Maria Osawa has been kidnapped by a criminal organisation. If her family wants to see her alive again, her sister Hitomi must take a suitcase filled with money to Shibuya’s Hachiko statue and wait to be contacted. Leading to a twisted spiral of street toughs, Yakuza loan sharks, sleazy tabloid magazines, secret agents, identical twins, a deadly pathogen, spaghetti napolitana, angry dads, one big afro, and a girl in a giant cat costume, the district of Shibuya is about to have a very strange day.
This is the setup to 428: Shibuya Scramble, Chunsoft’s critically acclaimed 2008 not-visual novel which, courtesy of Alexander O. Smith’s Kajiya Productions and a killer script by Kevin Frane (Yakuza series, Quantum Devil Saga), has somehow made it to the West in the year of our lord 2018. Something of a capstone to Chunsoft’s pioneering Sound Novel series (think something more akin to a lengthy Choose Your Own Adventure than a modern visual novel), 428 puts the player in control of five protagonists over a single day in Shibuya, with each chapter covering an hour. Left unattended, their paths will overlap — usually to disastrous ends — so it’s the player’s job to ensure all five of them make it to the end of each hour in one piece and with their goals in sight.
On its surface, the story is a fairly derivative homage to 24, but 428’s intricate plotting and larger-than-life characters make it a non-stop joy. There’s Kano, a greenhorn detective tasked with saving the Osawa sisters and catching their abductors; Achi, an eco-conscious gang leader who ends up helping Hitomi evade capture; Minorikawa, an uproariously obnoxious journalist trying to save his failing gossip magazine; Kenji, worried father of the Osawa sisters and an experimental virologist; and Tama, a girl in a cat costume desperately trying to sell some dodgy weight loss products who might just be the key to everything. Each of these characters gets equal screen time and development, and each has a compelling arc that gloriously comes together during the climax.
The core of 428’s gameplay is its Time Chart system. As each character’s tale runs in parallel, the player can — and must — swap between them at any time by hitting the triangle button to bring up the Time Chart. This is a flowchart that shows each character’s position over the hour in five-minute blocks. As long as you’ve reached a time threshold with a certain character, you can jump to their scene. Occasionally a protagonist’s story becomes locked with a KEEP OUT sign — usually at the moment just before a big story revelation. These are unlocked by jumping to another character’s timeline and keeping an eye out for red text that references the locked character, which functions as a hyperlink key to the lock. There’s also the more common blue text, which leads to tips that may hint at what’s to come, fill in details of the world, give cute cameos to 428’s staff, or even reference earlier Sound Novels — a character inexplicably transplanted from horror title Imabikis? is as haunting as she is amusing. Unfortunately, a couple of these tips are a little buggy: one about a flyer for Achi and one about Tabasco sauce for Minorikawa were both too long to fit on a single screen, causing the game to lock up and force a soft reset of the software.
The Time Chart is not unlike the flowchart system seen in Spike Chunsoft’s later visual novel Virtue’s Last Reward, but it’s not quite as well tuned. Rather than detailing all divergent paths, each character’s timeline is singular and overwritten when different choices are made. 428 is loaded with entertaining bad endings — so many that they’re treated as a collectible resource that unlocks post-game content. If you’re like me and want to seek out bad endings from earlier in the game, you’ll likely be surprised to see your timeline vanish until you restore your original choices. Bear in mind that your timeline is never erased outright; the system is just a little clunkier than it should be. There’s also no manual save, which I found jarring at first, but autosave checkpoints are so frequent and plentiful that it’s unlikely you’ll ever lose more than a minute of progress if you have to shut the game off in a hurry.
As evidenced by its use of still photographed actors, 428 is a devotee to camp. It leans in hard to the inherent absurdity of its chosen visual style, its cast’s exaggerated faces and body language giving the impression of people acting out scenes from a manga. However, it never tips into the ridiculous; there’s a refreshing earnestness to 428 that manages to be self-aware without trying too hard at farce. There’s almost an element of German Expressionist cinema about it; I lost track of the amount of wonderful screenshots I captured.
That’s not to say there aren’t missteps, however. The subplot about Tama and the weight loss products ends up being an excuse for 428 to carry out a lengthy and lazy running joke at the expense of overweight women. Tama’s coworker Chiri is portrayed by a slightly chubby actress, and the plot never lets you forget this. When we’re introduced to her, she’s eating everybody’s lunch and guzzling all the weight loss products she can. Within the next two hours, she’s eaten an all-you-can-eat buffet out of business and moved on to a ten-course meal at a local café. In contrast, the weight loss product within the story is acknowledged to be an outright scam, and the overweight ladies buying the product from Tama and Chiri are portrayed as desperate and naive. This makes for an impossible paradox within 428’s story: overweight women are to be mocked both for their size and for trying to change their bodies to better fit hegemonic society’s unrealistic beauty standards. This whole plotline bothered me every time it reared its head, which it did frequently throughout 428’s 30-hour duration.
While I really disliked 428’s mocking attitude towards women’s bodily autonomy, I did like just about everything else. The nonlinear, vignette-based narrative is a perfect fit for the Sound Novel format, and few scenes are wasted. I frequently laughed out loud at 428’s script, while at the same time I was hooked to find out what would happen next in its twisty, turny tale. 428: Shibuya Scramble may not be perfect, but it’s a title that even the staunchest visual novel skeptic can get a lot of enjoyment out of.