloppy and poorly worded in a way that typically happens in the worst Ace Attorney cases. On the other hand, a major highlight of this episode is the return of Larry Butz, a regular from the first Ace Attorney trilogy who has a tendency for getting into trouble. Phoenix, Maya, and Edgeworth are all present as well; just add Gumshoe and this would’ve been a full-on nostalgic reunion. However, perhaps it is for the best that Gummy didn’t appear, as I would’ve preferred a better case to accompany all the fanservice.
The other two DLCs, brief alternate universe stories called “Phoenix Wright: Asinine Attorney” and “Apollo Justice: Asinine Attorney”, are much fluffier trifles. Phoenix’s tale centers around Pearl and her visit to Kuhra’in, and on the flip-side, Apollo’s features that kingdom’s Princess Rayfa visiting the United States. They are both very short and lighthearted, with Apollo’s episode being both slightly longer and generally better. Both also come with pixel-art 3DS themes, adding some more value to what would otherwise be a pair of overpriced tales.
Before playing through all of that, however, I beat a couple of much longer games. First was Picross 3D Round 2, which is sort of misleading since, after the credits rolled, many more new puzzles unlocked. Round 2 is just as good as the original Picross 3D, which is to say that it’s one of the best picture puzzle video games one could ask for. The puzzles are plentiful and brilliantly conceived, and although there’s an additional level of complexity now, with specially shaped pieces, the game does a great job of easing you into things, as expected from this series.
The other game was Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below, a crossover between Dragon Quest, a JRPG series with a solid reputation, and Dynasty Warriors, which is looked upon… a bit less fondly. Although the basic flavor of the latter is definitely present—in the forms of simple combat controls and massive swarms of enemies—this is also very much a Dragon Quest game in terms of aesthetics, polish, and, on the more negative side, some old-school JRPG menu clunkiness. Still, it was great fun carving through dozens of slimes and the like alongside Alena, Yangus, and other beloved characters from mainline Dragon Quest games, and it’s not like I mind a bit of mostly simple hacky-slashy fun every now and again.
I also replayed the first Frog Fractions (it’s always a good time on Bug Mars) and continued on with Pokemon Sun, which, if anything, recalls the tedium of Pokemon Platinum. However, I hope that unlike with Platinum, I don’t end up taking nine months to beat it. Right now, I would guess that if I’m not at the halfway mark, then I’m very close to it. Also, this isn’t exactly a video game, but a few days ago, I dug out my old Tamagochi and started messing around with it, an experience I may or may not write more about later. The most amazing thing about it so far is that the batteries, which I believe are the original ones from the late 1990s, still work.
As for what I’ll start next, I’m really not sure right now. With Persona 5‘s release date coming up, I’ve been eyeing the two Persona spinoffs I have left in my backlog, Persona 4 Arena Ultimax and Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth. There’s also my dwindling pile of Xbox 360 games, Tales of Vesperia arguably being the longest amongst them. However, for the time being, I might be best off plugging away at Pokemon Sun, since I’ve been neglecting it lately. We’ll see how it goes.
Bravely Default, which I finally, finally started playing about a week ago, has struck me so far as being a very different sort of JRPG, but also, more obviously, very familiar. The online/StreetPass features of this 3DS exclusive reminds me quite a bit of the Pokemon series, but also of Square Enix’s earlier The World Ends with You. The latter, which is one of my favorite JRPGs of all time, has a pin-based battle system, and some of the rarer pins could only be obtained by using certain online features of the DS. As this sort of thing is not up my alley (you could say I’m a purist when it comes to single-player games), I pretty much ignored Mingle Mode and managed just fine without it. Bravely‘s online features, on the other hand, get shoved in your face pretty frequently, at least early on, mixed in as they are with the rest of the tutorials. One of the biggest online components is a town-rebuilding minigame, progress in which is marked in real time—reminiscent of certain mobile phone sims—and dependent on how many other players you have registered within the game. Also prominent is the ability to summon special attacks from another player during any battle. Anyway, all this online stuff is both understandable, given the times, and, thankfully, largely ignorable, at least so far. I’m getting by just fine on my one default worker working on the town minigame while I plug away at the rest.
