Visual novels sure have gotten really big within the anime fandom, haven’t they?
I remember a time when you had to download five different files in order to get them to work on your Microsoft Windows PC, but now we live in an age where Steam is handing these types of games out like candy on multiple OS systems, provided you have the money and can handle not getting to see uncensored vaginas without going to a doujin site. Most of the source material for popular anime adaptations like Clannad, all of the Higurashi games, and Steins;Gate are now available for purchase. A lot of the more obscure cult games like Fault (no not the Tony Taka hentai) and The House of Fata Morgana are getting decent attention there. And then of course there’s the non-Japanese stuff like Hatoful Boyfriend and Doki Doki Literature Club, which need no explanation because you’ve already played them by now. Yep, it sure is good to be a nerd nowadays, isn’t it?
At the very least, we don’t have to rely on anime adaptations to learn of the existence of these visual novels anymore. Nowadays, most current anime fans can barely relate to my experience of watching Da Capo and School Days, trying to find a good romance anime and getting kicked in the face repeatedly because they were all based on video games that were somewhat engaging when you were actually playing as the male lead and completely soul-sucking when you take the interaction out and lazily combine all of the routes to make an awkward harem series that’s about as believable as anything Bill Cosby says nowadays. Yeah these visual novel adaptations are still around and have apparently made it clear that we have learned nothing from that decade, because they’re still cheaply produced, they’re still lazily adapted, and barely anyone remembers them after they’re finished airing. I think Planetarian is the only recent one that came out half-way decent, and even that one suffered from the “kinda-shitty ending” syndrome that all of these visual novel adaptations end up inevitably having.
But we don’t remember Planetarian much, now do we? In fact, we barely even remember Clannad despite the amount of acclaim it still gets on ranking sites and such. Nowadays, it’s all about Steins;Gate and the Fate series, and while the latter is kept relevant thanks to numerous anime adaptations and video games, the former continuing to be recognized as one of the greats is quite impressive considering it’s been seven years since the original anime adaptation concluded and introduced people to the “far superior” video game. Not that it hasn’t gone through its own merchandising phase in order to make sure that it’ll never disappear like Arakawa Under the Bridge eventually did. We’ve got a movie sequel, the original video game getting ported to various consoles, the original video game getting remade with anime cutscenes, some light novels, multiple other Science Adventure series promoting themselves through Steins;Gate’s name, and a pseudo-sequel in the form of Steins;Gate 0, which ended up getting so much acclaim to the point that many fans considered it superior to the original.
And given how many gamers liked Steins;Gate 0, they couldn’t resist the opportunity to go “anime adaptation now please”. Because the original game just isn’t enough for fans, is it? We’ve got to see that shit animated. Who cares if 99% of the time, taking away player interaction will end up resulting in an inferior product? Who cares if it’s been proven numerous times with the other Science Adventure adaptations that the original anime was just an accident? We need to spread the love to people who don’t like reading all of that text and make sure that the legacy of the best time travel story in existence never dies. Let’s ride this hype train for many years to come!
Too bad there’s a giant roadblock in front of that train, and it’s that Steins;Gate 0: The Anime is absolutely pathetic.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first: some effort has been made to actually produce a hook at the very start of the series rather than 3/4 of the way through like the first Steins;Gate, as well as every other visual novel adaptation ever. While I could have done without the entire cast getting reintroduced to us, the first two episodes do an alright job of actually providing a reason to make me want to watch more aside from obligations. It establishes Okabe’s depression, introduces a potentially interesting new support character in Maho Hiyojin (a young-looking scientist who respects Kurisu), sets up an artificial Kurisu AI named Amadeus as a reminder of Okabe’s past, and makes you think the show is going to be a series-long version of Spike Jonze’s Her in that his interaction with this new AI will help him get out of his funk whilst exploring the concept of artificial life.
Then the third episode starts and all of the bad hits me in the face like a spiked baseball bat being swung by CM Punk when it immediately drops that plot line in order to bring in all of the baggage that’s dragged down Steins;Gate and the Science Adventure series over the years since its creators wanted to turn their only real success into a franchise. The boring conspiracy organizations. The irritatingly vague dialogue. The trope-y characters. And the sheer amount of boredom I get watching these shows.
Steins;Gate 0 takes place during the events of the first anime’s twenty-third episode, so you sort of know how it ends assuming you’ve watched the first series or played the game (and if you haven’t, I’d advise not jumping into this anime because it’s not very newcomer-friendly). We all know Okabe is going to get out of his funk and save Kurisu, just like we know Jimmy McGill is going to become a criminal lawyer to one of the most dangerous drug dealers to ever live at the end of Better Call Saul. But for the most part, you’re in the dark regarding the climactic scenes that lead to the inevitable conclusion and that’s what we want to see. While Better Call Saul established its identity by showing Jimmy screwing over everyone but himself due to his personality problems conflicting with people’s best interests, Steins;Gate 0 decides to just make Okabe wallow in guilt while the supporting cast exist to have Christmas parties to canned cleaning scenes that would bore anime fans that willingly go to “let’s discuss our anime history” panels. Riveting storytelling right there.
