Reviews

Shibuya Scramble review – VNs Have Never Worn This Much Makeup

From the opening scenes of Shibuya Scramble you'd be forgiven for thinking this live-action choice-driven visual novel was actually a showcase for male models to share a round of pouting. Well, alright, you probably wouldn't because that would make you obliviously tone-deaf to something that quickly sets out its offbeat stall to make sure you know: this game is full-blown mental.

428: Shibuya Scramble comes from the genius mind of writer Koichi Nakamura and masterful development team at Spike Chunsoft (Chunsoft Co. at the conception of the game). Originally released exclusively in Japan for the Wii back in 2007, the game has seen subsequent ports on other consoles and mobile platforms, though still in its native territory – fortunately for us Westerners, the game has now received a top-notch localisation and makeover. The title – referring to the famous intersection in Tokyo’s hip, down-with-the-kids, Shibuya Ward where traffic is stopped on all sides so pedestrians can frantically cross paths from all angles – sets up the flavour. The fantastic direction adds the seasoning, the writing the spice. This is very Japanese and it’s all the more reason to love it.

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Your Future is Garbage

Once the tutorial gets the basics out of the way, story beats must be progressed in parallel across all protagonists, with all segments taking place within a single game-world hour. Once all available characters reach the end of the hour without any major mishaps, the next section begins. The first two characters, Kano, the affable rookie detective and the loveable dim-witted ex-gang-leader-turned-litter-picker, Achi, separately get wrapped-up in a ransom-driven kidnapping. It doesn’t take long before it’s clear there’s more to this crime than originally perceived. The oddities in behaviour of both victim and suspect set the charismatic duo on separate paths around Shibuya’s streets, indirectly crossing paths while driven by entirely separate motivations. As more people are added to the mix, their branching routes spiral into intriguing and humorous situations, sometimes converging, sometimes going off on a novel tangent.

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At its base, Shibuya Scramble’s gameplay systems are what you’d expect from a visual novel: button presses to proceed through text and static images, prompts here and there to make decisions, ability to skip over text viewed previously, menus to allow quick navigation to different points in time and so forth. Even the core puzzle mechanic, on paper, sounds fairly routine in that the actions of one person can directly affect others. However, it’s the flawless execution of jumping between character perspectives and the chaotic domino-effect you create while doing so that make for an utterly engaging hands-on experience.

U & I

On occasion a keyword will be highlighted in blue which, when selected, will provide a short informative paragraph of the subject at hand. Or it will offer something silly. And hilarious. By selecting a red keyword, players will be offered an opportunity to ‘jump’ to another person’s story at that same point in time, in order to have influence over making sure bad endings are avoided and all characters can simultaneously reach the targeted time of day. The UI is clean with no fluff, stripped down to necessities with smooth transitions and pleasing aesthetics.

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Choices are frequent and are essential to progression. Made the wrong choice? Welcome to one of Shibuya’s highlights: ‘Bad End’s. These aren’t handled in the traditional format of bad endings, where you’ll often be pushed into running through alternative endings to reach the ‘true’ ending of the story (though it should be noted there are multiple endings and a true ending by the end game). No, the bad endings act as clues (perhaps fairer to say instructions) as to which element of another character’s path you need focus your attention. This can occasionally become a tad more difficult when there’s a complex knock-on effect in play but there are plenty of prompts and nods to ensure you can reduce the search to a smaller number of scenes. Some are necessary to move on however, I would encourage players, even where they’ve figured out what they should do to progress the story, to seek out these often-frivolous snippets of insanity because they lead to some delightful, funny and plain weird results. Simply put, they are brilliant.

My wife and I shared this crazy rollercoaster ride and generally agree the bad endings (or bado endo, if you’re feeling more cultured), ranging from bizarre to comedy gold, stand out as memorable and creative displays of unapologetic Japanese wit.


When the Tongue Slips, Grab it and Yank out the Truth

You will be frequently prompted to make choices, dictating which direction the current character will steer their fate. Some consequential, some partially so and occasionally, not at all. Irrespective of value, the strength of the writing kept me consistently engaged. Whether I was inclined to side with the character or not, I always wanted to find out what came next for each of them without exception. Even the side characters are full of personality without any of it ever feeling forced. If you don’t enjoy fuzzy-haired, Mr Yanagishita’s display of eccentric, ill-directed showboating, you’re in the wrong place (or dead inside; one or the other). The premise is off-the-wall, the acting style suitably complimentary and culturally authentic.

 

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Objection

The many faces of Shibuya Scramble always made me feel welcome, like I was supposed to be listening in and personally involved in their internal monologues. It’s strangely immersive. I couldn’t get enough of smart-mouthed hot-shot freelance reporter, Minorikawa and his quick-fire finger-pointing antics (complete with a smack sound that would have Phoenix Wright questioning his credentials) – always waiting to drop him into the next silly situation, just to sit back and watch him thrive.

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The soundtrack, if played back-to-back without knowing the premise of the game, would have most people scratching their head in confusion. 70s cop-style funky bass grooves, rocking theme tunes for when folks mean business, upbeat, pleasantly comedic melodies and an assortment of contextually sensitive arrangements keep up the excitement. This versatile collection is used to great effect, always contextually perfect and always matching the actors’ enthusiasm.

Shibuya’s general atmosphere has the flourishes of a Japanese TV drama with a ludicrously fun plot that could have been pulled straight out of the pages of a Jump magazine. And it hooked me like a bare-knuckle boxer in an Irish Stand Down. The witty script, hilariously on-point acting, unexpected plot twists, astonishingly appropriate soundtrack met with an overall cool self-awareness, drives this rollercoaster of unique gaming pleasure that I can’t see being replicated any time soon.

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Despite my enthusiasm, it’s important I point out, if it wasn’t already obvious, that this is a niche offering with a particular audience in mind. With that said, I truly believe it’s worth a shot for anyone who’s open-minded enough to appreciate something fresh and unique.

Dick Dictum

When I’m asked to score a game, I reserve the highest honour for those games that simply blow me away with unadulterated enjoyment. Of course, nothing is perfect and there were a couple of short-lived twinges of frustration when being unable to progress the story, when I thought I’d ticked all the right boxes, logically…That’s all I’ve got.

bananna

When all’s said and done, I think on what ultimately makes the ideal game for me personally. If it’s fun throughout, has unique elements and bags of personality, that’s as much as I can ask for.

Verdict:

Graphics & Presentation: 4.8
Sound: 5
Gameplay: 4.9

Overall Score: 4.9/5

If you’re undecided on this game, simply ask yourself if you’ve ever wanted to frantically run around the trendy streets of Shibuya while attempting to profile kidnappers, chase perps, uncover international conspiracies, write hot scoops for a sleezy paper, deal justice in the most eco-friendly way you know how and sell shady diet products while dressed in a cat suit then… come on, just buy the damn game.


Formats: PS4 (Reviewed), PC

Price: £44.99 (UK PSN)
Publisher: Koch Media (EU)
Developer: Spike Chunsoft / Abstraction Games

Release Date: 21/09/2018 (UK PSN)

Review copy provided by publisher

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