This “rest” is where the familiarity comes in. The story takes place in a world where nature’s balance is maintained by four elemental crystals, which are now in trouble. If that by itself doesn’t scream Final Fantasy, there’s also the job system with its familiar classes, the items like Eye Drops and Phoenix Downs, the Akihiko Yoshida character designs, and the rousing score. There is enough different that it is not a complete clone of that older series, such as the hand-drawn look of the towns and the modest tone of the storytelling. This is particularly true when it comes to the game’s battle system, which, Final Fantasy V-style jobs aside, resembles those found in Dragon Quest and MegaTen titles more than FF’s. Its resemblance to non-FF series, though, is perhaps no less important. Bravely Default is a polished, modern take on what is essentially video game comfort food; while it’s different enough to be novel, it’s also familiar enough to be unintimidating. Despite a couple of overlong boss battles so far, I’m looking forward to seeing where this particular journey to save the crystals takes me.
For a long time, one reliable source of video game comfort food for me was the Kirby series. However, when I first started Kirby Mass Attack on the DS more than three years ago, something about the flavor of it didn’t do much for me. I reasoned that this was because I had started it not long after beating Kirby Squeak Squad, and needed a break from the series in general for awhile. After picking up Mass Attack again sometime during my recent playthrough of Soul Hackers, it became clear that it was not me, it was the game. I really wanted to like it more than I did, and although the premise with the multiple Kirbies is interesting by itself, Mass Attack falls short. I’m not really sure why this is; the levels are fairly well-designed, as are the aesthetic elements and the minigames. Maybe it’s because there isn’t as much variety in the strategic elements as in a typical Kirby platformer. Enemies can’t be chomped and then shot out, or digested, their abilities absorbed. The mini Kirbies simply multiply in number, beat on enemies, push or pull things, and do a few other actions, depending on the environment. There’s also mostly dull quicktime events and one particular annoyance that reared its head late in the game, where you’re told that backtracking for certain missed collectables would be necessary to progress; this collectable would be the type of item that’d be purely optional in just about any other Kirby. Anyway, this game was all right, and certainly has its high notes, but in general, it didn’t click with me in the same way that previous Kirbies had. I still love Kirby as a character, but maybe not so much the games anymore, and I feel like another long break is in order.
Speaking of gaming tastes changing, roguelikes is one genre which I will have to become much pickier about in the future. I started two of them, the action roguelike Legend of Dungeon and the more traditional Sword of the Stars: The Pit, back in 2014, played them on and off throughout 2015, and started 2016 with neither of them beaten. They are both more difficult than, say, Dungeons of Dredmor, especially The Pit—while I had made incremental progress in Legend of Dungeon (for various reasons), I had no such luck with the other game.
Anyway, as it happened, I had a couple of days where I’d barely gotten any sleep the night before, and was thus not in the mood to play anything too story-heavy (or do much of anything productive). One day, I spent much of my time messing around with Tropico 5 in sandbox mode, but later, I found myself trying The Pit again, for the first time in months. It was still very hard, and almost unfair; like clockwork, difficult enemies would be crammed into the first room on the next floor while my available weapon choices were still piss-poor. By this time, I had 75 hours logged on the game, and had not made it anywhere past twenty floors (out of thirty) on Normal. I started contemplating trying the game on Easy and started poking around a few places, mostly the reviews and forums on Steam, to see what others thought about The Pit‘s difficulty, especially in comparison to other roguelikes. I was relieved to find that I was not alone in thinking the game too hard, and, later on, fired up a new Engineer playthrough on Easy. I ended up beating the game on this first run, which was spread out over a few sessions within two days. It soon went in the “Beaten” folder in my Steam library, and I moved on to other things, like wrapping up Kirby Mass Attack.
One game which I recently played was quite different from anything else I’d encountered before: the FMV narrative puzzle of Her Story. Its interface comes in the form of a Windows 95-era desktop computer (complete with CRT reflections, if one so desires), which contains, as its main program, a searchable database of brief video clips, all of which are pieces from a series of interrogations of a woman whose husband has been murdered. The main interactions take the form of typing in search terms, watching up to the first five clips that pop up in the results, and tagging and/or saving clips for future reference. Around the time that you, as the protagonist searching through this ancient database, feel compelled to search for a certain term, you begin to suspect that all is not what it seems. The story that follows is strange and engrossing, and, although I have the basic idea down of what happened to the victim, there’s still a few unanswered questions by the end. Aside from a certain (seemingly intentional but kind of cheesy and understandably never pointed out) alternate approach to going through the clips, I really loved this one. The pacing of both the clips themselves and the discoverability of various chunks of the story is so good that I wonder how it was pulled off.
