There are some games that sound terrible in a pitch meeting, but secretly are the best thing to happen to gaming since the invention of the pause button. Papers, Please is about checking immigration paperwork, but is somehow more suspenseful than some shooters about saving the world from terrorists on the moon.
Such is the case for visual novels, a genre that boils down to often pressing a button to continue and occasionally make a choice. Yet they can really draw you in with good writing, characters, and feeling justified as a game with branching choices that matter. I wouldn’t call myself a visual novel cynosure or anything that pretentious, but I will say some of my favorite games happen to fall into this category. Including the subject today on the chopping block.
428: Shibuya Scramble has been famous for a long time as the sort of historical footnote that’d earn you a pink wedge in Trivial Pursuit. It is the only visual novel style adventure game to be awarded the highest honor a game could in Japan: a perfect score by the four judges of Famitsu’s magazine. It sits alongside games such as The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Grand Theft Auto V.
Of the thousands of games reviewed by the magazine, twenty-seven have this honor, and 428 is likely the only one on the list you have never heard of. So the question must be asked: What makes 428 so good?
Let’s just make this abundantly clear: 428 is worth your time on its gameplay loop alone. The “choices have consequences” adventure games concept popularized by titles like Until Dawn and Life Is Strange is present here, but evolved like someone gave those games a moon stone. Instead of one story that branches based on what you choose, it is five different perspectives that intersect and weave into each other.
Say in one story, you are driving down the street and you choose to take a left instead of a right. That story may continue like nothing happened. But in another characters story, they had to wait for that car to pass, so they ended up being late to a date at a restaurant, resulting in a bad ending for that character. So you must go back and comb through the decisions you made.
It’s all about choosing the right decisions at the right times. Sometimes, you are locked out of continuing one story until you complete parts of another, so you are constantly jumping around perspectives. The game takes place on a schedule, divided into hour long blocks. The main goal of getting every character to the end of each hour, until you create the perfect web of choices to reach the games conclusion.
It is masterful how all of this plays out. Like Watch Dogs Legion, theres a certain level of admiration for the concept alone and just how complicated it had to have been to set up. It’s impressive that I was never lost admist all this jumping around and pressing X to continue. This is because the game makes you think about all five stories at once, even if they seem to all be as related to each other as a fish and a tube sock. Thankfully, the puzzles of each hour block are self contained chapters, so you won’t have to go back to the previous hour’s decision to affect something in the next. It knows how far to take its 4D brain games, flowing smooth like butter beer, but still challenging your mind like a history test that is required to defuse a bomb.
This City Made Us
This complex series of threads that brings to mind a conspiracy theorist that frequents an arts and crafts shop would be nothing without a solid story. Every visual novel needs you to be invested in the people in order to be engaging. Just like its unique, unmatched structure, the narrative stands head and shoulders above its peers. The characters are just fun to watch.
There’s Kano, a young detective that is working on a ransom case for a wealthy family. Next is Achi, a street punk who has taken to cleaning the trash of Shibuya, both literally picking up garbage and beating people who litter to a pulp. Then we have Osawa, a solemn virologist that receives a mysterious email, and has probably the most serious overall story arc. Tama, by contrast, is the least serious, as it’s about being stuck in a cat mascot costume and working for a beyond shady con artist. And then finally, we have Minorikawa, a freelance journalist who is eccentric and brash, trying to find a scoop in very limited amount of time.
All five of these seemingly unrelated characters don’t often even cross paths, yet each one has a massive effect on the other as the game progresses. This is before the story escalates into something far bigger than any one of them and the tension shoots from pretty tense to Cuban Missile Crisis. To say much more would spoil the experience, but I have never played a game that has kept me this literally on the edge of my seat.
A lot of it has to do with the supporting cast. They range from just plain silly to complicated enough that they could have had their own story path in the game itself. Most stay almost exclusively with one character, such as the assistant with Osawa or the gossip magazine president with Minorikawa, but it is a real treat to those who are paying attention when one character cameos in another path. It makes the city feel alive and lived in, with people who matter.
That is a feat considering the game is almost all just white text on real image backgrounds, where the characters are just still images as part of the background. It looks like someone took screenshots of a movie and tried to piece together the frames. The game could probably be accurately recreated in PowerPoint if you have the hundreds to thousands of hours it would take to set up this insane series of connecting threads.
The Ultimate Test
The ultimate recommendation I can give for this game is that it passed the friend test. A good friend of mine was skeptical, because of the real life still images and the lack of anything outside the text. When he started playing, he didn’t stop until he fell asleep some 10 hours later, and then he continued again when he woke up. It’s the highest praise you can give a game you were once unsure about. We all know that no game is perfect, yet 428 is as close to perfect as The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild or Grand Theft Auto V is.
It is, in essence, the best visual novel I’ve ever played. So I recommend giving it a try for the same reason I recommend Undertale or Let’s Catch. The best reason to try it is because you have and probably never will play anything else like it. It’s also an experience that is best to go into as blind as possible, because the game will deliver that emotional punch if you don’t know a thing about anyone. It comes with a steep price tag of $50 on PS4 and Steam here in the US, but you’ll find that it often goes on sale for as low as $10. It’s worth every penny, $50 or $10, to get lost in the Shibuya Scramble. It deserves its place in Japanese history as the highest rated visual novel, and deserves far more recognition than it gets. Do not pass this one up. Get your copy of this incredible game here.
Summary: A kidnapping on the streets of Shibuya brings together a hot-blooded detective, hard-hitting journalist, former gang leader, the head researcher of a big pharma manufacturer and a part-timer stuck in cat costume for a series of events each more unexpected and outrageous than the last.
Genres: Visual novel, adventure, Mystery.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows (Review Version)