Review: 428: Shibuya Scramble (PS4)

I’d never heard of 428: Shibuya Scramble until just a few months ago, when @GamesAsylum mentioned on Twitter that it was getting a re-release. Most intriguing of all is the fact that when the game originally came out for the Wii back in 2008, it scored a rare 40/40 in the much-respected Japanese magazine Famitsu. Just to put that into context, only around 25 games have received a perfect score in Famitsu‘s history – in the same year, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Metal Gear Solid 4 were the only other games to get full marks.

Despite its critical success, 428: Shibuya Scramble hasn’t been released outside Japan – until now, that is. A port for PS4 and PC emerged in September, marking the first time the game has been translated into English. Suitably intrigued by 428′s stellar reputation, I asked for a review copy – but I had little idea of what to expect, apart from the fact I’d be playing a visual novel. Having now finished 428: Shibuya Scramble, I can confirm that it’s a very special game indeed. In fact, I’ve never played another game quite like it.

This guy is GREAT.

To give you a bit of background, it was produced by Koichi Nakamura, who later went on to become president of Spike Chunsoft, the game’s publisher (although the original 2008 version was published by Sega). You may have heard of Nakamura: he designed The Portopia Serial Murder Case in collaboration with Yuji Horii, who then went on to create the legendary Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger series. (I touched on this in my article about the multi-million-selling J.B. Harold games.) Released in 1983, Portopia is regarded by many as the first ever visual novel. And straight after 428, Nakamura went on to develop the critically acclaimed Zero Escape series, comprising 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma. Basically, if the visual novel were a country, Nakamura would be its king.

Initially, though, I was a little nonplussed by 428. You start off with a choice between just two characters – Achi, a former gang member with a strong sense of justice, and Kano, a rookie detective investigating a kidnapping case. As implied by the title, all of the stories take place in Shibuya in Tokyo, site of the famously busy five-way pedestrian crossing that sees around 2,500 people surge across the road each time the lights change. The game opens with a tense standoff in which the police are waiting to pounce on a kidnapper during a ransom exchange by the crossing. But predictably, things don’t go as planned.

I found myself a little bored at first, just scrolling through reams of text overlaid on pictures of the protagonists. But the pictures themselves certainly make the game unique – as far as I can gather, the developers filmed the entire story with actors on location and then selected still frames to illustrate the game. But occasionally – and delightfully – at a few key points you’re treated to full video, which really helps to bring the characters to life. Then again, the photos themselves are a little blurry, probably as a result of the limited storage capacity of the original Wii release. I found the fuzziness a bit off-putting at first, but I soon learned to look past it.

As I clicked my way through page after page of text during the first hour, I started to wonder why this game has such a good reputation. It comes across as a fairly rote story about a kidnapping, with little in the way of interaction other than making an A/B decision at a few points, as well as selecting highlighted words to read a bit more information on certain plot points. But if you persevere through the slow start, it rapidly gets very interesting indeed.

The events of 428: Shibuya Scramble take place over a single day, and after the first slot, 10am to 11am, you suddenly get access to another three characters: Minorikawa the freelance journalist, Tama the mascot in a furry cat costume and Osawa the virologist, whose daughter has been kidnapped. Minorikawa in particular is a highlight, full of manic energy and liable to kick off tense confrontations at the drop of a hat. And Tama’s story is genuinely funny, as she finds herself embroiled in a scam to sell a bogus diet drink. And it’s at this point that the game really takes off, with some wonderful writing and delightfully convoluted plot twists.

The main aim is to guide all four protagonists successfully through each hour of the day, which is harder than it sounds. Making a wrong decision could cause that character to run into a dead end – a ‘Bad Ending’ – which range from things like them being shot or stabbed to more light-hearted things like them deciding to enter a food-eating contest. My favourite was when one of the characters just gives up their job and becomes a farmer after re-evaluating their life priorities. There are 95 Bad Endings in total, and hitting one isn’t as frustrating as you might think – they’re often pretty funny and sometimes reveal more about the character or plot. And certain things become unlocked at the end of the game if you manage to hit all of the Bad Endings, so you might even want to seek out as many as you can.

The game is also more complex than it sounds, because a seemingly inconsequential decision by one character can have dire repercussions for another. For example, you can choose for Tama to give someone a diet drink near the start of the game, which seems innocuous enough, but it has massive consequences for Kano later on. You might get one character through to the end of that hour, but then discover that something they did stops another character from progressing, so you’ll find yourself scanning up and down the timeline trying to work out which decisions to change to make sure that everyone can progress. This is fairly easy at first, as each Bad Ending has an optional hint that points to which decision needs to be revised, but these hints are taken away during the final hour. And speaking of the final hour, my god things escalate quickly. It gets really exciting towards the end – I don’t want to spoil it for you, but events take off in very unexpected directions, and plot threads weave together in a spectacular way. It does get a bit tough though – I had to resort to an online guide twice when I just couldn’t see a way to progress.

The plot is an absolute barnstormer – wonderfully gripping, wilfully silly and an absolute delight to delve into. It’s heavily on the side of melodramatic, relying on hoary old tropes like mistaken identity, but it works brilliantly because the game gleefully embraces its ridiculousness and just runs with it. Some of the best bits of writing come in the little notes you access through selectable highlighted words – the game breaks the fourth wall at at least one point, and there’s a delightful, whimsical sub-story about a theatre troupe that’s told entirely through the gaming equivalent of footnotes.

The sheer scope of the game – the thousands of photos and pages of dialogue following multiple timelines and protagonists – is incredibly impressive, and I can’t think how you’d even go about making something like this. Probably with a very big wall, lots of Post-It notes and bits of string, and a lot of patience. And it’s not even over when the credits roll – there’s an enormous amount of extra material to got through, covering multiple side-stories from the perspective of other characters that you meet during the game, as well as a second, true ending to unlock and a hidden dungeon-crawling adventure to discover. And you’ll want to discover it all, because it’s all just so fun and well-written. By the time the credits rolled, I was intimately involved in the lives of the five main characters, not to mention the many others who star in smaller roles – Kajiwara the banana-toting detective is a particular joy. The game has a playful, abstract sense of humour that’s all its own.

I can without doubt say that 428: Shibuya Scramble is the best visual novel I’ve ever played – and it has an added personal significance for me, too. I lived in western Japan from 2004 to 2006, just a couple of years before the game was made, and I visited Shibuya several times. Seeing the Shibuya shopping centres and landmarks I got to know so well pushed the game up another level, catering to a nostalgia for the country I left a long time ago. And it’s a wonderful time capsule of Shibuya in the mid-2000s. I went back to Tokyo a few years ago, and many of the things depicted in this game have already changed – but here they’re preserved just as I remember them when I was living in the country.

But even if you don’t have any personal connections with Japan, this game comes highly recommended. Granted, if you don’t have much patience with reading through page after page of text, this might not be your cup of tea, but if you’ve enjoyed games like the Phoenix Wright series and Steins;Gate, then this is a must buy. The only caveat is that it’s a little on the expensive side: the launch price of £44.99 is a bit much for a ten-year-old Wii game, even if it’s a very good one. Then again, I’ve already seen it reduced to £30 or less – and at that price, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

428: Shibuya Scramble is available for PS4 and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for 428: Shibuya Scramble was provided by Koch Media. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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