In summary, this is where I’m at by the end of January, with six titles beaten and Bravely Default and Neko Atsume as the only games I’m currently playing. As usual, I’m already wondering about what I’m going to pick up next; a Nippon Ichi strategy RPG (speaking of comfort food…) seems very likely, but I’m not entirely sure about anything else just yet. Hopefully, I can keep up with these progress reports, and maybe write up a few reviews this year as well. Until next time, then…
Some quick site business: Comments are now disabled for all posts from now on. I very rarely got comments here anyway, and most of those that did pop up in the past were either spam, too dumb and/or trivial to approve, or had an uneasily ego-stroking quality about them. For those who left the few decent comments I got, thanks, and see you on Twitter.
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For several years, I posted “roundups” of all of the games I played in a given year. After the 2011 edition, I lapsed on this and have not written one since. Having to remember every game I played in a 20xx and write up a little something about it got to be tedious, and didn’t play well with my inherent laziness.
All that is why, when I decided to revive this feature, it was with new restrictions. This time, I will be covering only ten games: those which left the strongest impressions on me within a given year, regardless of release date. This restriction also enables me to write a bit more about each game.
So, without further ado, here’s my ten for 2015, presented in the order in which I played them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and my obligatory summary. They are not ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups, which were relatively easy choices, at least for this installment.
Mighty Gunvolt Inti Creates | 3DS | 2014
Although I am not a big fan of anything that resembles Mega Man, this game charmed the pants off of me. Few “retro” style games that truly want to be “retro” ever come close to the faithfulness to the era that Mighty Gunvolt achieves: here, it really does feel like you’re playing an NES game. The art and music are lovingly crafted, as is the localization from the original Japanese, which sprinkles bits of “Engrish” throughout. The biggest aspect which feels “modern” is the difficulty, which isn’t as punishing as its predecessors, but that’s all for the better.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch Young Horses | Windows | 2014
And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Octodad, which forces the player to unlearn everything they know about controlling video game characters. The player character is a giant octopus masquerading as a human surburban father, and controlling him—through a scheme where arms and legs are affiliated with analog sticks and shoulder buttons—is as difficult as you might expect, given the circumstances. Not drawing suspicion to yourself in your everyday life is the goal of the game, a lighthearted sitcom of a tale which comes complete with a catchy theme song (but no laugh track, thankfully). Although a certain part came off as slightly unfulfilling, there’s nothing else that would cause me not to recommend this.
Gone Home The Fullbright Company | Windows | 2013
This is one of those games I put off playing for awhile due to the neverending hype and discussion surrounding it, but I finally did so this year. What it ended up being was an exploration through a massive old house that was alternately nostalgic, goofy, and suspenseful, a miniature 1990s teenage soap opera told in first-person in-between references to Bratmobile and The X-Files. That this tightly crafted, intimate little story generated as much controversy as it did is bewildering. Gone Home is—somehow, bizarrely, sadly—groundbreaking for the video game medium in its everyday mundanity and small human dramas, but it’s also good, and hopefully this sort of thing will become more commonplace in the future.
PixelJunk Eden Q-Games | Windows | 2012
I play few platformers anymore, not so much for lack of interest (Kirby burnout notwithstanding), as that there haven’t been any really good ones in awhile. I came to PixelJunk Eden not knowing much about it, but finding within it just the refreshing sort of platformer I needed. The visual style is minimalist overall, but can get pleasantly noisy sometimes in a structured Sonic Youth sort of way, and it’s accompanied by some cool electronic music and suitable sound effects. The physics are floaty but believable; the diminutive player character moves around like it’s in water. Although the paths weren’t always clear and, thus, it became way too easy to get lost in certain late-game levels, I had a really good time with PixelJunk Eden.
You Must Build a Boat EightyEightGames | Windows | 2015
This game, the follow-up to 10000000, almost didn’t make this list. It’s on here because I returned to the game again, months after first beating it, to go after more crew members and achievements. That’s when I fell back into its rhythms. With more tile types and general complexity than 10000000, my original feeling was that You Must Build a Boat was too overwhelming, and somewhat inelegant. Somehow, this doesn’t matter any longer. Its density and mechanics have their own kind of beauty and rhythm, and it has proven itself to be just as well-balanced and addictive. That, plus the new rooms and crew members that get added over the course of the game gives it more character than 10000000 ever had. That’s not to say that YMBAB is better than 10000000, but it is most definitely a worthy successor.
