428 Shibuya Scramble Review – Scramble of Creativity
Platforms: PC, PS4
Developer: Spike Chunsoft, Abstraction Games (porting)
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft Inc.
Release: 4th September 2018
Everyone has at least one weird love for a special type of storytelling. A story fetish if you will. Well, I certainly do have one: Multiple character storylines. In animes, mangas, books, video games, everywhere, I simply adore this type of writing. Unsurprisingly, Durarara!! counts to one of my favourite shows because of this in particular (though it´s certainly amazingly well written too!). So unsurprisingly, 428 Shibuya Scramble´s first western release, 10 years after its original launch, got me excited for one reason alone: It´s told from the eyes of five characters and all of them sound absurdly weird in their own ways. Top it off with 2D drawings being replaced by life action shots and you get a visual novel weirder than anything I´ve seen in many years.
It all started the day before when Hitomi´s sister Maria got kidnapped. The criminals don´t only want 50 million yen but also a personal delivery by Hitomi herself at the Shibuya Scramble. Naturally, the police were quick to get in touch and prepare a plan for the destined meeting between her and the mysterious man at 10 am. However, what would happen at this time, couldn´t be anticipated by no one: The start of a day full of twists, world-threatening plans, strange characters and even stranger coincidences. Police Inspector Kano, Shibuya citizen and trash hater Achi, racing journalist Minorikawa, father of the abducted sisters Kenji Osawa and stuck-in-a-mascot-costume Tama, all of them play a role, all of them have a task, all of them have a past waiting to be uncovered. A strange day in Shibuya indeed.
From the general outline, 428 Shibuya Scramble might seem like a typical crime story, mixed with well, a mascot …? Now, honestly, this visual novel is far from being standard in every way possible. The general atmosphere is dominated by a skilled rope walk between being completely dumb in a funny way and a serious, overarching plot about saving one sister. I mean, the first hours with Tama consist of trying to sell a diet drink, which is obviously a scam, while trying to find a way to get out of this mascot costume, in order to regain her memories from before she woke up today. Combine that with a Japanese boss, who´s wearing an afro, is deep in debt and begins to cry or despair at any given moment. Top it off with a Chiri who can seemingly eat out a whole restaurant. If it´s not already clear, yes, those passages are extremely funny, especially considering how stupid everything looks in real life with those obviously overacting actors. Just look at Minorikawa who´s frantically pointing fingers at everyone he encounters and is clearly the living, breathing cliché of a reporter.
On the other hand, there are Kano, Achi and Osawa, who are both far deeper in the actual main plot and serious. Especially Kano and Achi have pretty much nothing in common with the previous two in terms of atmosphere at first glance. They tell from rather unsurprising goose chases, crimes, ransom money and much more known from those kinds of stories. Naturally, none of those things are boring, due to the excellent writing and pacing, just way different. Especially early on, it feels like playing separate games.
And here´s why 428 Shibuya Scramble works so well: It absolutely nails everything about separate storylines and how to write captivating revelations. Throughout the game, it´s aware of all those differences between its stories and actively establishes them to further separate those characters from one another. After all, none of them have ever heard about the other (mostly) and lived completely separate lives. What I love about this kind of storytelling is how great writing can make use of those protagonists, to create an interconnected plot. 428 Shibuya Scramble goes on step further and twists everything about its different characters.
When two happen to meet, their whole storyline´s atmosphere and focus get altered as well, in order to fit with the other. Slowly, over the course of the whole visual novel, all stories undergo an own … “arc” of sorts, developing into something new. For example, Osawa finally learns to accept the silliness of life and with it the seemingly neverending supply of bananas of the detective assigned to him. Tama´s plot, which was simply a comedy first, revolves into something far more serious, yet, still able to keep its childishly dumb tone. Here, the stories don´t simply collide with each other from time to time, the writing actually adapts to this sort of concept. In the end, every´s story atmosphere basically became similar enough to end in one final epilogue before everyone starts to live their lives again. By far, one of the best-executed variants of this concept.
