5 Persons, 10 Hours, 1 Ward
When I went on an elongated ramble on visual novels earlier this year, I briefly mentioned how Chunsoft, a developer with a storied history that deserves either a novelization or feature-length documentary, was one of the pioneers of the genre with their sound novel series. A subset of visual novels that de-emphasized visuals in favor of sound and light atmospheric imagery. These titles, particularly 1994’s Banshee’s Last Cry and 1998’s Machi were both foundational examples of the visual novel genre, in addition to being highly regarded cult classics in Japan
I personally would love to check out these games myself, but Banshee received a distinctively westernized localization that put me off on checking out the 2014 iOS version, and Machi has never so much as received a fan translation. In fact, the only one of their sound novels to receive a proper and widespread release was the most recent entry in the series, 2008’s 428: Shibuya Scramble. A title that stands out even amidst the realm of other sound novels for its distinctive approach of using live-action photographs in lieu of traditional background art, and by further pushing boundaries by splitting the story across five central protagonists. It is a wild and ambitious goal to pursue, but if there’s any developer equipped to handle such a task, it’s probably Chunsoft.
428: Shibuya Scramble Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed) and PS4
Developer/Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
The events of 428 are sparked by the kidnapping of a college-aged woman by the name of Maria Osawa, whose abductors have demanded ransom money for her safety and called for a public trade-off the following morning in the midst of the bustling mini-metropolis of Shibuya. It starts out as a standard shut and close kidnapping case, at least in the eyes of the Shibuya Metropolitan Police Department, but things go awry almost immediately. The police fail to apprehend the kidnappers, are left scrambling over Shibuya in search of them, and this incident steadily billows and unravels into an international affair where the fate of Shibuya, if not the entire world, hangs in the balance.
All of which has the makings to be a standard yet elaborate crime thriller, and while that does represent what 428 is to an extent, its true ambitions are far more varied, and I think that much is evident just by looking at its protagonists. These include Kano, a zealous police detective with youthful idealism and a passion for justice whose story sees him pursuing the terrorists using whatever means necessary. Achi, a young man with a strong body, stronger heart, and storied past who finds himself protecting Hitomi Osawa from terrorists and keeping her away from the police.
Minorikawa, a hard-boiled reporter with a passion for his career tasked with saving a publication from going under unless he can polish off a magazine before the day is done. Tama, a girl in a cat mascot costume who is tasked with hocking a phony diet drink to a bunch of middle-aged ladies to save a gullible ‘entrepreneur’ from the Yakuza. And finally Kenji Osawa, a virologist who is going through something of an existential crisis after his daughter’s kidnapping and receiving a suspicious email that causes the world around him to warp and crumble.
While these characters seem to have little to do with one another, beyond the somewhat common ground of the Osawas, they are all people bustling and hustling their way through a dense yet small 15 square kilometer ward. As such, their paths cross more often than once, either directly as characters clash face to face, through side characters who pop up in various routes, or through the indirect yet far-reaching ramifications of their actions. A move that simultaneously serves as a reminder of just how much of one’s life is affected by the actions of those around them, and the base that 428’s gameplay is built upon.
The game goes through these characters’ stories one hour at a time, with the ultimate goal being to solve all the intertwining mysteries before them, and get to the end of the block without stumbling into a bad end. To do this, the player needs to make frequent decisions throughout the story, considering which action would be best for not only the protagonist they are following, but everyone else. This simultaneously serves as a prolonged puzzle, where the player needs to review, read, and parse through an isolated web of possibilities in search of the correct answer… while also encouraging the opposite.
