A visual novel boasting real actors and actresses with a cartoonish, but intriguing story.
What immediately strikes you upon first playing 428: Shibuya Scramble is the use of live action photos and videos. This game is not a low budget FMV game with characters acting in front of a green screen but instead features numerous characters and extras on set, in Shibuya Tokyo. Scenes are incredibly varied taking place on the streets, in malls, on top of rooftops and more. The production quality of this game is genuinely impressive especially compared to other games of its’ genre.
In 428: Shibuya Scramble, you primarily follow the lives of 5 seemingly disparate characters whose paths intertwine in very interesting unforeseen ways. The main plot of the story revolves around the kidnapping of Maria Osawa. The kidnappers requested a ransom payment for her release, but the twist is they want Maria’s fraternal twin sister, Hitomi, to make the handoff in front of the Hachikō statue, one of the most popular meeting areas in Shibuya. The plot thickens when the handoff goes horribly wrong and Hitomi also goes missing. The only way to rescue both Maria and Hitomi is to have all 5 characters make the right choices, however big and small.
The game works in 1 hour blocks. Each hour represents a chapter in the game. You must complete all five character arcs to proceed to the next hour. It is impossible to simply mainline a character arc. Each character will experience scenes called a “Keep Out” that requires you to play through another character’s arc to unlock the scene. There are also cases where you have to make the correct choices for a specific character to avoid bad endings for other characters. An example is one character can choose to cause a traffic jam which influences the decisions of other characters. The game also provides hints whenever you experience a bad ending so that you will rarely be frustrated and stuck trying to run every single permutation like in bad adventure games.
The problem with 428: Shibuya Scramble is the lack of features standard to the visual novel (VN) genre. There is no option to fast-forward text. There are no text customization options or ability to change the foreground transparency. The localization is sloppy and reads like it was a first translation draft with noticeable grammatical and spelling mistakes. There is a definition/vocabulary feature, but I didn’t enjoy reading them. Some of the definitions were less explanatory and more jokey side-commentaries with fourth-wall breaking text.
The game also presents its’ story in wildly different tones for each character. Kano’s story is a cop detective story. Toma’s story is a light hearted slapstick comedy. Osawa’s story is depressing with subtle horror elements. While featuring characters with different tones is excellent in theory, the problem is that the player is required to frequently jump between characters and the tonal shifts can be quite irksome. I found it hard to stay engaged in the story especially when jumping from a scientist who received an email about a deadly virus to a mascot character selling diet drinks.
In addition, what bothered me most is how much effort the producers went out of their way to create a realistic setting, but feature characters that act and behave like Anime characters. It’s hard to maintain my suspension of disbelief when you have characters that are seemingly inhuman or behave so awkwardly in public that I’m surprised no one has called the cops. There are too many convenient plot devices: Random characters appear whenever narratively convenient. A character has amnesia, but recovers at the right moment. Multiple law enforcement agencies are utterly incompetent and can’t seem to figure out things that a junior detective was able to deduce.
With all that said, I enjoyed playing 428: Shibuya Scramble. The plot of this game is intriguing enough that it kept me guessing until the very last minute. The first half of the story meanders a bit but serves as a nice character building exercise and sets up the epic confrontations in the second half. I was disappointed with the lack of standard VN features like fast-forwarding through text and readability customizations. The use of photography and video is a nice touch, but I wish the characters were written in a way that suited the real life setting they were in rather than a cartoonish setting. All in all, 428: Shibuya Scramble isn’t my most favorite VN, but I’m glad I spent my time with it.