A lot of the series plays off more like a reunion special than a proper continuation. Ruka and Feyris get a good amount of screentime for no reason other than fanservice, and the new supporting cast is nothing but more token females with even less presence or character, along with one new male character that looks evil no matter what expression he makes and speaks English about as well as Jackie Chan. Gee, I wonder who the villain is going to be out of this selection? Is it going to be Moeka again? Will it be Mayuri Friend #1 or 2? How about the new girl that looks like Kurisu or that Judy character who only gets five minutes of screentime? Or maybe the show will go full-on meta and reveal it was the writer of this crap all along?
Apologies to those who are offended that I loosely spoiled who the bad guy is, but you’d have to be blind as a bat to not see it coming before the eventual reveal given how much the show’s direction telegraphs it. And you shouldn’t care anyways because as per usual for a Science Adventure anime, the villains are a load of shit that are so twist-dependent they make recent Disney villains look like Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Nothing but cartoonish evil stereotypes with no motivation other than to rule the world because of vaguely defined immortality. Always remember that the main writer of Steins;Gate is the same guy who gave us the triple whammy of Dr. Franxx, the VIRM, and whoever the hell that blue chick was in Darling in the Franxx in case you have trouble remember who the bad guy was in Robotics;Notes. I doubt even Todd Haberkorn’s voice could save these poor man’s Marvel villains.
Daru is back as well, and I’ve got to be honest: I have no idea what the appeal of this dude is supposed to be. His sexual harassment jokes were never funny and the series never establishes him as his own character. The only reason he’s important is because he’s the future father of one of the main girls, and all of his development is either tied to her or, in this series, his future wife. He gets an entire episode dedicated to him this time, and all that came out of it was that he realized he need to act more father-ly. How is this development important to the story? Because it’s a visual novel adaptation. Character development only exists in a vacuum until the very end.
Alot of this is due to the way the anime tries to compromise between fans of the video game and those who are jumping into this on its own merits. The original Steins;Gate 0 video game is composed of five or so different character routes that you had to go through in order to get the true ending, and anyone who’s ever seen a visual novel adaptation should know that these sorts of anime generally either go the route of adapting all of the characters from said routes into a pre-packaged story loosely or trying to fit all of the routes into a single cohesive narrative. While the latter is more preferable, it’s still not something that translates very well into anime. You guys ever watched the 2006 adaptation of Kanon? Remember how whenever the main character would focus on one girl in particular, every other girl suddenly stops existing in the plot until said focus ends? And then when the arc is over, said girl is never really brought up again? Steins;Gate 0 is proof that we haven’t learned anything after more than a decade.
In fact, we just seem to be regressing more and more. By the fifteenth episode, Kanon had one girl killed off and the other engaging in an epic sword fight against invisible monsters. By Steins;Gate 0’s fifteenth episode, one girl flies off to America, only to come back moments later. One girl cries to her mother, then shoots things for two seconds before leaving. They don’t even try to make it seem like these poorly adapted routes have anything important attached to them with this adaptation. And that’s if you can ignore the poorly-timed comedic moments where an adult woman who looks like she’s twelve accidentally exposes her naked body to the male lead…and that’s the punchline. Like I said, everything bad about visual novel adaptations shows up in this anime apart from the panty shots.
Also, Kanon had good animation. I know White Fox isn’t exactly a production company you go to for visuals, as practically all of their big hits have suffered from directorial issues or looking like a cheap copy of a bygone age, but you’d think for their most successful series, they’d put some real time and effort into giving it life. Hell if it looked like Re:Zero or even Girls’ Last Tour, at least it’d be somewhat polished. Unfortunately, Steins;Gate 0 looks like an amateur watercolor assignment with dog turds thrown on it. The direction is less lively than a bear in hibernation, and there are enough unfinished faces and off-model shots to fill a two-ton dump truck.
One standout for me was the climax in the seventeenth episode that involved a group of trained mercenaries being unable to hit a girl they surrounded while she capped eight of them with no problem before her friend gets shot in one of the cheapest ways to do a cliffhanger I’ve seen considering we’ve already seen this girl die about ten thousand times. Then the eighteenth episode followed that up with a girl killing everyone else by herself with the power of stills and bullets that don’t hit her until they suddenly do. Pretty much everyone has already complained about that scene and the ones who still love the episode despite that are either massively forgiving or just can’t seem to see that Steins;Gate isn’t the same as it was seven years ago. It’s like that ex-girlfriend who used to be sweet, but then she got influenced by some nasty people with massive piles of money. Of course, where that analogy breaks down is that you can go back to the simpler times by just buying the original Steins;Gate on blu-ray and watching that. Or playing the game, which a lot of fans seem to prefer.