Roundabout No Goblin | Windows | 2014
This game is unlike anything else out there. It’s got a groovy 1970s setting complete with funk music, rounded chunky fonts, trippy drug references, and suitably toned live-action FMVs. The story centers around Georgio Manos (pictured), a silent protagonist and up-and-coming revolving limousine driver. With the support of her comrades, she ferries people all over town and deals with various bits of drama. Oh yes, and as her title implies, her limo does indeed revolve around and around while she drives, which is where the challenge comes in. It’s all very silly, a little bit difficult, rather fun (and funny), and over all too quickly.
Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector Hit-Point | iPhone | 2014
My husband and I waffled on trying this out for ages, and a patch from earlier this year which added an English-language option basically gave us little excuse. So, one day over the US Thanksgiving weekend, we each downloaded Neko Atsume from Apple’s App Store. What a great decision that was. A few times a day, after setting out food and toys, we check to see which stupidly cute, beady-eyed cats have visited us. Another aspect which has won us over: it’s free to play, with microtransactions available, but we’ve never once felt the pressure to buy any extra gold fish (the top-level in-game currency). We just take our time and enjoy these adorable digital felines at our leisure.
Third Place Hatsune Miku: Project mirai DX SEGA | 3DS | 2015
I’m afraid I might be biased when it comes to this choice: I’m a fan of Vocaloids, and Miku in particular, plus I also have a soft spot for both Nendoroid figures and tactile rhythm games. Project mirai DX features a robust selection of songs featuring music software developer Crypton’s beloved stable of Vocaloids: classics, fan favorites, and lesser-known tracks spanning a nice range of styles and BPMs, from many of the best producers in the scene. There are even a few songs with additional vocals supplied by special guest GUMI (aka Megpoid), a Vocaloid published by Internet Co. Ltd. All of the characters are represented in their chibi Nendoroid forms, thanks to a collaboration with Good Smile Company, and have a certain lively appeal to them that the blander, regularly-proportioned Project DIVA models lack.
The touchscreen-based gameplay mode is a joy to play (the button-based one isn’t too shabby either, though not as much fun), and there are several diversions—a room to decorate, character outfits, reversi and Puyo Puyo minigames, a music player, etc.—that are entertaining ways to take a break from the main rhythm section every so often. Despite the rare misstep (such as a certain pair of popular but overly repetitive songs), it’s a must-have for 3DS-owning Vocaloid fans, and probably the best rhythm game on the system overall.
Second Place Analogue: A Hate Story Love Conquers All Games | Windows | 2012
Stories with a strong sociological bent are still relatively hard to find in games. While my 2015 manga slate was filled with brilliantly humane works like Vinland Saga, My Love Story!!, and Assassination Classroom, there hasn’t been much like those on my gaming one. Analogue: A Hate Story is one of the rare exceptions. Like (the absolutely amazing, seriously it’s a masterpiece) Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, Analogue is a feminist examination of a specific period in Asian history. In this case, it’s an extremely repressive Korean society recreated on a long-lost starship, whose story is told through the logs maintained by, and the commentary of, a pair of AIs named *Hyun-ae and *Mute.
What follows from there is a dense, intertwined tale of family, hierarchy, social expectation, doomed romance, dashed expectations, and horrific violence, with the occasional bits of humor, which helps lighten the mood from time to time and rounds out the characters. It’s a gripping tale, one as fine as in any good comic or prose story I read this year, and I’m looking forward to playing its sequel, Hate Plus, in the year ahead. In fact, Analogue was all set to be my personal Game of the Year, but then something else came out…
First Place: Game of the Year The Beginner’s Guide Everything Unlimited Ltd. | Windows | 2015
I really don’t know where to start with this one without giving away what happens during a certain scene, a scene that matters so much when it comes to how this story is ultimately interpreted. When that scene happened, I understood much more, but only to a point. By the time the game ends, there’s at least two apparent large plot holes and some uncomfortable unanswered questions, which aren’t helped by the fact that the entire thing has been narrated by Davey Wreden, the creator of The Beginner’s Guide, seemingly playing himself. There’s also that cryptic dedication…
I’m going to dig further into this now, and although I won’t reference anything too specifically, there might be some parts that could be considered spoilers, so turn around if you need to.
