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Shibuya Scramble Sets New Standards For The Visual Novel
BILL WOOD | FEBRUARY 15, 2022
Tensions boil over as a sinister scheme develops in downtown Tokyo. It seems as though every minor decision carries it own weighty consequence. I’d really like to continue the detective’s hard-boiled storyline of trailing a kidnapping suspect and the scientist’s technology-tinged storyline concerning the search for his missing daughter, but I can’t advance the plot until I figure out how to get this girl out of her mascot costume. You see, she is dressed as a cartoon cat, the costume's zipper is stuck and no one can figure out how to release it.
Welcome, folks, to the zaniness that is 428: Shibuya Scramble.
At the time of its original release on the Nintendo Wii in 2008, Shibuya was one of only nine games that earned Famitsu’s hallowed (and since controversially tainted) 40/40 rating. After playing it's easy to see why the game is almost universally praised, earning an 85 Metacritic on PS4 and a "Very Positive" Steam rating. Story-wise, it's a serious crime drama interspersed with loads of wacky Japanese humor. Game-wise, it's a visual novel that proudly wears its eccentricities on its sleeve. The quirky vibe is reminiscent of another personal fave, Deadly Premonition, only more focused and self-aware, with zero clumsy controls. The visual novel genre may be an immediate non-starter for those who demand actual gameplay in their video games, but if you're up to the task, then Shibuya is not to be missed.
Completely spoiler-free plot summary: 428: Shibuya Scramble unravels the story of several protagonists within the course of a single day as a kidnap/ransom situation is unfolding. It’s your responsibility to follow through with their actions and reactions via text-based decisions, charting the proper course that will eventually further the plot. Some paths end in the same result no matter which option you select, other decisions have dire consequences, while others prompt you to "jump" into a different character’s storyline and take actions that will alter the course of history. It’s a unique form of intertwining narrative that I can't say I've seen before.
If you appreciated the Twin Peaks-inspired delirium of Deadly Premonition (there are references to both in Shibuya), you’re going to find a lot to love here. You’ll meet characters that you will never ever forget, like the persistent detective who hands out bananas at the most inopportune of times, or the impassioned snake oil salesman with the hyperactive personality who spends half of his time shouting, the other half crying. Instead of shoehorning the story into a remote area of the Pacific Northwest that they are only vaguely familiar with (although you could argue that decision made Deadly Premonition even weirder), Japanese producers Chunsoft set their focus directly on the center of one of Tokyo's more familiar and populated areas. This choice of locale lends the serious part of the story more credibility, and the humor is intentional instead of unfortunate.
The game's first chapter kicks off with a frantic tempo, leading you down the path of a tense hostage situation. But just when I started thinking that Shibuya would end up being a one-dimensional detective puzzler, the plot developed in ways that I never saw coming. Story lines converge in unexpected and satisfying ways, revealing the characters as more than simple chess pieces in an elaborate criminal plot. Like reading a fantastic novel, I found myself anxious to turn the page and uncover what was going to happen next.
It's amazing how quickly technology advances, and how quickly our everyday routines and conveniences become ancient history. Shibuya was released as a modern detective drama in 2008, which means flip phones, Tamagotchi jokes, and plenty of Ace Attorney-style FINGER POINTING~!! And then there's Achi, who looks like he's on his way home from a Pearl Jam concert. 14 years later, the Shibuya experience is a stroll down memory lane for those of us who grew up with VHS rentals and portable CD players. This is not a bad thing at all, just an observation. As an older gamer, it's always interesting to see cultural touchstones pass from zeitgeist into nostalgia. But the game itself isn't entirely retro; the visuals have been brought into the modern era and the HD upgrade looks just fine on the PS4.
Special mention has to go to the English localization team, who have done a great job of translating this text-heavy gaming experience. Amazingly, it never feels as though you've lost a reference or missed a joke. The story is told almost exclusively through text and photos and without voice-overs, so a shoddy translation would have made the difference between a great game and an awkward one. The audio design is equally superb. The soundtrack is perfectly tailored to the various story currents, and there are plenty of vintage beeps and ringtones. Just be sure to keep the volume down unless you want everyone in the house thinking you've reactivated your Motorola RAZR.
I'm dumbfounded how 428: Shibuya Scramble spent a year in my backlog without me even touching it, but I'm glad I finally took the leap. This game accomplishes a difficult task; it makes the Japanese visual novel palatable—even compelling—for Western gamers. The genre has always enjoyed a large following in its native homeland, but to see it make its way Stateside in relatively unfiltered form is rather astonishing. Instead of paving over the cracks and taking itself too seriously, Shibuya boldly embraces its '90s FMV (anyone remember Night Trap?) and live-action gaming roots to deliver an unforgettable experience. If you’ve ever been okay with sitting in front of your TV or PC and flexing your gumshoe skills by delving into hours of text, I cannot recommend 428: Shibuya Scramble enough. - BW