However, what´s even more remarkable is the balance between its silliness and great story, as said earlier. Honestly, the actual plot is great, really. 428 Shibuya Scramble creates this really unique mix of character drama, crime story, parental crisis, bioterrorism and even hints has some really great character development. In many ways, it even resembles classic theatre, as everything happens in the same day and a very short time span of 10 hours at that. Until the end, it was aware of every single possible twist the reader could predict and toys with it, to create interesting new revelations, which are all impactful on their own. Sadly, I don´t want to spoil too much, so just trust me here, it´s good, really good. Even though towards the end I was unsatisfied with some conclusions or solutions to some degree, none of those were big enough to alter my enjoyment in any way.
Because this visual novel can deliver upon one fundamental principle like only a few other. Entertain you for 35 hours without end. Mainly because it never loses its utterly unique sense of humour. Best described as somewhat between a typical, overacted B-movie and anime weirdness similar to Punch Line (review coming soon!). It´s weird, full of personality and able to mix hilarious acting with equally hilarious lines and catchy music. At the same time though, none of those moments feels out of place, either used to create a smooth pacing or help to advance the story … in interesting ways. If the story had a low point, the comedy had a high one, and vice versa, creating a game without any down phases, where something interesting or entertaining is always going on.
Unfortunately, what´s probably the biggest frustration factor in the whole experience (because it´s really the only one), is the “gameplay”. 428 Shibuya Scramble isn´t a static visual novel, hence, prompting you with choices throughout the game, which actually have an impact on the time block you´re in. Let´s say Achi is killed in his storyline somewhere between 2-3pm. Instead of ending there though, it´s your responsibility to save him from this fate together with the hints provided by the game at each “Bad End”. Either through selecting different choices in another route or in his, it´s required to avoid every of the ~70 Bad Ends, to get to the end. Those mainly serve as another tool to show how connected each of the five stories actually are, rather than altering the main plot, since that will never be impacted by the correct choices. In exchange though, you´re sometimes presented with Bad Ends that require almost random-seeming choices, only found through sheer luck or by trying each of them one by one, which at least for me never really felt fun or benefiting, just boring.
Additionally, there are the “Keep Out” signs, popping up in a characters’ route from time to time, blocking their story until you find a fitting “Jump” point in another route. While they serve as a pretty great tool to pace the overall story, hinder you from simply reading one storyline after the next in each time block and keep the tension up, I found the Jump mechanic very, very confusing at times. You have to find the specific situation where a red text pops-up which allows you to jump to another characters’ route. It´s essentially the same problem as with the Bad Ends: Some of them can´t be found with logic but with trial and error. Given, they can only be hidden in the same time block and roughly same time stamp in other routes but some of them were simply badly placed. When the choice of how to salute someone hides one of the most crucial jump points and isn´t even in the same time spot, that´not good design nor fun for the player. Given, I only found myself stuck with trying to find them 3-4 times for 10 minutes each or so, yet, I was still immensely annoyed.
Otherwise, 428 Shibuya Scramble is a damn fine port from the Wii/PS3 version. The movies and real-life screenshots are still in a surprisingly high resolution and never seemed like they were 10 years old, same with the super catchy soundtrack. What most impressed me though was the actually really good directing of the whole thing. Since it´s a visual novel without your typical backgrounds and character portraits talking, instead relying on screenshots and half-animated sequences, the camera work was crucial and is on par with a normal movie. Also, did I mention there are no recycled shots and every one of the hundreds of hundreds of scenes is unique? Truly ambitious. In exchange, I can even excuse the complete lack of voice acting, which wouldn´t have fit all too well regardless. Topped off with a localisation able to truly nail every the timing and impact of any phrase with only a few typos or spaces missing here and there (I remember like 5 in the whole 35 hours).
I love 428 Shibuya Scramble, I love it a whole lot. It´s not a perfect visual novel by any means, there are still some moments filled with frustration or annoyance due to the sometimes random choices and towards the end, it loses a bit of bite in exchange for some decent but not great story twists. Still, there were only a few stories able to keep me that entertained, hooked and invested for 35 hours. I mean I completed it in ~4 days. Considering only Danganronpa and the Zero Escape series were able to achieve this effect, it should give you a pretty good hint at how great 428 Shibuya Scramble is. You have to be into the weird, stupid and at the same time smart humour of it though.
[A Review Code was provided by Spike Chunsoft]