Crime and cat mascots in 428 Shibuya Scramble

Apparently a lot of things can happen over the course of a single day in Tokyo's Shibuya ward. In 428 Shibuya Scramble there's kidnapping, unethical virology experiments, a hitman is on the loose, and also somebody's got themselves stuck in a cat costume. One of these things is not like the others, it's true. This is a game that's heard of tonal consistency and told it to go take a hike. It happily leaps from a gunman chasing people through the streets to someone dramatically falling over because their drink was spicy.

428 plays like a visual novel, only with photos and occasional short FMV sequences instead of illustrations. You read someone's story for a while, occasionally making decisions about how they should handle things, then hit a wall and have to switch to a different character instead. Some of those walls are Bad Endings that drag events to a halt, and they can be as surreal as the false endings of old pick-a-path books. At one point Kano the detective quit his job, got married, and settled down on a farm, abandoning the investigation and necessitating a rewind and do-over to convince him to stick with the case.

Where 428 is at its weirdest is in the storyline of Tama, who gets roped into handing out tonic drinks called Burning Hammer while dressed as a cat, then gets trapped in that outfit for the rest of the day. She spends a lot of her time helping a huckster in an afro wig, one of 428's more cartoonish elements, but it gets weird even in the serious storylines. Kano the detective keeps being distracted when he's supposed to be tailing criminals because his girlfriend's overbearing father wants to meet him for lunch, while Osawa the virologist spends a chunk of his day struggling to unclog a toilet.

It's best when it's at its goofiest, which is exaggerated by jaunty music and the exaggerated poses of the photos, characters in atrocious wigs leering and posing dramatically, sometimes with Tokyo bystanders staring at them in the background. 

Sometimes the impact decisions have is at odds with how trivial they seem, their effects unnoticeable on the character who makes them. But simply choosing whether one person leaves a room or listens in on a conversation can drastically alter a different storyline, knock-on effects and coincidences conspiring to push things off course. To navigate this web of connections there's a time chart to making hopping between characters easy. The whole game takes place over the course of a single day from 10am to 8pm, and at the end of every hour you have to get all of them caught up, which prevents the disparity from getting out of hand.

There are a lot of other roadblocks too. Sometimes a straight-up KEEP OUT warning sign appears and can only be overridden by pushing another character until red text appears signifying a connection between them—often a slight one, like a character turning on a light in a building that illuminates the alley nearby characters are in—and can then be used to jump from one to the other, bypassing the time chart and busting through that warning sign.

When you rewind to alter a trivial decision made half an hour ago, 428 will sometimes arbitrarily delete progress made after it, meaning you'll have to skip through a lot of text you've seen before. There's an autoplay feature with three speeds, but none of them are fast enough to make advancing time painless. Other visual novels handle fast-forwarding better, but 428 Shibuya Scramble was originally released on the Wii back in 2008 and has some ideas about interface and interaction that feel like they come from a different time, and possibly planet.

That's frustrating because it injects tedium into a story that goes out of its way to avoid it. 428 follows Raymond Chandler's maxim that when things get boring you should just have a man with a gun come through the door, and that's when it's not about racing across Tokyo to finish a magazine before deadline so the editor doesn't commit suicide, or fighting the members of your old vigilante gang who've gone bad, or chasing down a recycling truck—the last of which you have to do while dressed as a cat, of course.

428 Shibuya Scramble is out now on Steam.