428: Shibuya Scramble Review
A gun is pointed at you in an empty alleyway.
An unfamiliar man stares into your eyes - ready to pull the trigger at a moment’s notice.
Suddenly, his ringtone vibrates and you…
A) Seize the moment. Sprint and lunge at him.
B) Grab the metal pipe leaning against the wall to your right, throw it at him, and run away.
C) Stay still and test your luck at negotiating with your potential murderer.
Two of these choices may lead you to unique bad endings. Maybe it doesn’t matter and all of them will progress the story forward with a few details changed up. There’s also a chance that all of them will lead to a bad ending no matter what… because you could’ve changed your fate well before the predicament could even had a chance to happen.
428: Shibuya Scramble is one of those rare creative gems that not only presents a distinct take to its genre; it fully masters it all in one-go. One look at it tells you all you need to know on what makes it stand out from the rest.
Though 428 is technically a visual novel, it’s not a traditional one by any means, and it leans considerably more into the 'novel' part of it. Most of the game is comprised of real-life photo stills accompanied by bodies of text with a few video clips to highlight and emphasize important moments.
The main driving force that pushes 428’s narrative is its parallel storytelling between its five protagonists. Each of them has their own tales to tell, but their perspectives are all ultimately critical components to unfurling what starts as a kidnapping case into a bizarre turn of events.
428 starts off with Kano, a by-the-books detective that sometimes lets his emotions drive him into reckless situations. Players are immediately thrust into a dicey situation as 428 opens with Kano overseeing a ransom payment of 50 million yen in front of the Statue of Hachiko. The culprit specifically asked that the victim’s sister, Hitomi, be the one to deliver it.
Eventually, four other completely different individuals from all walks of life are mixed into the fray with their own set of circumstances and plights. Among them is a hot-headed, stubborn freelance writer named Minorikawa who receives a foreboding call from an old friend. An ex-gang member, known as Achi, goes about his janitorial duties to sweep the streets before a fateful encounter throws his usual routine off for a loop. Meanwhile, Osawa is a virologist listening to some Aya Kamiki tunes and soon enough, he receives a set of disturbing emails. Then of course, there’s poor Tama in a gigantic cat mascot suit that has her own share of problems.
What eventually happens next to this whole cast leads into one of the most satisfying stories I’ve ever read. It’s incredible at balancing the absurdity of its entire premise with serious setpieces. There are so many moments I want to rave about, but even providing a small inkling of how the narrative unfolds could spoil the experience for others and could do the entire package a disservice. Believe me when I say this is not worth missing out on; it’s a remarkable journey. Every main character has multiple facets that come into light at the perfect moments. 428 did a fantastic job simply selling me on its main crew. They’re all extremely likable in their own different ways. None of them felt lacking in relative to one another.
To keep things from getting too overwhelming, 428’s plotline presents itself in one-hour intervals. It initially starts players off with Kano and Achi’s beginnings as the “tutorial” springboard to its systems. The in-game guide does an excellent job leading readers through its flexible structure before sending them off into the madness.
In 428, the player’s main job is to make sure every protagonist’s path reaches a “To Be Continued” state. When every character fulfills that, the next hour begins; it’s even introduced like a next episode preview teasing random shots and quotes of the events to come.
Of course, getting all the characters’ routes to this point can be a bit tricky. 428 is filled with a lot of paths that inevitably lead up to bad endings. In my 24 hours of playtime, I reached just over a whopping 40 bad endings and there’s still quite a few I’m missing. Not all of 428’s “bad” endings necessarily result in tragedy; a good chunk of them are hilarious life-goes-on goofs or a brief look into alternate futures if the character really did go through with a certain decision. Think more along the lines of NieR: Automata’s rendition of bad endings.
Bad endings in 428 are often a result of someone or something being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, players have to jump to another character’s story to find out what happened so they can prevent the involved parties from leading someone to their fateful end. Luckily, bad ending descriptions will provide a hint towards what went wrong - some spell it out early on, but some get more and more vague in the later sections of the storyline. There were a few times where I got stuck, though it never lasted for too long.
There’ll also be times when a character’s story is blockaded by a “Keep Out” section. In order to progress, another character’s tale will eventually interact or allude to them with red text. Once that pops up, players can immediately jump into that previous character’s story path and cut the stylized “Keep Out” police tape to move on.
That’s essentially the gameplay loop of 428: Shibuya Scramble. Tales are sectioned off into one-hour blocks and from there, players have to find their way to get all of them toward a “To Be Continued” segment. They’ll stumble into a multitude of bad endings and keep-outs that will have them scurrying around other characters’ routes to overcome. A lot of multiple dialogue options will spring up that may or may not lead them down the proper path; it’s a labyrinth of dialogue in this insane choose your own adventure, but there’s enough of a breadcrumb trail to not leave players lost for too long.
I found 428’s commitment to having almost unique shots to every situation absolutely stunning. The number of unrepeated photos in this game just left me in awe. It would’ve been easy to use the same background shots for repeated visits to a familiar location, but so many scenic photos in this game have different angles and perspectives. Every single one is effectively used too - zoomed in shots of facial expressions of dire moments, panning photos during high paced scenarios, different screenshot filters for flashbacks, and more beyond my scope of understanding in the world of photography.
All I know is that every single photo and video in 428 felt extremely well-crafted and placed. I was always engaged and motivated to press forward. Even all the paths to bad endings and the bad endings themselves received the same premium treatment; just because they were off the true path doesn’t seem like they were treated with less care or anything like that.
428 has no voice acting, but its soundtrack is nothing short of marvelous. Its main theme is reminiscent of what you’d hear in an early 90’s era detective drama and all the accompanying tracks hit the mark. Heartfelt, tragic moments pull on heartstrings with more solemn themes while a comic relief afro-headed buffoon has his own theme that sounds like it came out of the beginning of a cheesy game show. It’s a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows pulled off delightfully.
428: Shibuya Scramble is the first time 428 has ever received an English localization and the localization work is thoroughly and utterly wonderful. There’s a certain, sometimes sarcastic, cheekiness that makes it endearingly captivating. The keyword term descriptions are spectacular champions that highlight the spirit of the localization. Although there are a few grammar mistakes in the massive script along with a spacing error here and there, it hardly detracts from it all.
My only gripe with 428 is that jumping back to previously read sections isn’t quite as precise as I would like it to be. When navigating through routes, you can only hop to specific bookmarks of dialogue instead of any line previously encountered and these are sections where it usually auto-saves. Thankfully auto-saves are frequent enough that this issue isn’t all that bad. The tutorial also doesn’t explicitly cover some minor mechanics like changing the in-game brightness and auto-reading, but they’re in there.
I truly enjoyed reading 428: Shibuya Scramble all the way through. The English localization team has done a brilliant job bringing over one of the most inventive experiences ever. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s one of the best games I’ve played this year. There’s an obvious allure to it at first glance with its real-life stills and actors set in a mid-2000’s Japan, but that novelty is only expanded upon rather than wearing out its welcome.
It recieves such a score and such praise because of how confidently it tackles its premise. There's nothing else quite like it, and if you’re a fan of visual novels and creative storytelling in video games you definitely shouldn't miss 428: Shibuya Scramble.