In fact, if you really want to defend Steins;Gate 0, just buy the game on Steam and play that version. I’ve played the entire thing myself and yeah it was very tedious and unintuitive with a plot that got a bit nonsensical at times, but at least you had some control over the pacing and it felt like a complete product. Okabe still acts like a pussy until the very end from what I could remember, which is a major strike against the narrative in general, but at least there’s some substance to carry things when he won’t.
Oh yeah, I should probably mention that if you liked Okabe because of his enthusiastic mad scientist personality and character growth, you’re probably going to hate him here. The experiences he went through just before he actually saves Kurisu in the final episode have caused him to dress in black and mope about without doing anything to progress the plot, and boy does that phase wear out its welcome quickly. In fact, again like most visual novel adaptations with a large female cast, Steins;Gate 0 isn’t really about the main male protagonist at all. Whenever the show is centered on one of the supporting cast members, Okabe might as well not even exist. I can’t even recall what he did to support Maho besides being someone to talk to whenever she suffered a crisis.
And while that might sound like a negative at first, honestly if Steins;Gate 0 was going to exist at all, it should have committed to excluding Okabe more and focus on developing this new cast. Because honestly, why on earth would you want to watch more of him after the way the first Steins;Gate ended? His character arc is finished. He has no more room to grow. You can still keep him, but make him a supporting character who aids a new protagonist or something as they delve deep into their own WW3 time-travel adventures, whether said new protagonist is Maho or some other male lead with his own faux-harem. Having him still be the main character is pointless if he doesn’t make things happen and the only growth he’s going to go through is something that’s only experienced at the very end.
At the very least, it might develop the other characters into someone worth giving a damn about. There’s a Kurisu-lookalike in this show named Kagari, who feels like she was crowbarred into the story by a former intern for Key, who was let go because his ideas were just too cloying for them. Her screentime mostly consists of her crying, her having amnesia, her fawning over her mother, and her being a faux-badass whilst having no actual impact on the plot or bringing anything new to the sci-fi concepts in this franchise. You could literally see her route in the original game getting chopped up and spread out over these episodes like a serial killer thinking he’s so clever. Amadeus fares even worse. After a few episodes of just being a digital version of Kurisu, she just gets dropped from the plot entirely and only shows up near the end in order to be Okabe’s cheerleader. For five minutes at max.
Edit: Okay, she gets an entire episode dedicated to her after that, but by then it’s too little too late.
I don’t even remember who the other supporting characters are. In fact, I struggle to recall their names let alone their roles. I remember one girl is destined to be Daru’s wife, but she literally has no role other than that. I remember a woman named Judy who literally existed just so the director can foreshadow that she’s going to be evil in her five minutes of screentime. I’m fully aware that visual novels with multiple girls have to hit some sort of fetish quota and all, but if I can’t even remember the fetishes, then I think we have a real problem. Hell, I don’t think the shitty Science Adventure villain had much screen time after he was revealed to be a cartoonish bastard.
When Okabe does get something interesting to do on his own terms, it’s not even all that exciting because he’s literally doing the same thing he did in the first Steins;Gate, being a slave to the convergence theorem which has gotten so ridiculously contrived in its execution that Donnie Darko himself would call bullshit on it, and trying his best to find a route where everyone can be happy. For a show that’s supposed to be evolving the themes and concepts of the original entry, it sure seems to like recycling things a lot. And why shouldn’t it? Lots of fans enjoyed that dreadful Loading Area of Deja Vu film. The most critically acclaimed episodes of this show have been when it reminds us of its much better predecessor. Like that eighth episode where Okabe goes back in time for a moment in order to banter with Kurisu again. What exactly was the purpose of said episode besides fanservice? Given how he didn’t learn anything from that journey and neither do we, I’m going to guess “nothing”.
Some people have asked me what I hate the most about visual novel adaptations or anime written by visual novel writers. Yeah there’s the cheap production values that happen if you’re not a Key-Ani adaptation. There’s the lazy fanservice. There’s the fact that the characters tend to be incredibly reactionary stereotypes. But the biggest problem I have with them universally is the same problem I have with Sonic the Hedgehog when he went to 3-D: the lack of momentum. Without the player interaction to drive things forward, I’m just watching a ton of foreshadowing that’s not guaranteed to pay off at the end, not too dissimilar from waiting in line for two-and-a-half hours in order to ride the Master Blaster at Schlitterbahn. And at least the Master Blaster is guaranteed to be fun when you get there.