428 features 84 unique bad ends, and while one might want to avoid them for obvious reasons, the vast majority of them feature original content, photos, and story beats that veer from somber, horrific, borderline nonsensical, and generally zany. They not only encourage players to experiment with the options presented to them and see what works best, but help to diversity the already eclectic yet cohesive tone of 428. This is a story that casually and effortlessly veers across a wide spectrum of tones or moods, with scenes that range anywhere from bouts of psychological horror, slapstick comedy, and a regular old crime thriller. It is a level of variety and fluidity that I often see in narrative-heavy Japanese games, including a lot of other Spike Chunsoft titles, and I praise it here for the same reason I praised it in other reviews.
When you blend outrageous goofiness and absurdity with the direness and drama of a life or death situation (and pair it with a good story structure and good narrative delivery) you create a story and world where the serious moments have weight due to the silly moments, and the silly moments offer much-needed levity from the serious moments. It is a tonal back and forwards that kept me constantly engaged in the story of 428 and its unfolding mystery. And whenever I found myself growing a bit disinterested in the talk of international terrorism and plot points that hit harder in a post-COVID-19 world, I could jump over to the antics of some girl in a mascot costume finding a magic amulet that she uses to bring peace and prosperity to the world.
Swerving back to the gameplay, considering that 428 follows five protagonists whose choices affect one another, there is naturally going to be some degree of confusion with navigation. Most of the time, it is straightforward and almost ahead of its time for a decade-old game, doing something leagues more complex than any Zero Escape title before the first one even came out, but there were some moments when the navigation confused me or felt like it took too many unnecessary steps to progress. Most of these have to do with the Keep Out prompts that pause a character’s story until the player stumbles upon a Jump prompt in the story of another.
While this works great 90% of the time, the rest had me pawing over my choices and brute-forcing my way until I managed to find the prompt I was looking for. Still, it was all well worth it to see all the elements and characters ban together for a riveting and bombastic conclusion, and the only real criticism I have of the story of 428 pertains to something the story curiously lacks. Considering its conclusion, ensemble cast, and the open notes that most character stories end on, I feel that 428 would have benefitted greatly from a closing epilogue that explained and recounted where the characters are after the events of this eventful day. From describing where exactly Kano’s love story subplot went to explaining what happened with that spunky girl Miku and her quest to become the best fighter she possibly can.
Instead, the story chooses to end on what I consider a triumphant freeze-frame before cutting to credits and going on a far less thematically consistent ending that doubles as a tie-in for a 2009 anime series by the name of Canaan. Which, while a cool way to expand the world and story, is also so far removed from anything seen in 428 that I honestly could not care about what the series was, or if it was any good or not.
Perhaps this disinterest has more to do with the clear visual difference between these two properties, as 428 has a distinct and striking presentation that I have a… mostly positive opinion of. I say mostly because despite coming from the developer who originated the sound novel, I honestly have a hard time considering 428 to be a ‘sound’ novel. The concept behind a sound novel is that it mingles the audio-visual capabilities of a video game with the elaborate story of a novel, but relies primarily on the system’s audio capabilities over its visual prowess, which really is not the case for 428. The score is rather robust, featuring over 70 tracks, but it is far more concerned with establishing a tone above all else, and beyond a few more imposing and game-y tracks such as Eggplant, Best, and Minoru Minorikawa, the majority of the score sounds like something out of a TV drama. Which is not too surprising, as 428 was co-composed by Naoki Satō, who has had a storied career of scoring films.
This would typically not be a problem, except for how the game’s score needs to carry itself auditorily, as there is no voice acting in 428. Now, I have no problem with this— I still consider voice acting to be a luxury in the world of video games— but the lack of any spoken dialogue, combined with the fact that much of the score is tone-setting backing music, causes the game to be a bit… disappointing on the audio front.
Personally, I think it would be far more accurate and representative to call 428 a photo novel, as the game uses real people and real locations to make up its visuals, and my goodness do they deliver on both quality and quantity. There are thousands of photos in this game, the image often changes with every 1 or 2 screens of text, and the sheer visual variety and diversity on display here are in another galaxy compared to most other visual novels, which tend to focus on more minor fluctuations in an image and liberal asset recycling.
