This is probably one of the easiest reviews I’ve ever written and that’s thanks to Spike Chunsoft’s 428: Shibuya Scramble ($49.99, buy it!) being one of the best, most consistently enjoyable adventure game experiences I’ve had this year. Initially released in 2008 to acclaim in Japan, this visual/sound novel/mystery game hybrid manages to still be 100% relevant because the developer nailed everything right the first time and the snappy new English localization (courtesy of the fine folks at Absolution Games) does an excellent job at making everything click exactly where it needs to.
On the other hand, it’s also one of the hardest reviews I’ve written because I don’t want to ruin a single thing about the game other than to say it’s gong to be best if you go in as cold as possible (avoid spoiler-laced video walkthroughs, please!) and enjoy the perfect blend of plot and puzzle elements this one brings to the table. trust me, your curiosity will be very well rewarded, especially if you love a good mystery laced with off-kilter humor, tense drama and some deep, dark secrets.
It’s pretty spectacular when a game zips from drama to comedy to fear-inducing without missing a beat while keeping your interest in its varied cast of characters and sub-characters. It’s even more special when it’s a game that uses live actors and mostly still images with limited animation and doesn’t come off as cheesy or half-baked. This is clearly due to Spike Chunsoft’s decades of expertise with visual and sound novels and even though it’s a ten-year old game, it feels like a blast of fresh cold air on a hot summer day. Five main characters’ (and a number of minor ones) lives cross paths during a fateful day in and around the busy Shibuya section of Tokyo and it’s up to you to choose how everything plays out. Pressure much? Good. That’s how this is supposed to work and wow, does it work.
Each character’s story path will affect the others for better or worse. The main goal is to advance the five character stories through each “hour” in the game in order to unlock the following hour’s events, but the game is crafted so that even a “bad” ending leads to more story paths as well as a chance to retry parts of the story using hints gained from failure. While Bad End and Keep Out outcomes are possible, the game drops pointed to vague hints on how to break through to that “To Be Continued” status. Most of the time you’re blocked by decisions you made earlier in one of the other hours and all you need to to is replay a section and make a different choice. This is a game where there’s no such thing a a poor choice because unlocking everything is key to the overall experience (and hell, yeah – it’s just flat out incredible to read more of the story as it expands).
The fumetti-like look of the game is perfect throughout. FMV scenes are limited to short clips and while there’s no voice acting (as with a good book, your brain should provide the voices you want to hear), the excellent use of music and sound effects carry the and complete the game experience. It’s also chock full of homage in subtle to dead on “Hey, that’s are David Lynch references!” ways. Granted, I’d bet a half-penny only a few film fans will get the tip of the cap to Kurosawa’s Tengoku to jigoku (High and Low) tossed off by one character in the midst of a kidnapping investigation. But this is also a game where what seem like the most minor characters end up having a surprising amount of information to read about. The game also pokes fun at itself and the player, noting not to expect any romantic content found in racier imports or even asking a few times what one thinks of a character’s watch (it’s pretty cool, I thought each time I saw it).
There are a handful of typos that nick the experience slightly, but I’d bet a patch can fix those up nicely. As noted earlier, the writing is snappy and the tonal shifts that dip into and deepen the mystery work brilliantly. The game’s dipping into horror elements (a hallmark of some of the developer’s sound novels) or using creepy close-ups or excellent still composition lend a wonderfully atmospheric look to certain portions. I’ll also take a moment to note that knowing a touch of old slang will help appreciate the acute punnyness of Detective Kano’s “Dick Diary” which only sounds intentionally salacious until you realize “Dick” is slang for “Detective” and yep, that means you get a tip from me to go watch 1940’s The Bank Dick just because it’s one of the funniest movies you’ll ever see. You can thank me later, now where was I?
I wasn’t planning on including a video in this review, but Tama’s intro section makes for quite an amusing impression. Every lead character is likeable, but Tama’s chapters are some of the most interesting because of the absurdity of the mascot getup and how well its integrated into the story. She may be the only female lead in the game, but check out how well the character of Chiri fits into things (she also gets more and major screen/text time later, as do other women who appear throughout the game):
Anyway, I’ll shut up here and just say go buy this game if you have even the faintest interest in the VN genre or hell, just want a playable novel that’s going to surprise your mind multiple times. As massive as this year has been for excellent games across the board on every console and PC, this one’s a special kind of great where you hope more like it can get localized and capture their own slice of gamers willing to dive into new and deeper more mentally rewarding material. Game of the Year contender (Adventure category)? Absolutely, although the field is going to get a great deal more crowded if my backlog is any indication. Still, this one’s a game for the ages that’s meant for more greatness. Let’s hope we also see a Switch port at some point if only because the game started out as a Wii title in Japan and that consistency would be a nice thing to see carry over at some point.
Score: A+ (100%)
(Review code provided by the publisher)