The visual novel genre is a strange beast, a niche corner of gaming that’s littered with some classic narrative experiences and bizarre oddities. Developer Spike Chunsoft is responsible for the lion’s share of popular visual novels on the market, with Steins;Gate and the fan favourite Dangonranpa series. Now it's re-releasing 428: Shibuya Scramble on the PlayStation 4, ten years after its original debut.
The game is a goofy, action-packed mystery with an ensemble cast and multi-threaded narrative. It’s a genuinely enjoyable experience from start-to-finish, even if it veers into cheesy territory far too often. There's also a sense of retro charm that recalls the early days of FMV adventures.
The story hinges on a kidnapping and the resulting ransom handover in Tokyo’s congested Shibuya ward. This kickstarts a series of events that brings together an eclectic ensemble of personalities and spirals into a grand conspiracy. The protagonists are diverse enough that each of their sections has a distinct style that keeps the narrative from flagging.
Opening with a tense exchange in a Shibuya concourse, we are introduced to the kidnap victim's sister, Hitomi Osawa. Rookie detective Shinya Kano is leading the case, while street kid Achi Endo wades into the action accidentally. After a tense and well-paced opening chapter, we meet the father of kidnapee Kenji Osawa, freelance journalist Minori Minorikawa, and – perhaps best of all – disgruntled mascot salesperson Tama also get mixed up in the drama.
Each character is likable and brings something unique to the labyrinthine plot. They are painfully generic archetypes, but that’s all part of the appeal.
Kano’s sections play out like a police thriller: the plucky cop is constantly referring to his ‘Dick Dictums’ [No snickering - Ed], a book of principles from his favourite detective. This trait makes him likeable from the outset. Achi and Hitomi go on the run and form a cute friendship, bonding over their wildly different personalities. Meanwhile, Hitomi’s father ushers in a larger conspiracy that involves murder and biological warfare. His plot strand brings with it a darker tone that balances out the inherent silliness of the other sections.
Speaking of silly, Minorikawa and Tama are essentially the comic relief. Tama is unable to get out of her costume and thus spends her sections as a giant cat. The sections featuring these characters are often absurd and laugh out loud funny and offer a welcome contrast in tone to the rest of the story.
The game’s key narrative hook is the ability to dip in and out of each character's timeline. This triggers decisions that allow the overarching story to move forward. Most sections either end with a "keep out" – which requires you to swap to another character so that more of their day can play out – or a "bad end", the game's failure state. Bad ends are frequent and they almost always result from a decision made either in the current character's story, or the events of another. Progressing past these "endings" is a matter of diving into someone else’s timeline and making an alternative story decision. Alternatively, you can perform a "link" action. Links usually occur when characters meet and trigger an opportunity to jump straight into an intersecting story point.
Outside of the timeline mechanic, the only other interaction you’ll be making with 428 is the hint system. Highlighting elements of the prose gives you insight into both the characters and also random facts about Japanese society. It’s frequently interesting and often hilarious as some of the hints offer some light-hearted explanations.
428: Shibuya Scramble is a fun addition to the PS4’s growing visual novel stable. Solve a kidnapping, thwart a viral conspiracy, and assist a hapless salesperson in taking off her giant cat costume: Spike Chunsoft’s zany story has charm to spare and is both funny and thrilling while it lasts.