If you like visual novels there's a strong chance you know who Spike Chunsoft is, as they're the minds who brought us classics like Danganronpa, and now they're back at it again with 428: Shibuya Scramble. Well, technically speaking the game isn't new, since it was released back in 2008 on the Wii, making stepping stones onto different platforms before its most recent release on PC and PS4. While Chunsoft was the developer behind the original, Abstraction Games helps deliver this modern version to us, letting us relive the adventure once more.
Visual novels mostly revolve around clicking through blocks of text - that's a fact - and it's no different here either. There's a touch more reading to do in one go here than in other alternatives (like Zero Escape for example), but it's par for the course as we've explained, and the story unravels as you read.
The catch is that you're not reading one story, but five different narratives, and you can only read through one at a time. But wait, there's another catch, as sometimes you can't progress in one timeline and must step into another to help out. For example, one character might be on their way to an ambush and die in one sitting, and you'll need another character to create a traffic jam so the first doesn't meet their end. Then there are the 'Keep Out' sections, which require you to jump from one timeline to another when prompted by red words, allowing you to continue sections that were previously inaccessible.
You with us so far? Good, because there's another key feature to bear in mind with 428: Shibuya Scramble - the visuals for the entire game are real-life images, still photos. It's a bit like FMV in a sense, except it's rare that we see things move, and instead we're greeted with a ton of photos illustrating the action, which are often bizarrely funny (one character is stuck in a catsuit, for example). The trouble with these images is that they date the game a lot, whether it be the phones characters use or the style of dress.
As much as it might sound confusing to have these interweaving timelines - during which characters dip in and out of each other's stories like they do Pulp Fiction - it's explained incredibly well with a tutorialised first chapter. What's more is that with every Bad End (where someone dies or their story comes to a premature end in some other way) you can get a hint that explains what needs to happen to prevent that, so those who never want to get stuck don't have to.
It's a testament to how interesting these mechanics are that we've gone so long without mentioning the overarching narrative itself, which all revolves around a kidnapping case in which a girl is taken. The start of the game places you at the handover point where the kidnapper is meant to take a briefcase full of money from the girl's sister, and you must then use all five characters to unravel the following events in Tokyo.
These characters are all varied and packed full of personality, whether it be the detective Shinya Kano who struggles to balance solving the case with meeting his girlfriend's father; ex-gang leader/litter picker Achi Endo; sullen scientist Kenji Osawa; enthusiastic reporter Minoru Minorikawa; or a girl stuck in a catsuit called Tama. All of these characters have different ways of approaching situations and they will affect the outcome of the story in various ways.
There's a whole host of supporting cast members as well, and you can decide in what order to play each character's story. The game is split into hour-long blocks (as events take place over the course of a day) and all characters' stories in that hour must be completed before the game progresses to the next block. By allowing you to play in whatever order you want though, the game can often trip you up by requiring you to backtrack and make different decisions in order to get everyone to advance.
The narrative itself is also packed with tons of twists and turns that you won't expect, and it's extremely satisfying to see the various strands weave together as you move in and out of the lives of different people. The butterfly effects means that one small action by one person can have drastic consequences later on for another, and we'll bet that even experienced visual novel fans won't guess some of the things that happen in this wild ride.
Perhaps the most bizarre feature is the fact that you can highlight words and phrases in blue to get explanations about them, but these range from details on the culture of Japan to needless waffling. They're a mixed bag in terms of value to the game, but the trouble is that some of them contain jump points to switch to different characters, so you can't ignore them completely.
Despite its age and its quirks, 428: Shibuya Scramble is definitely worth a try for visual novel fans or those who just fancy a different style of storytelling. It's quite long-winded at times and it takes a while to get the hang of the interweaving stories, but once you get knee-deep into this kidnapping conspiracy it'll be hard to dislodge yourself, especially when the pieces of the puzzles fall into place and you realise everyone's roles...