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It's impossible to talk about Steins;Gate 0 without spoiling one of the major aspects of the original game. It's something like an interquel, that takes place right before the true ending, one of those concepts that only makes sense since the story is about time travel. As for a summation of its quality, know that it's more of a accompanying work than a true sequel - it's there to fill in some blanks and bolster some themes and characters. It doesn't always succeed, and it's a much messier game than the first, but it's still an essential experience for fans. So, if you haven't completed the first game, please stop reading here, unless you're okay with it being spoiled.
Right at the end of the original Steins;Gate, Okabe tries to go back to the past in order to stop Kurisu from being murdered. Unfortunately, much as with Mayuri in her timeline, Kurisu is fated to die, no matter what the cause. During he attempt to save her from her murderous father, he ends up accidentally killing her himself, leaving him to return to his original timeline, completely shattered.
At this point, he's about to give up, until he gets a message from himself, far in the future, that gives him a plan in order to save the world. Okabe tries again, he succeeds in saving Kurisu, and creates a new worldline (the titular Steins Gate) where both her and Mayuri are still alive. That text message from the future is kind of a deus ex machina, but after seeing all of the pain and suffering Okabe went through at that point, it was acceptable, if just because he needed some kind of happy end.
Still, it paints a dark picture - in order for an Okabe to exist in the future to send that message, he had to had lived a life where he gave up saving Kurisu, knowing that he was the one who killed her. Steins;Gate 0 tells the story of that Okabe, and the experiences he has to live through in order to uncover the secrets to opening Steins Gate.
The story begins right as Okabe returns to the present after killing Kurisu, admitting his own failure, and carrying on with his life. He drops his Hyouuin Kyouma shtick, he destroys the Timewave, he essentially quits the Future Gadget Laboratory, and goes back to school. During his studies, he runs into Kurisu's old co-workers from America: Dr. Alexis Leskinen and his assistant, Maho Hiyajo. Although the Kurisu in the first game spent most of her time talking about time travel theories, she's technically a much respected neuroscientist - after all, it's her knowledge in this field that allows the laboratory to digitize memories in the first place. Her team was crafting an AI system called Amadeus, which similarly copied human memories and stored them in a computer. Before Kurisu was killed, she had a copy of herself uploaded to Amadeus, so she still lives, in a manner of speaking, even if it's only as a CG model on a screen, governed by ones and zeros. Seeing how Okabe was friends with Kurisu (in the beta timeline, anyway), he is chosen as a test candidate, with a special app put in his phone so he can talk to "Amadeus Kurisu" at any time.
Initially the story focuses on Okabe's interactions with the ghost of his former friend/lover, which has overwhelmingly tragic overtones. But ultimately the stakes become greater - even though the time travel machine has been destroyed and the SERN dystopia has been prevented, World War III is still set to happen in the near future. And is it turns out, that war is being fought over Amadeus, as the AI technology - along with the ability to capture and transfer memories - can be harnassed for military purposes.
A friend of Kurisu, Maho is also Japanese though spends most of her time at Victor Chondria Unversity in the United States. She spends time with Okabe, not only to test the Amadeus system, but also to piece together's the mysterious death of her friend and colleague. Despite her diminuative stature, she's actually a few years older than Kurisu, and is constantly frustrated that she's mistaken for a child. She's also brilliant, though her work leaves messy and constantly exhausted.
A professor at Victor Chondria University, and mentor to both Kurisu and Maho. He is one of the main developers of the Amadeus system, and welcomes Okabe to help test it out. He's large and incredibly friendly, and is able to speak fluent Japanese, though with a heavy accent. He's very much a portrait of a stereotypical Westerner. He also works alongside Judy Reyes, another professor at the university who occasionally visits Japan.
A young orphaned girl from the future, who was adopted by an older Mayuri. She had time-traveled to the past along with Suzuha but ended up getting lost during one of her stops. Depending on the worldline, she has lived vastly different lives.
One of Mayuri's cosplayer friends, and eventual wife to Daru, and mother to Suzuha. Much of Daru's story is an attempt to get together with her, a constant source of stress for Suzuha, since they need to get together in order for her to exist. Two of her other friends also occasionally hang around - Katsumi "Fubuki" Nakase and Kaede Kurushima.
The pacing - one of the major issues with the first game - is far better here, as it becomes intriguing almost immediately, and keeps up the flow through the game. There are still plenty of goofy slice-of-life events, and while they can occasionally go on a bit long, they tend to end on darker notes, so there's still some thematic consistency. Much of the strength of the first game was showing how things could go so quickly from peace to chaos, and that happens several times throughout, offering a series of minor climaxes rather than one major one.
One of the biggest changes of the story is that it no longer is told solely from Okabe's viewpoint - though he's still the main protagonist, the viewpoint constantly switches between other characters, most often Suzuka and Maho. The scope is also much larger - rather than sticking to Akihabara and reliving the same week over and over, it takes place over the course of (roughly) a year, over several different locations, with occasional flash forwards and backwards.
Going along with this, the roles of the secondary characters have been greatly expanded. Suzuha struggles with the fact that her mission to change the past is a failure, and while she gets to spend time with her dad, she also has to deal with the fact that he's a perverted oaf. Similarly, Daru has to get his act together, learn to talk to the woman who will eventually be his wife (and Suzuha's mother), and eventually lead the resistance in the future. Some of the strongest character development, surprisingly, goes to Mayuri. In the original game, she really wasn't much more than a puppy dog to get kicked around for the sake of the story. Here, she's not content to be a damsel-in-distress, and does everything in her power to stop Okabe's obvious suffering, even though she's unclear of the events that turned him into a shattered man.
