Review in brief: Steins;Gate 0 is a rough showing in a beloved series that goes from cringey to alright to bad at the drop of a hat for its entire duration with few exceptions. It’s not without its moments, but they’re so few and far between that it bears a serious question: “Is this story worth being told?” Unless depression, memes, and a handful of clichés can hold your interest across most of the anime an honest “yes” will be hard to give.
**This review assumes that you’ve watched the original Steins;Gate. Inevitable comparisons will be made, but the focus will only be on Steins;Gate 0 and what is necessary to explain it.**
Review in full: Welcome to the beta attractor field, where resident sad scientist Okabe Rintaro makes a half-hearted go at preventing inevitable calamity by talking to an AI, helping an amnesiac, and generally being depressed in his all-black clothes. The viewer is expected to already know how this story begins and ends; it’s the story of how Okabe gets over his failures, refuses to let the world become a dystopia/perpetual war-zone, and forges the plan to reach Steins Gate. That said, as far as Steins;Gate 0 is concerned, the story itself is almost entirely the first of those three parts, i.e. the story of how Okabe gets PTSD from remembering Moeka’s existence for a while and rarely breaks out of his defeatism & submission to fate. Perhaps it could work if Okabe had the time to wallow in depression, but as-is it just sees him mope and complain while the world crumbles around him rather than develop him at all. As such, Okabe’s depression is not well-handled and isn’t an entertaining story either unless depression is your guilty pleasure.
Now the Steins;Gate series is no stranger to initially slow plots, but there are key differences here. The original’s slow start was acceptable and even enjoyable for many because it was a slowly unfolding tale about some weirdos messing around with alternate timelines using a machine built with a cell phone, a microwave that turned bananas into green jelly, mental instability, and the landlord’s 42” CRT TV (without permission). It was a plot that invited silliness while working with many mysterious & genuinely intriguing facets until things got serious in a sudden twist that was subtly hinted at, but surely wouldn’t happen in such a silly slice-of-life.
Steins;Gate 0 doesn’t have this start (or middle) at all. The audience already knows there’s time travel involved, so we get an AI that merely serves as a plot device and side character instead of working as the dynamic element time travel was and is in the series. Instead of building odd gadgets, Okabe and his friends reflect on how useless they feel while not finishing odd gadgets. Okabe is so depressed that it rubs off on Mayuri in certain ways, leaving a heavily flanderized Faris, barely-existent Nae, Prof. Alexis “Meme-Machine” Leskinen, and sometimes Daru to “spice things up” with randomness, memes, references to Steins;Gate, old Steins;Gate memes, Daru’s gentleman pervert antics, a K-On! reference, and sometimes even an actual joke. Some may find said humor decent enough for what it is, but those who need more than references and random memery to laugh could easily find it unable to balance the anime’s overarching aura of depression.
The slow part of the anime drags on until roughly episode 18, leaving much less room for the thriller aspect Steins;Gate 0 clearly wants to replicate. Even so the “heavy” parts of the story miss their mark more often than they hit. A blatantly-flagged carbon copy of one of the original Steins;Gate’s events serves as a total mockery, soldiers often have such bad accuracy and combat awareness that they make storm troopers look like SEAL Team 6, the villain reveal can be seen from a mile away and plays out like a bad fan faction, and plenty more that is too spoilery to bring up. It’s not helped by the regular use of “action scenes”, effectively slide-shows in most cases interspersed with awkward breaks for dramatic dialogue mid-fight.
These are interlaced with numerous plot contrivances & inconsistencies, enough to make the attentive viewer start to consider if this is actually a side story in an alternate universe with different rules. Time travel itself bends its consistency, with events that ought to result in paradox yet don’t, plus the explanation as to why the Time Leap Machine was limited to two days (because beyond that point the user’s mental state would be too different, resulting in likely damage) is ignored at times.
It’s not all bad news though, as there are still a handful of standout serious moments to be had. One unexpected twist brings developments that add to the overall story and blunts the anime’s initial angst to a degree. Getting to see just how other characters cope (or struggle to cope) with Kurisu’s death, Okabe’s resulting depression, and other similar & related events shows us sides of characters like Daru & Mayuri that hadn’t been touched upon much prior. Finally, there is a point where the show somewhat refreshes itself, and though it may be too little too late for those truly expecting a thriller, it results in some memorable moments that hold some small amount of merit, all things considered.