What The Beginner’s Guide is ultimately about (or at least it seems so to me) is audiences, the great bugbear of creators everywhere, and how uncontrollable they are. It left much the same impression on me as The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, which dealt with a similar theme on multiple levels. In that film, which is based on true events, an inventor does amazing, innovative work but finds that his lofty ideals don’t line up with reality. Such is the situation in The Beginner’s Guide, where Davey takes us through a tour of the works of “Coda”, a friend who has dabbled in game development before suddenly stopping. Who Coda is and what their works really mean is beside the point. It is Davey and his presentation of Coda’s games which really matters here.
The result is a fascinating, but somewhat worrying, journey through all sorts of unfinished first-person games. There are a lot of dialogues that go nowhere, enclosed spaces, and strange surprises. Davey is not wrong to have interpretations of these creations. The wrongness that is present becomes evident later on, and, in the end, I don’t blame Coda for their actions, though perhaps they were somewhat naive in how they handled their games. It’s an interesting and ultimately heart-wrenching story about creation, interpretation, modification, and everything in between. I wonder if anyone who isn’t a creative type of some sort would get it. I wonder, like many others, if this is based on something which really happened. I do not wonder if this sort of thing continues to happen in the real world, because I know it does. It sucks, but it still happens. It happens to a lot of us, and though it might take awhile, things will be okay again.
Special note: Due to the story-heavy nature of Steins;Gate, there are a lot of spoilers, both major and minor, contained within this review. Since conspiracies are an important theme in this game, I’ve “redacted” said spoilers. To see this text, hover your mouse cursor over the black bars.
Usually, when I preorder a game, it’s for one of two reasons: I want to play it right away (the StarCraft IIs of the world) or I don’t necessarily want to play it right away, but still want to support it (the Bravely Defaults of the world). Rarely have I preordered a single game to support an entire genre, but that was what I did when it came to JAST USA’s localization of the Windows port of Steins;Gate (it was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive in Japan): I did it in the hope that we might see more English-translated, non-hentai PC visual novels in the future. Steins;Gate is hardly the first such product, but it’s one of the most important ones we’ve seen in some time, or at least since Ever17 and/or Higurashi: When They Cry. It’s also the second and most successful of Nitroplus and 5pb.’s “Science Adventure” standalone VNs (released after Chaos;Head and before Robotics;Notes), and the first to be officially localized in English. So, in the end, does Steins;Gate live up to the hype?
As Okabe peers in at something, Daru ponders existential matters.
This visual novel takes place in modern-day Akihabara, the Tokyo neighborhood famous for its electronics and anime/game otaku stores. The narrator and POV character is one Rintaro Okabe, a college student who spends a good deal of time as his alter ego, Hououin Kyoma, a self-described mad scientist on the run from “the Organization”. This is all in his head, of course. Along with his classmate Itaru, aka Daru, and childhood friend Mayuri, aka Mayushii, he spends his summer vacation running the Future Gadget Laboratory, basically an apartment hangout above the Braun Tube Workshop, a store specializing in old CRT television sets. The “gadgets” they make in the “lab” are, for the most part, laughable failures, but then something bizarre happens one afternoon. This mysterious event leads to the lab’s fourth member, a prodigy and real scientist named Kurisu, joining the team, as well as further investigation into the latest gadget, the PhoneWave (name subject to change), which was originally intended as a remotely controlled microwave but may in fact be some sort of time machine.
As this is a traditional VN, there is very little interactivity. Apart from the True End, the routes to the endings are fairly straightforward, and other, smaller, in-game decisions lead to extras and achievements. All of the player’s actions are not carried out through the expected dialogue trees, but are determined by what is done with Okabe’s cell phone, which can be whipped out at almost any time and interacted with. Aside from replying to emails and (sometimes, rarely) talking on the phone, the player can change the wallpaper and ringtones, and, amusingly, access the Future Gadget Lab’s website, which opens in your computer’s default browser. Of all of the phone’s functions, emailing is the most cumbersome. You can answer emails by clicking on select phrases within them, but you’re locked into your choice and can’t go back to see how Okabe would reply to the others; in addition, these replying options seem to disappear after a set amount of time has passed.