The best character, though, is Maho. She's a lot like Kurisu, though with an inferiority complex (one of the major themes is that she considers herself Salieri to Kurisu's Amadeus). Much like Okabe, she is struggling with the loss of a dear friend, and not only wants to cope with it but also investigate the circumstances behind her mysterious murder, which are unknown to everyone in this worldline (except for Okabe, who's unwilling to reveal the cause of his trauma). During the game, she forms a bond with Okabe, and to a lesser extent, the other characters. Though Kurisu is still around, in a manner of speaking, she's confined to a computer and can't really fulfill a huge role in the story - Maho fills that void extremely well. Plus, while she's similar to her departed friend, they're still unique characters - Maho isn't nearly the tsundere that Kurisu was, though that's probably because Okabe isn't nearly as obnoxious when he's not taking on his chuunibyou persona.
As with the original game, the plot branches are determined through Okabe's phone. All of the major characters have been upgraded to smartphones, along with a messaging app called RINE (a parody of the real world LINE app, which is popular outside of America). Though most of these messages and conversations are just for flavor, though at a few major functions, choosing whether to answer the phone (or turn it off) puts you in a different path.
Here's one of the major difference between Steins;Gate 0 and its predecessor - the original game had one main storyline, that branched briefly at different points for each of the character endings. In this game, there's a branch that happens fairly early in the story, sending you down one of two completely different plot paths, both of which branch out even further. It's necessary to view both of the main endings (though not the alternate sub-endings) in order to reach the true ending. On one hand, it's not nearly as obtuse as the route to reach the real ending of the first game, but it also makes for a story that's much, much more confusing.
Simply put, the story juggles too many things at once. While it starts by focusing on Okabe's and Kurisu's relationship (and his own interactions with Maho and Leskinen), one of the branches introduces a plot focusing on an outbreak in a new type of encephalitis, which causes some people to have mass delusions. As it turns out, Okabe might be the only one who has strong Reading Steiner capabilities, and all of his time jumping from the last game may have caused some significant widespread problems. However, this thread is dropped fairly quickly and is more or less irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The story also introduces several new characters, including three of Mayuri's friends, but outside of a few minor plot functions, they barely serve any purpose. Similarly, even though they show up, the narrative has a hard time finding worthwhile things for Luka and Faris to do.
Instead, one of the main focuses is on Kagari, a young girl who accompanied Suzuha in her time travels but disappeared during one of the stops in the late 90s. In the present, she's a young woman who's lost her memories, and whose fate is tied in with Amadeus and Kurisu.
However, even though you don't directly have access to a time machine, Okabe still jumps between worldlines. This mostly happens due to interactions with his phone, but when you first read through the game, it's not initially clear what actually causes these time jumps or the effects they have. Some characters - particularly Kagari - have drastically different roles depending on the timeline, which often change several times even within a single chapter. Once you've completed the game, the story only really makes sense when you sit down and map out every event, and connect them all together, and even then, it's awfully vague about certain things. It ends up affecting the emotional core of the story - it's hard to feel bad for Kagari when you're still trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Plus, for a game that was supposed to close up the one major unanswered question of the original game, it ends up introducing more - but at the same time, none of these are important enough that they deserve a whole new game to explain them.
The biggest casualty to this approach is the true ending. In some ways, it's destined to be disappointing, because you already know what's going to happen (if not necessarily the steps that lead up to it). However, it's hastily executed, and there's no emotional payoff - it just ends. Even though the whole point of Steins;Gate 0 is to accompany the original, it could have used its own strong finale, instead of just accompanying one we've already seen (and isn't even shown in this game). One of the endings is even continued in a drama CD that was released several years before - the game provides context for this scene, that wasn't initially provided, so why wasn't this shown here?
The art is also surprisingly lazy. Most of the characters are designed and have new outfits, primarily because most of the story takes place in winter rather than summer. The new art is fantastic - less distinct than the original designs, but still attractive. But in some cases, it re-uses both cinemas and character portraits from the first game, sometimes right next to each other. It's jarring to see Mayuri drawn one way most of the game, except for a few brief scenes where they re-use her old design, because they couldn't be bothered to redraw her in a school uniform. Furthermore, there are a few scenes that take place in the far future, and you'd expect to see how all of the cast members have aged. But no - almost all of them are hidden off screen or barely shown. This would be acceptable for a low budget visual novel, but Steins;Gate is a worldwide multimedia phenomenon, not something a few basement developers did in their spare time.
Even though technically there was six years between the original Steins;Gate and Steins;Gate 0, overall the story feels strangely rushed, as evident by the art, the haphazard storytelling, half-hearted plotlines, and fizzling finale. Some of these seems to be that it's an adaptation of a unfinished series of light novels called the Epigraph Trilogy (though drastically reworked and expanded), and some elements may have been more important originally but later changed.
Still, Steins;Gate 0 is certainly much more consistent than the first game, and while it never hits its lowest lows, it's also missing its highest highs. The expanded character arcs, while still a bit sloppy in some cases, greatly add to the central cast, and the expansion of the world is greatly welcome. After all, it's nice to spend some more time with these characters, after seeing their hearts ripped out by the cruel fate of time of the first game, and Maho in particular is a fantastic new character. Plus, the soundtrack is just as excellent, done by the same composer with a similar style, but with a large number of memorable new themes. In other words, it's an essential story, once you accept that's really meant to expand and supplement it, rather than being a "true" sequel.
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