If you’ve been following Japanese video games for a while, you’ve probably come across the magazine Weekly Famitsu at some point. Hugely popular to this day, its 40/40 review score system — four writers who can give up to 10 points each — remains notorious, despite the occasional allegations of excessive coziness with publishers. A 40/40 score is typically only bestowed upon the most hyped games, and it tends to have the effect of hyping them even further.
Until winter 2008, only eight games in the 22-year history of Famitsu received a 40/40 score. With the possible exception of the surprising yet remarkably prescient Nintendogs review, none of the selections would shock a Japanese games fan: Ocarina of Time, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, and so on.
Then came 428.
A quirky, thrilling visual novel that relies on live-action photography, 428: In a Blockaded Shibuya for the Wii is, by some distance, the most niche game ever to receive 40/40 in Famitsu. (It was the eighth best-selling game in its week of release.) Until now, it was also the only game with that honor to have never been released outside Japan or in English. But Spike Chunsoft has localized and released it for a Western audience on the PS4 and PC as 428: Shibuya Scramble, and I think anyone with an interest in Japanese games should play it. And not just because Famitsu’s reviewers really dug it a decade ago
It’s an important part of Japanese gaming history, and you’ve never played anything like it. It’s also absolutely fantastic.
428 is set in the busy Shibuya district of Tokyo, and you follow multiple protagonists’ stories that are taking place in parallel over a single day. To be extremely reductive, it’s kind of like 24 but with a lot more reading. You can choose which character to “control” at a given time, and getting to the end of an in-game hour-long block unlocks more of the story. The plot is pretty complex: it involves kidnapping, conspiracy, and cat costumes. You have to make choices at pivotal moments, then usually backtrack to change your mind once things play out for the worse. But while there isn’t really anything in the way of traditional “gameplay,” 428’s dynamic photography and storytelling make it feel entirely new. Localization director David Kracker describes it as “interactive like a visual novel, but as carefully shot and plotted as a Hollywood blockbuster.”
“I figured it was now or never.”
428 was developed by Chunsoft, a company previously best known in the West for roguelike RPG series such as Shiren the Wanderer and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, but which has recently developed a wider global following for visual novels like Danganronpa and the Zero Escape games. Chunsoft has been the most renowned visual novel developer in Japan for decades, and until recently, very few of these titles were released outside their home market. So why is 428 finally making it to the West?
“It’s partially an experiment, partially a pet project,” says Kracker. “The Danganronpa visual novel series far, far exceeded expectations and convinced us that there was a global market for such titles. Since 428 is hailed in Japan as the pinnacle of the visual novel adventure genre, I figured it was now or never.”
Any game like this lives or dies by the quality of its writing, of course, and you might think 428 would have been an intimidating task to translate into English — both from a linguistic and cultural perspective. But the sharp script and variety of tonal levity actually make it a natural fit. I played the Wii version back when I was still learning Japanese, and in the same way that Haruki Murakami novels are a popular option for students because of the way he evokes English writing in Japanese, 428 in English is a breezy read that always feels deliberate.
“Some Japanese scripts are full of lines that makes me wince and think, ‘Oof, good luck with that one,’” says Kracker. “[But] for 428, the original has a very wry, dark sense of humor that was begging to be put into English. The producers had American crime thrillers like 24 in mind, but it reminds me more of Arrested Development or a Coen brothers film. Each scenario has a different flavor — Kano’s is a hardboiled cop thriller, Tama’s is slapstick comedy, Osawa’s is psychological horror — and Kajiya Productions, the localization team, nailed the voice of each.”
That said, the game still feels extremely Japanese, which is something the localizers couldn’t shy away from. In the past, games like the Ace Attorney series would often be heavily modified in their English forms, removing several cultural references that the localizers deemed likely to confuse Western players. But Kracker thinks that approach won’t fly anymore. “Aggressive culturalization is a thing of the past,” he says. “Not because the audience has grown sophisticated — the audience has always been sophisticated — but because there’s enough success to trust the market.”
“It reminds me more of ‘Arrested Development’ or a Coen Brothers film.”
On the other hand, 428 doesn’t follow games like the Persona series in fully localizing unique features of the Japanese language like the -san and -chan honorifics that are frequently attached to people’s names. “The goal of localization is for users in the target language to have the same experience as users in the source language,” says Kracker. “If you and someone across the globe are laughing at the same jokes, crying at the same scenes, and fantasizing similar headcanon, then I’d call it a quality localization.”
I agree with this entirely, particularly in the case of a game as text-heavy as 428. When I’m reading something in English, I want it to feel natural without constant reminders that it’s been interpreted from another language. If I wanted the honorifics, I’d play it in Japanese. You can never truly translate 100 percent of nuance and meaning, so I’d rather have something well-written that captures the intent of the source material.
On the other hand, I can’t deny that part of the appeal of 428 on a personal level comes from the vivid rendering of the city I live in. The photography is excellent throughout, with a lot of shots that are clearly intended to highlight specific aspects of the Shibuya setting. Like the Yakuza games, the degree of verisimilitude is something that the developers will have assumed that most players will appreciate. As Kracker points out, though, the story is grounded in universal themes. “Players latch on to a certain character as their spirit animal,” he explains, “so I think everyone can relate to their struggles, if not the setting.”
428’s excellent localization deserves to bring a legitimate Japanese classic to a whole new audience. I can’t stress this enough: if you are at all open to the idea of crashing on your couch and reading a lot of text on your TV screen, 428: Shibuya Scramble is one of the most original and entertaining ways to do just that. It’s truly one of a kind in the very best way.
428: Shibuya Scramble is out now for PC and PS4.