Amongst the myriad genres of video games, visual novels can be something of an oddity. The major appeal of the medium is putting the player in control of a character in a very immediate, hands-on sort of way. Visual novels put you more firmly in the role of the observer; even in the most interactive games of the genre, your influence is often limited to occasional dialogue or action choices. 428: Shibuya Scramble is one of the more player-dependant visual novel stories I’ve seen, and the engagement it expects from the player is one of its strong points.
Throughout the game, you follow five characters (two in the opening segment) whose lives are at first distant and detached from one another. An abduction and subsequent ransoming bring the five characters together, often in strange and unfortunate ways. Your task is to keep them alive and on-track to solve the crime. From rookie detective Kano to mysterious, costumed mascot Tama, the protagonists are full of depth and the usual sort of eccentricities you can expect from a Japanese game.
Unlike many visual novels, whose aesthetics tend to incorporate anime-esque designs, 428: Shibuya Scramble uses entirely live-action footage and stills for its exposition. It lends a lot of realism to the story, especially given the tone of the plot. There’s little in the way of voice acting – this is a text-driven game through and through – but a well-written and detailed script ensures that every character has their own distinct voice. The translation is eloquent and descriptive, with helpful explanations for everything from specific Tokyo locales to concepts within the city’s police force.
The writing does meander at points, as if sometimes unsure of its own delivery. One scene early in the game shows Kano and a follow detective pursuing a potential perpetrator of the abduction, only for Kano’s partner to suddenly start chatting loudly about his wife and badgering Kano to propose to his own girlfriend. Another main character, Achi, is obsessed with keeping his neighborhood free of litter. This is an amusing, even endearing, character trait, right up until Achi, in the middle of being pursued by an armed assailant, stops to congratulate another trash-picker on his hard work. There’s nothing wrong with a little levity in trying situations, but sometimes 428: Shibuya Scramble takes it a little too far.
Story progression and character paths bear a noticeable similarity to another Spike Chunsoft work: the Zero Escape series. Fans of the latter will be familiar with how this works; each character has their own specific route through the story, with many dead-ends or bad endings along the way. Key to avoiding these is making the right decisions at certain junctures, but one character’s progression can sometimes be linked to that of another protagonist. Early on, for example, you’ll reach a bad ending with Kano until you switch to Achi’s route and ensure his actions don’t negatively impact Kano.
It’s a compelling system, and it’s interesting to see how Character A’s actions can affect the welfare of Character B, no matter how trivial the decision might appear at the time. In addition to these prominent choices, there’s also the JUMP system. If one character’s story has reached a standstill, you might be unable to progress it until you reach a certain point in a separate path. A clue about the stuck character’s identity, for example, will allow you to “JUMP” back to their route and continue further.
The game tends to pat itself on the back at times for how complex it thinks this system is, but in practice, it’s fairly similar. Every character’s route comes across a roadblock at times, and the only way to progress will be to switch to another of the protagonists. There’s no way to get permanently stuck – the hint system will always point you very blatantly in the right direction – so there’s very little frustration involved. My only gripe is that, depending on the order in which you play as each character, you can find yourself swapping back and forth every few minutes, with only a scene or two to read before you’re blocked off again.
What really sets 428: Shibuya Scramble apart from other visual novels, for me, is the ease with which a great deal of information is communicated to the player with ease. Names, locales, organizations, plot twists, there’s a lot of it, and it comes at you fast. Through a combination of a strong translation, a helpful and accessible glossary system, and just downright skillful writing in general, the game weaves a narrative that’s both easy and compelling to follow. It can be silly at times, sure, but that rarely detracts from everything the game does well.
My experience with the visual novel genre is by no means exhaustive, but I’ve played enough to know when one really stands out. A 2018 port of a ten-year-old game is unlikely to hoover up game of the year awards, but for fans of visual novels – and of slower-paced, narrative-driven games in general – 428: Shibuya Scramble‘s eccentric characters, manic-paced story and irreverent charm are more than enough to make a lasting impression.