Instead of a typical visual novel, it looks like a well-shot and well-directed TV drama or film, with the most obvious difference being the lack of any motion. At least for the most part. While 428 does technically have a few video sequences, they amount for something like 1% of the total game content, to the point where they’re actually a bit jarring whenever they crop up, and photos are very much the primary way the game tells its story. This might seem like a restriction or a glimpse into what the game could have been if it was a true FMV title, but by taking away the motion, and primarily presenting itself using photos, I think the game gained quite a lot.
From its stillness, it urges the player to focus more on the characters, their expression, their person, and the world they occupy. Details that would be lost when viewing something as a video are obvious when staring at a photo. And I absolutely got a kick out of taking the time to see the stems adorning the metaphorical roses, and leering into these real people and places.
I loved scoping out the close-ups of the actors, from their next gen ultra HD realistic skin textures to their individually modeled unkempt eyebrows. I loved examining the smaller, more intimate scenes, littered with innocuous set dressings that add a sense of character and lived-in quality to the world. And I loved getting to see Shibuya, one of the most iconic locations in all of Japan, rendered in such variety, novelty, and honesty.
The main streets are bustling with people, going about their day, doing some shopping, sightseeing, or just chilling with their friends. The back streets are quiet, cramped, and often lined with some form of trash or general grime. While the interiors of buildings and homes are simultaneously mundane, character-defining, and fascinating.
One of the reasons I love video games so much is because of their ability to allow players to view, visit, and interact with digital worlds. From high fantasy locales, alien planets, or even places as grounded in reality as you can get, such as this game’s 2008 time-stamped version of Shibuya. It’s a place I’ve seen visually referenced or imitated in countless games and anime over the years, but seeing the actual city these fictitious locales are based on was an enlightening experience.
On one hand, it is just another major modern city, with skyscrapers, Starbucks, bustling traffic, and people moseying down the streets with places to be and people to meet. On the other, it is littered with myriad minor differences to any place I have personal familiarity with, subtle cultural trappings, and a unique ethereal feel, something inherent to most major cities, that is palpable even through the medium of a sound novel. It evokes the feeling of sightseeing in a new place, and while it lacks the same interactivity as a modern fully 3D non-novel-type video game, it has the groundedness that urges players to stop and look at the city they are vicariously exploring along with the main cast. And for as much as I love visual novels, I don’t think I’ve ever played one that has so successfully evoked a sense of place and environmental personality as 428.
I also would be remiss if I did not mention the novelty that is to be had when playing this game after reading up on its development. You see, it is technically illegal for anybody to film something within Shibuya, and you cannot simply purchase a filming permit like you can with other major cities. However, it is only a crime if you get caught, and if the police don’t catch you and slap you with a fine, you can release whatever the hell you filmed, no questions asked. It is a baffling rule that both allowed the developers to accomplish everything they did with 428 and caused them significant difficulties, as they had to have employees and people pushers keep the cops at bay while the film crew shot their scenes, got the best photos, and then ran off, hustling across this city to make their game… about cops fighting terrorists… while running away from the cops.
There’s something so poetic and beautiful about that as a concept, and by recognizing this struggle, I couldn’t help but find the end result all the more impressive. Nothing about the presentation seems rushed or uneven, there are plentiful assets for every scene, and the developers managed to do some wild stuff that makes it hard to believe that they did all of this while maintaining a level of subterfuge for two whole gosh dang months.
However, even when ignoring the development side of things, 428: Shibuya Scramble is still a fantastic little game. The developers delivered a sprawling and engaging narrative that kept me hooked from start to finish, and crafted a world filled with vibrant and lovable characters, all presented in an ambitious package that questions just what restrictions the visual novel genre must adhere to. It is a burning reminder of the strengths and flexibility of visual novels as a storytelling medium, in addition to an example of just what developers can accomplish when they take risks, get crafty, and defy common conventions in order to achieve something wonderful.