Such moments of merit are likely enough to remind a viewer who was otherwise put-off by other parts of the anime why they decided to watch it in the first place, or perhaps even the Steins;Gate series as a whole. More forgiving (or ignorant) fans could very well remember the anime based on these moments, which will likely be mentioned many times over to defend the anime and show that there are indeed clear & valid reasons to rate it highly. Unfortunately, someone watching with their brain turned on runs a high risk of having their rose-tinted glasses broken early on (if they had them to begin with). Steins;Gate 0 relies heavily on nostalgia to deliver its impact and stick a fair portion of its humor, leading to a glaring issue for many ~ that it does little to stand on its own two feet. Large portions of it effectively work as fanservice, and someone expecting an anime that is good on its own won’t have much to point to in the end.
Such is the conclusion I have come to in regards to Steins;Gate 0, though there are other aspects of the anime to mention for the sake of completeness.
As previously mentioned there are issues involving the visual quality. The amount of animation is minimized to a point where even someone such as myself who doesn’t view animation as a highly important quality in an anime (if it helps tell the story it’s usually good enough for me) was left wanting more of it. The picture quality itself is simply average, as the stylistic flare the original Steins;Gate had is not present here, and most frames are merely standard for the purpose of animating dialogue accompanied with basic motion ~90% of the time. Character (re)designs come with two "quirks". First you have Okabe's all-black attire, because clearly we aren't smart enough to tell that he's depressed. Second, it turns out that the B in beta attractor field stands for “breast expansion” as the returning female cast grew by one or two cup sizes. Less focus on plot, more focus on plot, sounds like a normal day in anime land.
The audio quality fares better, partially thanks to returning elements such as certain talented seiyuu and some of Steins;Gate’s noteworthy soundtrack. The new songs are distinguishable from each other, fitting for their usage, fit the reused compositions, and make use of a passable leitmotif. The OP & standard EDs don’t hold up as well, though the special EDs are a nice touch. Voicework is a mixed bag, with some voices done very well despite the circumstances within the show (including the voices for Mayuri, Daru, & Maho considering the varied emotions they experience). At the same time Amadeus (Kurisu) always sounds like she’s been awake for two days straight and Okabe’s actor was clearly enthused to be voicing him again, so much so that it’s noticeable at times and in ways where “enthused” isn’t how Okabe is portrayed (and can be overbearing in scenes where he is).
Speaking of portrayals, Steins;Gate 0 has some highlights and some issues with how it handles characterization. It features a sizable cast, sizable enough to where it can’t put enough attention into all of the cast to give everyone a clear purpose. Faris is there because why not, Ruka is there so that Okabe feels more stressed in two scenes and for the obligatory “but he’s a guy” joke, Mayuri’s three cosplaying friends only exist because one develops a plot hook that is mentioned twice and left unused & forgotten, and another is Daru’s future wife. There’s also the unfortunate case of Kagari, whose subplot is split into three chunks, always coming in just when something else seems to actually be starting up, and never wraps up all of its loose ends, rendering her as little more than an annoyingly used plot device that totally looks just like Kurisu if you ignore her ridiculous bust.
Some characters turn out quite well though. Mayuri & Daru are given plenty of serious moments to develop and/or flesh out, which better establishes why they are crucial to Okabe and his journeys. They end up taking responsibilities Okabe shrugs off in his depression, filling larger roles as lab members than simply “super hacker” and “perceptive tuturuu-chan”. As for new characters, Maho could easily be accused of being a fill-in Kurisu, but she has her own character and while she could have used more attention the developments involving her tend to be better rather than worse, and Prof. Leskinen makes an effective foil for her when he’s not busy being Meme Man.
That leaves Okabe himself. For all of his depressive moping in the story, he does slowly develop his way through in chunks, and the Okabe that formed the plan to deceive the world is made known. However, this development simply mirrors the last stage of his development in the original Steins;Gate across 23 episodes instead of the 2-3 it originally took. It’s nice to see where he ends up, but mostly only because the anime dragged its feet every step of the way there. It’s not entirely bad by the end, but a rewatch of Steins;Gate will do the same thing in a much better way.
Verdict: Steins;Gate 0 is an unfortunate case of producers going for the cheap method of low cost & appealing to nostalgia to make a profit, as evidenced by the stunted production values, repeated use of old memes, and dry plot that overstays its welcome. It’s only on brief occasions that this anime partially digs itself out of that quagmire, much like Okabe with his depression. It does have moments of merit deep down, but it's buried under so much junk that I can't quite say it's enough to make the experience worthwhile. It takes a certain kind of person to forgive the multitude of flaws in Steins;Gate 0, someone I couldn't reasonably expect anyone to be.