The visual novel genre can be a hard video game medium to get into and it’s only a rare few that can get over the barrier of genre limitations and cliches to reach a wider audience. If someone is looking for a game in the genre to start at I usually tell them about the Danganronpa trilogy, Steins Gate, or Zero Escape series, but now I can easily recommend 428: Shibuya Scramble to that list. 428 was released in Japan back in 2008 to critical acclaim and now it has released in the West thankfully.
428: Shibuya Scramble combines live-action presentation with great writing and a unique choice system to stand out amongst its contemporaries. Many may be put off by its aesthetic, but those who give this game a chance are in for an enthralling mystery title that keeps you hooked from start to finish.
The story in 428 begins with a seemingly simple kidnapping case on the streets of Shibuya with implications that could affect the entire world. Five characters are going to have the most eventful day of their lives and unbeknownst to each of them, ever decision they make affects each other. As the player, you must manage the intertwining and outrageous events one hour at a time with the end goal being to solve all the mysteries and get everyone to the end of the day alive.
A narrative is nothing without a strong protagonist and thankfully 428 has five of them. Kano is a young detective working to solve the kidnapping. Achi is a passionate youth and ex-gang member that spends his days roaming Shibuya to pick up all the trash. Minorikawa is a freelance writer who has until the end of the day to save a magazine publication. Osawa is a virologist and father to Maria, the woman who has been kidnapped. Finally, there’s Tama, a mysterious woman stuck in a cat costume working to sell a protein drink. While early on when playing it can sometimes feel somewhat predictable, 428 uses excellent writing intention to make you realize that there’s a lot more going on than you might be expecting.
Now you might be wondering, how is a choice based title supposed to work five different playable characters? 428 is divided into time blocks of one hour with ten time blocks in total. You can only move onto the next time block once every single character makes it to the ‘to be continued’ screen. However, things are much more complicated than just playing one character’s story to completion and moving on.
Shibuya is full of outrageous and crazy individuals, all of which can put an end to one of your protagonists. Don’t let this deter you though, getting bad endings and finding a way around them is part of the experience. You’re able to keep track of the events of the day by using the time chart, showing you all of the events the five characters have witnessed. You’ll need this menu in order to jump around to any of these events, letting you make different decisions get past these bad endings.
You can’t just finish 428 by trying to pick these seemingly correct choices for one character, since sometimes what helps one character could lead another to an unfortunate end. However, 428 prevents players from getting overwhelmed with each time slot by keeping all the relevant decisions in that particular hour. Meaning, you don’t have to worry about which of the billion decisions is preventing you from progressing. This mechanic feels ahead of its time and keeps you on your toes, while making them consider how every single choice they make will affect all of the characters.
Another important gameplay mechanic is ‘jumping’, which is how you get past the ‘keep out’ screens that appear on the time chart at certain parts of 428. While reading the dialogue or tips (which are words in blue that provide further information on certain pieces of terminology), there are words in red that signify where you can jump from one protagonist story to another. For a visual novel, I loved how engaging the gameplay was and how it was just the right amount of interactivity to keep me invested at all times. There was never a dull moment with the story or protagonists, as each of them are much more interesting than they appear at first.
There are up to 85 different endings you can get, being from anywhere between insane jokes to gruesome game overs. Fortunately, 428 has a better grasp at its tone than you might expect. It rides the line between comedy and drama very well and by doing this gave 428 its own identity. The comedy is ridiculous and finely crafted with nearly perfect delivery, which is no easy feat when there is no voice acting. This is due in part to both the original writing team and the localization team the script was translated by Kevin Frame and he definitely does the source material justice.
If I had to give a critique to the narrative, it would be that certain serious moments are occasionally undermined with humor. If you were expecting a heavy drama, than you might be disappointed with 428. The presentation was something that had me concerned, but it grew on me further into the story. If you’ve seen anything on 428, the story is portrayed trough live-action photography and no expense was spared in this endeavor. There are an abundance of photos and videos to give 428 an overflowing sense of personality, and I also felt immersed in the setting with feeling like an actual resident of Shibuya.
Overall, 428: Shibuya Scramble is a title that should not have come together as great as it did, but it nails almost every aspect of the visual novel genre thanks to a clearly passionate development team at Spike Chunsoft. There really wasn’t anything I didn’t enjoy in 428 as it represents everything I enjoy in the genre and even exceeded in the story department. Hopefully, 428 will find success in the West to let publishers know we want more games like this localized. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you can approach it with an open mind this is an experience that comes highly recommended.