428: Shibuya Scramble is a visual novel adventure game by Chunsoft that has at long last been localized into English for PlayStation 4 and PC after its original release in 2008 for the Nintendo Wii and ports to other platforms within Japan. Shibuya Scramble has a strong cast of characters, a timeline mechanic that threaded them all together across multiple perspectives, and a solid sense of mystery and humor to keep things engaging, even when I was banging my head against roadblocks.
The jumping point for 428: Shibuya Scramble is a kidnapping case that becomes so much more over the course of the main story timeline. A young woman named Maria Osawa was kidnapped the night before and a ransom demand was made, that her twin sister, Hitomi Osawa have a case with 50 million yen and stand at the Hachikō statue. Shinya Kano is a detective assigned to help with the case, and Achi Endo is a young man who happens to be nearby when the exchange takes place. These two characters intertwine at specific points and are used to explain the chief mechanic of the game, the time chart.
Each hour of time is split into smaller five-minute segments. Some are just exposition, some contain decisions, and some lead to bad endings depending on not only a decision you have made in that character’s timeline, but in another as well. Often you will be blocked from progressing further into one story until you reach or find a jumping point in another, at which point the block will be removed and you can proceed further into their story. Nearly everything shown is in live action screencaps with text over the image. While FMV does appear at critical points, I did find myself wishing it had shown up more often than it does. While this visual element is limited 428: Shibuya Scramble still manages to do interesting things with the angle, such as showing to characters discussing a secret in a bathroom from the viewpoint of inside the toilet. Sound work is exemplary throughout, as it effectively conveys the atmosphere of whatever it is being displayed even if it is just a still image.
After the introduction, you are given three more timelines: Kenji Osawa, a virologist and the father of the kidnapped girl; Minoru Minorikawa, a freelance journalist looking for stories a gossip magazine for a former editor; and Tama, a women stuck in a cat suit. The way each of the character’s timelines intersect and affect each others is very well done. Secondary characters also weave in and out of each timeline, with their own stories that require the correct decisions to progress forward. Some decisions only result in a difference of text proceeding it, and others have consequential changes that you may or may not realize at the time. Generally, at the beginning of each hour, you will go through one character’s story until you reach a block or a bad ending that gives a hint as to how you can avoid this, which usually ends up being up to a separate character.
You jump back and forth, trying out different decisions, jumping through story blocks, and occasionally hitting a dead end. It is at these moments, where you have found a story block that you do not know how to get past, that the timeline jumping can become a hassle. While most bad ends will give hints as to how to avoid them, story blocks rely on you to find a specific text to highlight to jump and break through. Finding these text highlights can be tough as they may only appear if you pick the correct dialogue response or read through every annotation the game offers.
Finding myself at a dead end sometimes meant I simply had to go through every character’s timeline looking for decisions, trying out alternate answers, and hoping it was the correct combination that would allow me to proceed. This was frustrating, especially near the end as the narrative began to reach its climax and all I wanted to do was see it through to the end but kept coming across blocks that caused the flow to stumble. When you get into a good flow, recognizing the context clues and jumping back and forth between timelines and lining up actions to reach the ending, it can be a great feeling. However sitting there slamming my head against a wall as I tried to guess and check each and every decision possible was very frustrating.
Annotations can also appear in text, offering explanations or expanding on things that have been said, giving context and commentary. Most of these are quite humorous, such as explaining simple idioms or making fun of characters and pointing out tropes similar stories have engaged with. These annotations lend 428: Shibuya Scramble an amusing personality, as it offers encouragement when you reach a bad end and keeps you entertained during long bouts of exposition.
This humor is shared by several characters, specifically Sasayama, a detective working alongside Kano who wears disguises as part of his investigation process, Kajiwara, another detective at the Osawa household who is terribly annoying and socially awkward, and Yanagishita, a would-be con man who gets conned himself multiple times. Sasayama’s disguises and his way of speaking made him very endearing, which made it that much more emotionally affecting when his life was threatened by one of the enemy agents. It was a surprise not only to find him in danger but also that I was so saddened and angered by it. Kajiwara at first is nothing but an annoyance to Osawa; he ends up being a significant help in Osawa’s growth as a person later on. Kajiwara’s continual insistence that Osawa enjoy a banana is also a recurring gag that I quite enjoyed. Yanagishita is Tama’s boss for an attempted con job selling weight loss drinks to an unsuspecting public, and despite this deception and others he concocts up to pay off his massive debt, he is probably the most outrageous and funny characters in the game. Yanagishita has so many faces and extravagant poses, and even though he isn’t voiced, you can very much hear what he would sound like through the text.
Though the humor resides throughout 428: Shibuya Scramble it is a mystery drama first and foremost and succeeds at developing an engaging story peppered with questions and answers. Every character you come across is defined not only by their unique look but also their unique personality. While the cast is quite large, you can easily maintain knowledge on who is who and their relationships with other characters. The way each character, and their respective arc, is woven between timelines not only make sense but also reach their own satisfying conclusions thanks to your actions.
Even some of the more throwaway details early on become major factors late in 428: Shibuya Scramble. While this may have led to my head banging against blocks, it also impressed me with the way each story seemed to effortlessly fit in against one another. The central mystery of why Maria Osawa was kidnapped, why Hitomi was chosen to handle the exchange of ransom money, who is chasing her and why, each gives the player enough information to come to their own conclusions before the game, and sometimes leaves you surprised at the introduction of new information that re-contextualizes an entire outlook on someone.
As a mystery, I don’t want to spoil the specifics of timelines, but I was satisfied with the ending of each arc. Each timeline has its own specific end in which characters attain a realization, whether it be a reaffirmation of their purpose, or learning how to live better. One deals with the hedgehog dilemma, fearing to get close to others lest they hurt others and be hurt themselves. Another learns to forgive and to trust in others. While not every character makes it through alive, the ending is mostly a feel-good conclusion. Additional scenarios exist to explore, adding on top of the long main narrative that took me around 20 hours to complete.
Despite my minor frustrations at the way I had finally reached the epilogue, upon watching the credits roll and various screens appeared bringing up memories of earlier game moments I felt a fondness for each of the characters. Over the course of 428: Shibuya Scramble I had grown to know these characters and see them through tough situations. I was genuinely concerned when some were put in danger, and often found myself chuckling at whatever ludicrous situation or funny ending I happened upon. 428: Shibuya Scramble left an empty feeling in my stomach once I had finished, as I realized my time with these characters had come to a close and no new significant time would be spent with them. It’s a familiar feeling, one that punctuates the end of stories that I was always sad to have to finally put down.