Stein's Gate, one of the latest additions to the sci-fi genre, is also one of the few anime series dealing with time travel, and let's face it--in an art medium that likes to repeat ideas ad nauseum, that's refreshing. The greatest selling point is the plot, which is chock full of twists, tender moments, and revelations of all kinds. Weak points include the characters, which can be stereotyped at times, and the animation, which has a washed-out appearance that may annoy some viewers.
Right at the onset of the first episode, viewers are introduced to the protagonist, Rintaro Okabe, who, with his lab coat and his knitted brows, seems to be both serious and focused. We even see him speaking in code into a cell phone, leading us to believe that some sort of game is already afoot. Five minutes later, when Okabe meets Kurisu, we finally discover that Okabe is, in all probablity, insane.
And that's when the fun begins.
For the viewers that have no experience with time travel fiction, strap yourselves in, because you're in for a twisty, turny Tardis ride through a plot that is full of surprises. In true fashion for this niche, by the end of the series you'll wish that you'd paid more attention at the beginning. Note that I am not saying that the series is full of heart-pounding, seat-clutching action--it's not. There is very little action, and most of the plot development comes in the way of intellectual dilemmas, of which there are some real doozies. A decent portion of the show is spent simply watching the characters converse with each other, which seems to create a lot of wasted screen time. However, as the plot unfolds, one eventually realizes that many of these scenes were either vital to the storyline or served to allow twists to sneak up on viewers, maximizing their effect.
Unfortunately, the nature of the plot also prevents me from discussing it in much more depth than I already have for fear of spoilers, and believe me when I say that there are a lot of things to be spoiled. Suffice to say that very little screen time is wasted and that by the conclusion, it's easy to see that the developers thought this one all the way through before they started.
Animation and Sound
I am not an artist or a musician by any stretch of the imagination, so I apologize in advance for this section of the review. That being said, the animation was my biggest quibble with Stein's Gate. From the first episode on, I noticed that the series has a very washed-out appearance. Backgrounds are often indistinct, and the colors are muted to the point of being greyscale in some scenes. At one point during the first episode I even pulled up the video on another website to see if the contrast was off in the first recording.
I have to think that the developers of the series picked this type of animation as an allusion to the transient nature of the world in Stein's Gate. As with most works of fiction dealing with time travel, the current world is subject to change as events are altered in the past. The muted colors and the indistinct backgrounds are meant to represent a temporary world that lacks "sharp" features such as bright colors or well-defined scenery. I also acknowledge that the animation style allows the focus to be drawn to the characters, and that the series certainly spends enough time depicting them interacting to warrant this.
All that being said, I still found the animation style to be distracting. I think a good move on the developers' part would have been to make the colors brighter and the backgrounds more distinct as the plot progressed. For fear of spoilers I won't go into detail about why this would have not only worked, but made a great amount of sense. I will say, however, that the characters are working to change the world using time travel as their modus operandi, so changing the animation as the characters effect change in the world around them would have represented a spectacular visual symbol.
As for the sound in the series, I know even less about it than the animation. The opening and ending themes were fairly average, in my opinion, and I didn't find anything particularly unique about the effects found within each episode. Still, the music was appropriate, when used, and the developers were smart enough to not include music when it was not needed, such as when some of the more tender moments occur. It's often better to let a scene speak for itself.
In a series that probably spends half of its time depicting characters interacting in the same small room, one would think that these characters are well-developed and complex. This is not the case.
The main character, Okabe Rintaro, who always goes by the alias Kyoma Hooin and whom many of the other characters call Okarin(a portmanteau of his first and last name), is probably the only truly complex character in the show. As a self-proclaimed mad scientist, Okabe's actions often border on the absurd. He gives random nicknames to everyone he knows, pretends to talk into his phone about the actions of the "Organization," and designates operations using names from Norse mythology. At the outset, these things alone make Okabe entertaining to watch, but as the series progresses and Okabe is forced to deal with situations that would make anyone feel sympathetic, viewers begin to see that there is much more to this "mad" scientist than meets the eye.
As for the rest of the characters, they are forced into fairly one-dimensional personality sets that do not change very much throughout the series. Itaru Hashida remains as the perverted, nerdy computer hacker; Mayuuri Shiina, who is sometimes referred to as Mayushii(another portmanteau), remains as the soft-spoken, cheerful girl that does not understand the science of what is going on around her; Moeka Kiryu remains as the social recluse that lacks self-confidence. Even Kurisu, probably the second most likable character, is a fairly typical tsundere.
Of course, the characters are lovable in the roles they play, and much of the comedy in the series comes from the various traits that each one of them possesses. At least one episode is also devoted to developing backstories for each of them, and these are important to the plot, so in another sense the characters are vital to the story. All this being said, however, viewers should not expect to see any characters other than Okabe go through a great amount of development.
Stein's Gate is a largely plot-driven series that makes full use of time-travel as a device to make the story interesting. Other parts of this anime are not as well done, but it's probably still one of best sci-fi anime of recent creation. If you're a fan of the genre, it's definitely a decent pick for you.