Living for the City
HIGH Solid writing and intricate ensemble plotting
LOW Fiddly controls for something that could be played on a Kindle…
WTF They made a great adventure game out of meme-worthy stock photos!
Try running a Google search for “iconic images of Tokyo” and there’s a good chance that one will find a picture of a certain pedestrian crossing outside the city’s main train station on the very first page. Crossed by thousands of people every time the light changes, the famous “Scramble Crossing” or “Shibuya Scramble” has become emblematic of urban life, and Tokyo especially, despite the fact that “scrambles” are hardly unique to Japan and exist in many cities around the world.
The same goes for visual novels. While there’s nothing inherently Japanese about that style of game, Japan’s output has nevertheless come to symbolize the form. Then again, if Spike Chunsoft’s 428: Shibuya Scramble is anything to go by, there’s a good reason why that is.
The first and most striking thing about it is the realistic visual style. Whereas most commercial visual novels use art and character designs inspired by cartoons, anime, and comics, 428‘s narrative is presented using photographs and full-motion video, shot using actors on location in Shibuya itself. This unconventional approach sets the game apart from its contemporaries and also avoids the static, slightly unreal aura some VNs have. Also unlike most VNs, 428 presents its story in the form of text overlay on top of the pictures, rather than restricting the words to a text box underneath. Small changes like this mark 428 as a unique outlier in a field where the presentation of narrative carries more weight than gameplay mechanics.
Apart from how it’s presented, the narrative is a particular surprise. 428 is a grounded story (or rather, a set of stories) set in the titular city. Players follow multiple narrative threads centered around half a dozen characters that twist around and intertwine so much, they’d make Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, or the producers of 24 proud. The one unifying factor? Everyone just wants to get through the day.
Kano, a Tokyo detective, is trying to solve an ongoing kidnapping case, and maybe impress his potential father-in-law. Achi is a local tough that finds himself dragged into Kano’s case after meeting a mysterious girl at the crime scene. Midorikawa’s a freelance journalist that needs to fill twenty pages of content before clocking out. Osawa’s a scientist and a father, trying to balance his life as both. And Tama? Tama’s just a day laborer that got stuck inside her cat mascot costume and wants out as soon as possible. The storylines intersect in unexpected ways while bringing in elements of comedy, urban mystery, detective work, and even some light sci-fi. That said, the aesthetic keeps things grounded in a way that only hilariously composed stock-style photos can. The actors in the photos and videos do good work, and they sell the emotions and dialogue of the well-localized text.
Suiting the parallel lines drawn by the narrative is 428: Shibuya Scramble‘s gameplay. Rather than tacking on an unwieldy combat system or a clue-hunting mechanic, 428 uses the flow of the story to inform its mechanics. The story is organized into blocks of about an hour per segment, and players can read each character’s part of the segment in any order. The goal is to shepherd each character to the end of the section by changing their choices at predetermined points.
Highlighted words in the text can be selected to open up a explanation or definition, or occasionally to reveal a clue that will unblock a ‘path’ in another character’s storyline. Many bad or premature endings are scattered throughout, and encountering them will often reveal what the right course of action is.
This light puzzle-solving doesn’t so much stump or challenge players, as reinforce one of 428‘s running themes — the life-changing influence of serendipity and chance. For example, Kano’s choice to prioritize his potential marriage might cost a man his life in Midorikawa’s storyline. Manipulating causality in this way is made easy by the use of 428‘s “Time Chart”, which lets players skim and replay sections at will, including revisiting bad endings and reviewing the hints they drop.
One wrinkle to be aware of is that this reviewing and skimming is easiest if one owns a controller, thanks to the awkward keyboard and mouse controls. For whatever reason, the bindings seem to assume that the player has both hands on their keyboard, making for a style that can take some getting used to. For a game whose play is 90% reading, going with a control scheme that takes some getting used to is bizarre.
Putting the requirement for a controller aside, 428: Shibuya Scramble is a thoroughly unique offering in the visual novel space, and well worth picking up for any player interested in game narrative, the uniqueness of Japanese adventures, or those who just want to get some reading done.
Disclosures: This game is developed by and published Spike Chunsoft. It is currently available on PC and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 34 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. The game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains descriptors for Blood, Drug Reference, Language, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco and Violence. The characters occasionally swear and some smoke heavily.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All interaction takes place via text and visual interface elements. Any spoken dialog is in Japanese with English subtitles. There are no audio cues necessary for play. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. As a visual novel, the controls are extremely basic with a controller — the player selects choices with the left stick and selects things with a button. Otherwise, the game assumes the player has both hands on a keyboard.
Today he continues to write for a living while trying to turn his fledgling knowledge of Japanese into a marketable skill. He is Managing Editor of Japanese culture site Japanator and is a Contributing Editor for Destructoid. He has written for The Escapist, The California Literary Review, Esquire Magazine, and proudly holds the badge as the premier apologist for Star Trek Online.