The past few years have seen a rise in popularity for narrative-driven games in the West. Many of these games owe a lot to Japanese adventure and visual novels, which have enjoyed a long history in their home country. One of the most revered examples is 428: Shibuya Scramble, which originally released in 2009. Now, almost a decade later, players in the West can see what all the fuss was about--and that it was very much worth the hype.
428: Shibuya Scramble takes place in the titular Shibuya, a major area of Tokyo. It's a routine day for most people, but for five individuals, what's happening is anything but ordinary. Young detective Kano is currently caught up in the midst of a mysterious kidnapping case: Maria, the daughter of reclusive scientist Kenji Osawa, is missing. As Kano sets up Osawa's other daughter, Hitomi, to deliver the ransom money, a street punk named Achi wanders into the picture, fleeing with Hitomi when the sting goes awry. Meanwhile, freelance reporter Minorikawa is called by a suicidal editorial manager who needs to put together a magazine by day’s end to save himself from financial ruin, and a young girl named Tama finds herself trapped in a cat mascot suit, hawking dubious diet drinks for a scam artist at the famous Shibuya Crossing.
The story's five central characters--Kano, Achi, Minorikawa, Osawa, and Tama--all find their fates intertwining through five unique stories told over the course of a single day. What begins as a routine kidnapping soon reveals itself to be something far more sinister, turning into a thrilling story of colliding fates, character drama, and international intrigue. It's up to you to put together the pieces and save these characters, and perhaps all of Japan, from a potentially terrible (and occasionally ridiculous) fate.
428 is a visual novel game in the same vein as Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. However, the emphasis here is definitely more on the "novel" part; the game is written out like a lengthy story, with most of the gameplay centering around multiple-choice branches that influence how the characters behave in certain situations. What's also noteworthy is that multiple stories from different characters' points of view run parallel with each other, and if two characters witness the same event, it may affect them in very different ways.
This ties in with the multiple-choice system; sometimes a seemingly insignificant choice you make can have far-reaching effects. For example, if one character runs into the street to avoid pursuers, another character might wind up in a traffic jam caused by resulting car accidents and be late to a meeting. You can also "jump" into the thick of another character's story by highlighting certain onscreen words that tie two characters' stories together, even if they're not in the same location. While zipping around the stories is fun, you also have to be mindful of your decisions, as incorrect choices can often lead to a Bad End that'll force you to jump back in time a bit.
What makes this work so well is that all of the characters are engaging and well-written. Kano is a hardworking, earnest cop who is being distracted by a surprise visit from his would-be father-in-law. Achi's hotheadedness and desire to help Hitomi stems from family drama and his falling-out with a local gang. Minorikawa's a colossal jerk, but he's a jerk that gets results, and his brashness disguises a genuine passion and desire to aid those important to him. Osawa finds himself in a very dark place, questioning his relationships with his family and his business partners in some tense, introspective moments. And Tama… well, her particularly bizarre situation leads her to some unexpected places.
One of the particularly unique and memorable elements of 428 is its use of still photography to illustrate much of the story text. The thousands of real-life photos taken to illustrate the story accentuate the text perfectly, as does the impressive staging and use of close-ups, color, and camera pans. The text is delivered in a way that can't be replicated on the printed page: big, loud words appearing suddenly for emphasis, slow text crawls or fade-ins for tense moments and terrifying revelations. Music and sound effects are also used to highlight particular scenes and events. Occasionally, a clip of FMV or an animated image might show up to emphasize something, such as a serious event or a more comedic moment.
The wonderful blending of text, photo imagery, and sound in 428 is showcased especially well in several scenes throughout Osawa's scenario. Osawa is unbelievably stressed due to Maria's kidnapping and a conflict with his wife, and the combination of clever photo staging, sparse use of sound, and careful text presentation really helps to communicate the anguish he's going through. As he finds himself becoming irritated with the frequent butting-in of a police detective stationed in his home, you start to see intense colors and extreme close-ups in the photos that emphasize the rapidly increasing annoyance he feels. It's an excellent example of how the visual novel genre can transform the written word in an engaging way.
It's an excellent example of how the visual novel genre can transform the written word in an engaging way.
The vast majority of the time, the storytelling in 428 is top-notch, drawing you into the character drama and adding an air of tension to your choices. Occasionally there are parts that take you out of the narrative--an oddly misplaced comedic bit after an emotional or action-laden sequence, or a plot contrivance that feels a little too convenient. The game's interface can be a struggle at times as well. If you go back in time to fix some of your bad choices, you may wind up having to replay a chunk of certain scenarios to reach a stopping point you had previously opened, and whether or not the game lets you skip past already-read text seems arbitrary. There are also a fair few text display bugs, a handful of which cause serious formatting problems, and one I encountered actually softlocked the game.
A few bugs, however, don't ruin the game. 428 is a truly rare beast, a special and unique experience that would have once been completely passed over for a Western release. While it's not without its flaws, it's hard to think of many other games that blend text-driven storytelling and well-constructed visuals and sound this well. From the first hour of the in-game day, you'll be riveted by this story's unexpected twists and turns. If you want a story- and character-driven game with a presentation you won’t see anywhere else, 428 is a game not to be missed.