428: Shibuya Scramble PS4 Review
Most hardcore gamers should have a passing familiarity with the term “Bad End”; the term is most commonly associated with the Visual Novel genre, which adopts the same formula as “Choose Your Adventure” books in which one wrong decision could lead to an early (and often gruesomely detailed) demise. Visual Novels have taken that concept and popularized it to the point that some games will weave the concept into the meta of their respective narratives (notable examples include the Zero Escape series and Higurashi When They Cry).
428: Shibuya Scramble (the 428 refers to the concept of the angel number, not to be confused with the more internet famous 420) is another Visual Novel featuring numerous Bad Ends for its central characters, but the most innovative feature revolves around the steps players must take in order to avoid such early Game Overs. But before that, we must first talk about the unique visual approach that Spike Chunsoft has taken for its multi-chapter mystery.
While most Visual Novels tells their stories using hand-drawn character artwork, 428 actually features live Japanese actors in still photographs, the central backdrop typically being the titular Shibuya district of Tokyo, Japan. The photos are set up like stills from a live Japanese TV series, featuring a combination of conversations, chase sequences, panning shots and all sorts of exaggerated expressions. 428’s tone is as wildly diverse as its main characters, bouncing between wacky misunderstandings, tense struggles for survival, slow-burning crime drama and political intrigue all at the drop of a hat.
Speaking of the characters, the game features multiple protagonists, each with their own unique situations that overlap with one another, whether by sheer coincidence or divine intervention (more on that below), as well as a typecast personality that often makes things worse. There’s the rookie detective Kano, whose overeagerness and second-guessing of orders often hinder the operation to rescue a hostage ransomed by a mysterious network of criminals. Achi is a good-natured street tough who tends to think before he acts, running headlong into situations he has no business getting into. Tama is a young girl working a part-time job in a mascot costume that she haplessly cannot remove, while Osawa is a researcher trying to find the cure for a deadly virus. Other characters are involved as well, and while there is little to link them all together at first, the twists and turns of the story inevitably brings them closer.
The various ways that each character influences one another’s story is actually the key mechanic to 428: Shibuya Scramble. Every character’s chapter takes place simultaneously with one another, with every chapter divided into one hour of the timeline. Said timeline is represented in a Time Chart which can be opened up at any time, which is where the player’s divine intervention comes in. When a decision is made in a character’s chapter, it can have adverse effects on another character’s actions, forcing them down a completely different path. The goal is to determine what action in one character’s chapter will steer another character towards the correct path. For example, a couple of loan sharks will make their way to Tama’s boss, taking him away and thus depriving her of her job. Those same thugs appear in Achi’s chapter just a few minutes earlier. By referencing the time chart and jumping to the point in which Achi can give them the wrong directions, players would then jump back to Tama’s chapter and continue onwards without the interruption.
This is just one of many unique ways that players can influence a character’s story. Naturally, this also requires lots of experimentation and cross-referencing. Fortunately, the Time Chart also allows players to jump into specific decision-making moments in each character’s chapter, reducing the need to re-read previous conversations. The game’s text also has key phrases that are highlighted in different colors, and selecting these phrases will often trigger a new path in another character’s timeline. Even if a decision leads to a Bad End (many of which are more humorous than gruesome), it can be easily reversed without penalty. The game also provides additional hints for every wrong choice, proving that 428 is a Visual Novel that respects the player’s time (though is every bit as lengthy as the best of them).
And just like the best VNs, the story and presentation of 428 is its greatest strength; the countless photos and shots of real-life Shibuya and its thousands of patrons and passersby add an extra layer of personality that separate it from the usual style of anime-style illustrations common with the genre. The writing is also top notch and manages to convey the stylings and culture of modern day Japan, with a smart localization that doesn’t miss any details in the translation (on par with Sega’s localization of the Yakuza series). Even in still images with no voice acting, the actors manage to convey the perfect expressions relative to what’s happening in the story. The bits with Tama are especially impressive considering that her face is permanently hidden underneath the massive mascot mask.
In the end, 428: Shibuya Scramble is yet another top notch Visual Novel, a genre that has exploded onto the console scene seemingly overnight and shows no signs of slowing down. The frustration to find the necessary keyword or decision in order to advance the story is a minor inconvenience given the entertaining source material, and the unpredictable story and quirky cast will undoubtedly inspire players to stay dedicated in shaping their individual stories to reach their destinations.