You know what? I’m just going to spoil the plot of every Science Adventure/semicolon series right now because there’s been so many and yet people still haven’t seemed to have caught on to their patterns. They always start off by introducing some sort of vague conspiracy that the characters – who are mostly female – are introduced to either through rumors or bizarre scenes that are given no context until later down the line. Then the characters just goof around with their own science projects for over half the series whilst running into the occasional clue that something strange is going on, usually as a cliffhanger, before never following up on it. After that, we go into the individual character arcs where the main male lead ends up aiding the females in disjointed sub-stories that have no consequence on the main plot and are never brought up again afterwards. When that’s done, it’s revealed that the final bad guy is a Saturday morning cartoon villain bent on ruling the world through a science-related plan with more holes in it than a Korean mine field and the characters have to stop him using the power of friendship.
Steins;Gate 0 is the epitome of a cheap story with cliffhangers and then some. It buys audience attention through name recognition and form over function, catering to people who want to see specific moments animated over those who just want to see a good anime that has tension, characters making hard choices, time travel helping and ruining lives, and not giving the bad guys any real screen time. The fact that it tried to adapt all of the routes in of itself is proof that the creators put artistic vision pretty damn low on the priority list, and the fact that it ended most of them before they could even get started spells out that they couldn’t even commit to whatever vision they had.
The fanbase’s refusal to let go is the main problem with Steins;Gate. I checked online and there are quite a few people who want more Science Adventure anime and visual novels, especially when you slap “El Psy Congroo” on the marketing. There are even people who want more timelines from this very series animated. Probably because the other semicolon adaptations have been so forgettable that we can’t even remember how bad Robotics;Notes and Chaos;Child were. And while it’s fine to anticipate the games because I’m sure this franchise works alright there, come the hell on. Teenagers/college students saving the world from some vague organization with the power of friendship and science? Explain to me what about that premise deserves a shared universe so Daru can make a cameo in a story about kids building a robot?
And more importantly, why on earth do you want more of Steins;Gate? This franchise blew through all of its good ideas seven years ago! The characters are done! Their stories are finished! They are on more character lockdown than Phoenix ever since the original Ace Attorney trilogy ended. At least change the entire cast so that we can get all-new stories with new characters that have potential for growth. Just because the production companies fucked up in regards to making Robotics;Notes a hit doesn’t mean you have to keep depending on Okabe to carry this franchise. Because you know what we end up with if we refuse to let go? Steins;Gate Zero Character. Steins;Gate Zero Excitement. Steins;Gate Zero Animation. Steins;Gate Zero Reason To Exist. Steins;Gate Zero Is The MAL Score It Deserves.
There is nothing about this show that’s worth watching at all. Every single episode is just a failure of the imagination to the point that it feels like baby’s first sci-fi story given a children’s budget. I haven’t even gotten to how badly mismanaged WWIII is in this narrative, have I? Well let’s close off this review by ranting on that. There’s an episode where Okabe goes to a future where WWIII happened and it only exists to kill off a very unimportant character just so Okabe can get more motivation to do shit, even though you’d think the last two episodes would have been enough. And maybe I’m just used to Shin Megami Tensei’s and Ultra Despair Girls’ stylistic apocalypses, but it is one of the most visually bankrupt realizations of an earth-shattering travesty I’ve ever seen with lots of barren landscapes that don’t pop, more dark corridors than Deadman Wonderland, a character who won’t drop the cat costume even when the world is going to shit, and limited animation in general. How the hell the fanboys considered this to be the visual imagination that Steins;Gate deserves, I have no idea. The fact that they accept this show’s level of animation alone is nothing short of sad.
I’m sure some of them are going to claim that the blu-rays will fix these visual issues, so we can reevaluate our stance on the show once those are out. But clarifying that would require me to watch Steins;Gate 0 again. And I don’t need to waste another eight hours of my life just to get further clarification that, and I’ll be as non-spoilerific as I can, the ending is still nonsensical bullshit that breaks the series’ own rules just like it was in the original video game. How the hell was that scene even possible given how by the end of the first series, all of the alternate timelines were supposed to have been erased from existence? I know time travel stories are always going to have plotholes, but you could squeeze Mount Olympus through that logic gap.
- Steins;Gate 0 can be watched on Crunchyroll, Funimation, or VRV.
- Seven years later and I’m still trying to figure out why people think “Hacking to the Gate” is a good opening theme. It sounds like every dark J-rock song ever.
- Watch Anonymous;Code have a cameo from Ruka just so fanboys and fangirls can wet their panties.
- Now let’s all just leave this fucking franchise in the past forever.