Tuesday 16 April 2019

Anime REVIEW: Steins;Gate 0

Steins;Gate 0
Steins;Gate 0 is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

In 2011 the anime world was taken storm by Steins;Gate – a series based on a 2009 visual novel from famed developers Nitroplus. Its popularity led to a follow-up OVA and movie, both of which were original material that continued the story beyond that of the original game. When a sequel game was released in 2015, it was only a matter of time before it also received an anime adaptation. Fast forward to 2018 and Steins;Gate 0 was unleashed upon the world, presenting fans with a familiar but very different world to the ones they were previously used to. The series ran for a total of 23 episodes, along with a bonus OVA released shortly after its completion.

In the Steins;Gate World Line, self-proclaimed mad scientist Rintaro Okabe was able to go back in time and save Makise Kurisu and ultimately prevent World War Three. However in another World Line he failed, sending him into a deep depression. Choosing to remain in this timeline he turns his back on the lab and his friends, becoming an astute college student. The threat of war still remains though, with Suzuha Amane remaining in the present in the hopes of preventing her apocalyptic future.

Six months have passed, and during his studies Okabe meets Maho Hiyajo and Alexis Leskinen – two of Makise's former colleagues that have created Armadeus, an artificial intelligence system using the memories of the deceased scientist. As Okabe accepts their offer to help test the system, events quickly begin to unfold that suck him back into the battle to change history once again.

The original Steins;Gate was a series that took many people by surprise purely because of how innocent it seemed to begin with. What started out as an often light-hearted science fiction show all of a sudden showed its true colours – amping up the stakes and drama while at the same time keeping all those elements that made the early episodes so captivating. Steins;Gate 0 doesn't have the luxury of being able to surprise viewers like that, so instead it launches with no pretences about just how damn heavy it plans to be. Gone is the cackling madman that operated under the guise of Hououin Kyoma, replaced by a broken man haunted by guilt and afraid to try and change fate once more. Though his path to once again accepting his mission proves repeatedly tedious throughout the series, but the portrayal of Okabe's grief and depression feel powerfully real. The early episodes that specifically focus on his adjustment to life without Makise are powerful, but at the same time frustrating as you want to see just where the story is going.

Be careful what you wish for though, because the story moving forward is ultimately the show's downfall. At its best it's poorly paced, with inconsequential humour episodes thrown in when it should be gaining momentum. How Daru ends Yuki might seem like an important plot point, but in the grand scheme of things it really isn't (especially when the forgettable Valentine's Day OVA could have covered it). But at its worst Steins;Gate 0 is a web of interesting concepts, smashed together into an incoherent mess of techno-babble, predictable twists and wasted potential. This partly comes from the decision to bring together pieces of the game's various paths, rather than just focus on one and keep things consistent. The dystopian world of 2025, something Steins;Gate fans would be clamouring to see more of, has a mere one episode dedicated to it. It feels like without the strong foundation that the original Steins;Gate had built, this series would have fared even worse.

Thankfully it's the characters that help save the show from being a complete disappointment, doing particularly great things with Mayuri. Arguably the catalyst of the original series, here Mayuri finally gets her own defined arc and the story explores her reaction to Okabe's depression just as it much as it does Okabe himself. Her realisation and admittance of her feelings towards her oldest friend are undoubtedly the show's most powerful moments, and what follows are confirmation that while Makise might be at the core of Steins;Gate there's no denial that Mayuri is the heart. Similarly Daru and Suzuha also play a big part in the story, not just in terms of their relationship but also how both of them help shape the future. Feris and Ruka fans are likely to find themselves disappointed however, as the pair mostly stay in the background and the show's treatment of Ruka doesn't seem to have improved any better over time.

The loss of Makise from the cast is something that's felt throughout the entirety of Steins;Gate 0, but in her place the series brings in plenty of new faces in an attempt to strengthen the cast – some completely new to this World Line, while others have been briefly seen or mentioned in the past. At the forefront of all this is Maho Hiyajo, the pint-sized scientist who comes to view Okabe as a close friend. Their relationship is perhaps the most engaging in the whole of Steins;Gate 0, with the pair supporting one another in their grief over the loss of Makise. As well as a feisty attitude, Maho also brings that missing scientific element to the cast that's crucial for moving the story along. Also joining her as a new core cast member is Kagari Shiina, Mayuri's adopted daughter from the future who is key to the emergence of World War Three and the show's time-travelling shenanigans. Though her role in the core story does borderline on the absurd, the character herself is reasonably enjoyable and at the very least adds a new layer to Mayuri in both the present and future timelines.

But then, is Makise really gone when one of the main "characters" is an AI copy of her? Amadeus is an interesting addition to the cast, but is at its best when being used as a method (or crutch) to Okabe dealing with his grief. But perhaps much like it would be in reality their exchanges don't really advance, and by the time Okabe has to let go of Amadeus through a series of plot contrivances any emotional impact it was supposed to have has long since dissolved.

Despite studio White Fox remaining at the helm there is sadly a noticeable decline in the overall animation quality, though thankfully the art and character design still do a good job of capturing the game's (and original character designer Huke's) distinct aesthetic. Having all the original voice cast return also makes a huge difference, with them all slipping back into their roles as if they'd never left in the first place. Finally Ito Kanako returns to provide the series' opening theme "Fatima", and much like the original's "Hacking to the Gate" both her and the song feel as much as part of Steins;Gate as the content itself. The important take away here is that even when Steins;Gate 0 is failing to deliver the same thrills that the original did, there's enough familiarity in the setting to take comfort in it.

Steins;Gate 0 is an interesting look into a world that could have been, but sadly lacks both the quality and urgency that made the original series so beloved. Instead of building towards a string of unmissable episodes, this sequel series is instead a handful of excellent moments strung together by meandering filler and a plot that sways between either being too predictable or too clever for its own good. The new characters are a welcome addition, but ultimately not enough to save it. With Steins;Gate enjoying the loyal fan base it does it's unlikely that people will want to miss out on new material, but with the visual novel readily available in multiple territories that is probably the preferable way to experience this chapter.


Anonymous said...

Did notice that every second seasons of animes whose first ones are awesome usually are bad? Like Psycho-Pass - Season 1 is awesome,2...dissapointing. I don´t remember an anime where the second season is as good or better than the first one.

Anonymous said...

Well, to you right bellow me, I do think of one that the second Season was better: Mob Psycho 100.