When visual novel games are done right they can be absolutely tremendous. The Ace Attorney series to me is the beacon to all these types of narrative-driven games. An incredible cast of characters taking part in a story full of twists and turns and loaded with enough player interaction to really get you thinking. These are the hallmarks of visual novel games, anything less and it doesn’t keep me interested long enough to read wall to wall text, so when I first loaded up Spike Chunsofts 428: Shibuya Scramble I really didn’t know what I was in for. A live action shot over Shibuya’s bustling streets and tall buildings kicks things off, a man is tied up in the back of a car with a sack over his head. Clearly shit is going down but before I get a good handle on what is going on I am thrust to the beginning of the story.
What I’m presented with is a crime thriller with five main protagonists. Shinya Kano is a detective for the Shibuya Police Department, Achi Endo a former gang leader who now dedicates his life to cleaning up the streets (literally). The first two introduce the story between them, allowing a tutorial to show me the ropes of the main gameplay mechanic which is parallel timelines. After a little time, I was met with a “bad end” in Kano’s storyline because I arrested Endo by accident which caused Kano to reconsider his life as a detective and tender his resignation. With this knowledge, I could switch to Endo’s story and change the timeline by keeping him out of the Kano’s way. It sounds simple at first, but then I’m presented with three further protagonists. Kenji Osawa who is a scientist working at a large pharmaceuticals company; Minoru Minorikawa, a freelance journalist and Tama, a girl stuck in a large cat costume. What seemed simple at first has now got a lot more complex as each character affects different characters in different ways.
So, I’m Tama, a crazy big cat, handing out free samples of some suspect diet drink that no one seems to want. But she really needs to get paid so she decides to hustle up and not take no for an answer. Two men approach, a sharply dressed businessman and a dishevelled gentleman, possibly homeless. The decision I am presented with is who do I approach. I think that maybe the homeless dude might be more grateful for a freebie. After a little convincing (well basically refusing to take the bottle back) the man walks away with the sample. Success! Now I am Kano, on the tail of a perp on a train. My partner approaches me in disguise and offers me a little drink of something that he picked up for free earlier. How thoughtful of him I think when suddenly I realise that this is the same bottle that was handed to a dishevelled gentleman in a previous timeline. Could it be that my partner was disguised as- too late, Kano has drunk the liquid and a searing pain has taken over his body. The jig is up, and the perp gets away. Bad end. Now I must go back to Tama’s timeline and pick the sharply dressed man to burden my horrible death drink on.
Every so often I ran into a ‘keep out’ section of a character’s story that willed me to find a clue within the text of another character’s story to unlock the next section. This could be a highlighted word within the main dialogue or it could be within a sub-dialogue box that comes up when selecting certain words. These sub-dialogue boxes give you more information about specific people, locations etc and can be accessed by selecting blue highlighted words. I found that it was all about trial and error as I needed to bring each of the five storylines to their conclusion to move on to the next timeslot. This never seemed tedious. I could fast forward through sections I had already read to get to important crossroads in the story.
The story is beautifully crafted, and the live action stills really do a lot to tell this gritty crime drama with comedic and touching moments throughout. I found that I really cared about these characters and I laughed a handful of times at some of the more ridiculous situations. Combined with the twisting timelines, it’s a story I really enjoyed trying to straighten out and I wasn’t at all deterred when I hit a bad end, rather I was determined to fix it.
In terms of narrative-driven visual novel games, this is one of the best. Besides the highly inventive timeline system, the story is one of the best I’ve played in a narrative driven game. Even if you’re not typically a fan of the medium I would implore you to give it a go as the story is compelling enough on its own to keep you pushing on to each section. Not to mention the comedic sections are hilarious and the characters really force you to care about them. A great story presented in an interesting package that may not be for everyone but is indeed one of the best of its kind.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*