What’s more irritating about the phone menu is that I discovered it purely by accident. The phone menu opens when moving your mouse cursor all the way to the right, or by pressing the “P” key. Neither of these moves is mentioned in the pause menu, which I also just happened upon and contains information on what all the other controls are. Note that at the time, I was playing the download version of the game, which does not come with a manual or even a readme file (the Limited Edition comes with a printed manual; not sure about the standard physical version, which hasn’t come out yet). As the phone menu is the main gameplay mechanic, this is a major oversight; a rudimentary control/hotkey guide accessible through the game’s start screen, or even just as a separate text file, would’ve greatly improved my initial experience. ETA (05/06): I’ve since noticed that that there is a PDF manual for the download version, though it has to be downloaded separately from the rest of the game’s files.
The Tips menu contains all sorts of useful info, like the definition of “kitteh”.
Aside from the phone menu, there’s a handy “backlog” feature, which is a record of the preceding narration and dialogue. Unfortunately, character names aren’t listed alongside their dialogue (you can hear their lines again, though) and saved files start with blank backlogs after loading them up, but despite these issues, I relied on this feature quite a bit. Other menus include “Tips”, an exhaustive glossary of technical, otaku, and other terms that gets filled out as one plays the game, standard pages for overall progress and achievements, and CG still and movie galleries that are unlocked upon reaching an ending for the first time. There are also two types of save files, quick saves and regular saves, and a total of 160 save slots between them; given that this game is roughly 40-50 hours long if you go for just one ending, having all these slots is more a necessity than a luxury.
The character graphics are designed by huke, the popular illustrator who created Black Rock ★ Shooter, and are unmistakably his creations: white circles in the irises, sharp chins, tiny mouths, and lots of dappled texture patterns. This art isn’t perfect; sometimes, the anatomy looks a little wonky, especially in a few scenes featuring Tennouji, aka Mister Braun, the muscular manager of the CRT shop. There is also a technical glitch in at least one spot when a character is zoomed in on, where the mouth animations don’t quite line up with the still face. The backgrounds fare better, capturing both the real-life and imaginary settings quite well, and include a few arresting and memorable images. The localized text is well-written—respectful of its source while being accessible to English speakers—and contains only a handful of grammatical errors. It’s worth noting that this localization uses a mix of real names (for example, the otaku stores Animate, Toranoana, and Mandarake) and fictionalized ones (Starbecks, Dr. P, etc.). I’m not sure if this is equally true for the Japanese original, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it is. As for the music, it’s the type of bordering-on-generic stuff typical of an above-average anime; appropriate but not particularly distinctive, in other words.
Uh-huh, Okabe, whatever you say…
And speaking of which, both the story and the characters are anime as hell. Okabe starts off as the most unusual character in the ensemble, but later follows a path of personal growth, much like heroes in other Japanese media. Mayuri is a childlike airhead and cosplay seamstress who is mostly endearing, occasionally irritating, and sometimes shrewdly observant. “Super Hacka” Daru accurately describes himself as a “gentleman pervert”—he gets along respectfully with “3D girls”, but loves the 2D ones in eroge and can find moe in anything, including the Large Hadron Collider. Kurisu is level-headed most of the time, logical almost to a fault, and a closet Internet Person. Then there’s male shrine maiden Luka, catgirl waitress Faris, cell phone addict Moeka, and Braun Tube Workshop part-timer Suzuha, rounding out what would be a harem in nearly any other game. The harem/dating sim elements are made much more obvious in the second half of the game, where large chunks of backstory about most of the female characters is revealed, and deciding what “route” to take to what ending essentially boils down to what girl to choose. There are some other characters, but aside from the ones named above and the previously mentioned Mister Braun, they play only minor roles.
All of these characters are key participants in a conspiracy-heavy story inspired by the real-life tale of John Titor, an alleged time traveler from 2036 who appeared on an internet messageboard back in 2000. The main villain is SERN, a fictionalized version of CERN, the famed nuclear research organization. In Steins;Gate, it turns out that SERN has been researching time travel, and it’s this research which leads them to take over the world in 2034. Still, despite his anxieties over SERN’s methods and secrecy, not to mention his own worries about affecting the past, Okabe cavalierly encourages his friends to fulfill their personal wishes using the PhoneWave (name subject to change) after his first successful controlled experiment, which involved winning lottery numbers and was one in which he seemingly becomes the only person to have remembered what the world was like before the past was altered. This carefree approach to the Lab’s time travel experiments, in which brief emails, called “D-Mails”, are sent to the past, contrasted sharply with the scenes that had come before, and seemed to me to be somewhat out of character for Okabe.
