Although visual novels have become pretty popular in the west over the past few years, one particular variant has stayed consigned to the history books for some time - the live action adventure. Once pretty popular around the time when CDs were first invented (after all, nothing said technologically advanced like actual footage on a disc), at one point in the days of yore, you couldn't move for the badly acted stinkers, and it wasn't long before the novelty value wore off - but not before leaving us with the odd cult classic like 1995's Phantasmagoria. 428: Shibuya Scramble, then, is something of an oddity, offering a mixture of live action footage, and still backgrounds to illustrate its visual novel story - odder still that it's taken the game a decade to see a Western release, having originally hit the Wii in 2008.
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The story here is something of a crime drama, with the events of a single day being relayed from five very different perspectives. When Maria Osawa, the daughter of one of said protagonists, gets kidnapped, and her twin sister Hitomi is sent to hand over the ransom money at the Shibuya's Hachiko statue, the wheels are set in motion to change every one of the protagonist's stories for good. Combining police chases, eccentric tabloid journalists, blocked toilets, rough neck street gangs, eco warriors, a deadly disease, way too many bananas, a girl in a giant cat costume, and a rather large afro, 428: Shibuya Scramble makes for one very strange day in Shibuya - and the protagonists need your help, if everyone's going to make it out of it alive.
The five main characters here are pretty diverse bunch in and of themselves. First, there's Kano, a newbie police officer who's been assigned to the kidnapping case, and who mostly spends his time trying to balance a needy girlfriend, a disapproving potential father in law, and his work with his crime-fighting partner, a somewhat eccentric policeman who likes to play dress up when under cover. Meanwhile, Achi is a former gang member turned eco warrior who spends his time picking up litter in Shibuya, and ends up helping Hitomi escape from her numerous assailants, while Keiji Osawa plays the worried father, whose day job as an experimental virologist has some potentially sinister implications. Minorikawa is a loud, obnoxious and over-the-top journalist who's out trying to get scoop after scoop in an effort to save his friend's failing gossip mag, and finally, there's Tama, a girl that's stuck in a cat costume trying to help sell a dodgy diet drink, and who just may prove to be the key to the whole thing.
Essentially a "choose your own adventure" game, only where each of the five character's stories are interlinked, 428: Shibuya Scramble is probably best thought of as one big game of chaos theory, or the "butterfly effect". With each and every decision you make having a knock on effect on at least one other character, it's up to you to make the best possible choices not only for your character, but in the hope of managing to steer the others down the right path as well.
It may all sound a bit complicated on paper, but in practice it's actually fairly simple - you just have to use one character's actions to influence another's to open up new pathways through the story. For example, in the opening hour, eco warrior Achi notices Hitomi loitering by the statue with a heavy briefcase - and being a nice guy with a weakness for attractive ladies, he heads over to offer his assistance. However, this means that newbie police officer Kano mistakes him for the kidnapper, arresting Achi and letting the real culprit get away. As such, you need to go into Achi's story and choose the option where he doesn't approach Hitomi, so when you then switch over to playing through Kano's side of the story, you'll nab the real culprit instead. Essentially, not only does Achi's story change by choosing to not approach the girl, but Kano's changes to by him not arresting the wrong guy too.
Sometimes, you'll find people's stories are actually locked off with 'keep out' police tape, with the only way to get past the blockage being to 'jump' from a key part of someone else's story. Certain keywords will be highlighted in red, indicating they're a special jump point, and selecting them will see you leap into another characters' story, often to a scene you can't get to otherwise. Perhaps it's clicking on the 'young man in a suit' that knocks Achi to the floor to jump to Kano's side of the story, and start chasing down the potential kidnapper, or choosing 'her father' as Achi watches over Hitomi as she writes an email to her dad's work colleague, removing the lock on progressing through her father's side in the process. While it's a lot less frequent than the regular conversation options and decisions, jumping is a handy way of getting past various blocks in different characters' stories and progress the story when you've hit a dead end.
For a visual novel that seemed to come out of nowhere, a decade after its original Japanese release, 428: Shibuya Scramble is a blast. The way each characters' story intertwines with the others is pretty clever, as it's not always obvious how different decisions will affect the character in question, or indeed any of the other routes, meaning trying out all the possibilities is part of the fun. 428: Shibuya Scramble also has a heck of a lot of bad endings - at least half a dozen per chapter or more - ranging from the deadly serious, to the funny and sometimes the totally random. In fact, the game does have quite a sense of humour, alongside a story with so many layers, Shrek would be jealous, with more than a handful of revelations along the way.
About the only negatives we can really come up with are the occasional typo in the script, and the fact that the text, while refreshingly large, can be a little hard to read on some of the busier backgrounds (as you may have noticed from the screenshots). Needless to say, a little bit more shadowing or outlining would have gone a long way. How the timelines work can also be a bit clunky and awkward, particularly if you're going back to round up all the bad endings (as the endings actually function a bit like collectables, and can unlock extra content if you get all 85). Essentially, each time you make a different decision, all the other timelines rearrange to suit, effectively 'overwriting' your other later choices, which can make certain scenes disappear. To get them back, you have to go back and change that decision back again, which can be a bit of a slog. There's no easy Virtue's Last Reward/Zero Escape-style branching flowchart giving you an overview of where the branches are either, so it can be a lot of trial and error.
If you've got a hankering for a fun and quirky visual novel, then you can do a lot worse than 428: Shibuya Scramble. It may have been an awfully long time in coming to the West, but its light-hearted humour and intriguing twisty, turny tale are real highlights, while it's decision to use real-life characters to act out the scenes in over-the-top ways is certainly an interesting one. Replaying decisions to get certain endings, or when stuck, can be a little slow and clunky, but all in all, 428: Shibuya Scramble is a great little game that keeps you guessing right to the end.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4