After all is said and done, it’s revealed that Moeka is an agent of SERN’s who, during a raid of the lab, kills Mayuri. Conveniently enough, this happens shortly after the completion of the PhoneWave (name subject to change)’s successor, the Time Leap Machine, which can send a person’s memories (and, as it quickly becomes obvious, their consciousness) up to two days into the past. Okabe uses the Time Leap Machine to try and prevent Mayuri’s death, only to find himself failing every single time. Eventually, he learns that in order to escape the “worldline” on which Mayuri dies, he must re-obtain the IBN 5100 computer that he had borrowed several days ago—which had disappeared from the lab during the fulfillment of one of his friends’ wishes—and use it to hack into SERN and delete the first D-Mail from an encrypted database. Naturally, this means undoing all of the effects of the successful D-Mails that his friends had sent.
The game’s CGs are often composed from dramatic angles.
In addition to narration, much of the VN’s actual text consists of dialogue laden with technical explanations and quantum physics discussions, broken up with lighthearted chit-chat and geeky, and sometimes racy, bits of humor. There is also plenty of drama, especially when it comes to the “wishes” that were fulfilled by the D-Mails and Okabe’s having to decide whether or not to retract them. Some of the game’s text drags on at times, but other sections move along at a good clip; one part that I found myself surprised to be engaged by was a card game tournament, where the rules and moves were described in great detail. The characters themselves are mixes of standard anime/manga archetypes, but when more is learned about them, they become somewhat more nuanced.
There are some small inconsistencies here and there, but, unfortunately, the culmination of the story contains the most gigantic plot hole in the entire game. It turns out that, for some weird reason, deleting that initial D-Mail from SERN’s database would return the world to the past in the Prologue, in which Kurisu died. From a practical standpoint, this makes no sense whatsoever, not least of which because SERN’s D-Mail is a copy of the original sent from Okabe to Daru, and, more importantly, in order to delete it, no time travel is involved. On the date on which Okabe has to decide whether or not to delete the D-Mail, it has existed on that database for about two weeks; it seems like the idea that deleting it would mean that “it never existed” is being taken far too literally here. That said, in a way, it’s rather cheap and dishearteningly silly to have to decide between the very lives of either Mayuri or Kurisu (and having the future be either a nuclear wasteland or a SERN-ruled dystopia, respectively, though these concerns aren’t nearly as important to Okabe) when the mechanism for doing so makes no logical sense whatsoever. For the record, when it came to this point, I chose to save Mayuri and kill Kurisu… and yes, according to the game, the past was changed and Kurisu went back to being dead. There’s also the matter of the second successful D-Mail, the lottery one, which wasn’t only not cancelled, but was largely forgotten about altogether.
These end-game events led me back to a thought I had during the prologue: is Rintaro Okabe a reliable narrator? Sure, the Hououin Kyoma alter-ego is pretty much dead by this point, but after embarking on the Mayuri route, and not long before the SERN database deletion was carried out, Kurisu left Akihabara to fly back to the United States. That said, it lessens the impact of her dying, or “dying”: either way, Okabe’s memories would be pretty much all he had left of her.
As of this writing, I’ve only seen Mayuri’s ending and not any of the others, though I might go back and at least check out Suzuha’s, since she ended up being my favorite character. The fan book which came with the Limited Edition contains, among other things, plenty of spoilers for all of the endings, including hints for actions that need to be taken to reach them. It makes for interesting reading if you, like me, have played all the way through and have reached one ending, but don’t have a terribly strong need to see any of the others. However, if you have the LE and don’t want anything spoiled, don’t so much as flip through it until you’ve seen all the content you want to see.
Steins;Gate is flawed, and I’m still not completely sure if its high points make up for the troublesome final act, but thanks to its endearing characters, solid production values, and the occasional surprise (which was always welcome, since thanks to some heavy-handed foreshadowing, some major revelations were ones I had correctly guessed about well ahead of time), most of my experience was good. It’s not about to usurp Last Window or the second Ace Attorney from the lofty positions they hold in my own personal visual novel rankings, and it is nowhere near as good as Ghost Trick, my favorite adventure game of any kind, but Steins;Gate has its merits. In the end, my main hope for this game hasn’t changed: that as a high-profile ambassador for PC visual novels in English, it does well enough to ensure more and better such titles to be localized in the future.