My, my, my!
When I first took an interest in the visual novel genre there were a few titles I was interested in trying thanks largely to their anime adaptations that I had already watched. Amongst them was Shuffle, for which the anime has the distinction of being one of the earliest anime I took a serious liking to past the almost mandatory Naruto phase. The only problem then was that such Novels were still Japan only and my language skills were not sufficient enough to enjoy them without someone to work the translation. Therefore when I found out that MangaGamer had actually done a translation of it I immediately dived after it. After playing I do believe that I may have over-hyped it to myself. While not as amazing as I had hoped, Shuffle is still a very good enjoyable novel.
To begin on a mostly positive note are the obvious high production values put into the product. The graphics used for this are bright and cheery, which is probably sounding cliche coming from me at this point but Shuffle really does take this to a whole new level. An indicator of this is probably within the artists' decision to paint every girl's hair a different colour. More than that though are the overall striking character designs used throughout. Large distinct artwork is used in every part, with the usual anime styled exaggeration in place with quality easily along the top ranks of current expectations. The various characters are also given quite different designs outside of the school uniform many wear that works as a nice compliment, and this attention extends even to the secondary characters as well.
Expressions are well done in this regard too. Again, every character Rin crosses paths with can express joy, sadness, anger and a variety of other emotions through their facial expressions, which can be used to great effect. The effects in place really help to keep the visual style going as well. Character artwork transitions very well but the novel will even throw in some nice animated effects like shaking the screen (for whenever someone gets clobbered over the head), fade out for screen changes and the character will move about when needed. It's not exactly full animation if you were expecting that but it's great anyway.
CGs are similarly of a high caliber. Backgrounds images give us a range of locations throughout the city from the usual school spots to the homes of the girls and hotspots like the fountain. In a sense though the city itself isn't vastly different from the many visual novel locations that have come before it. CG event scenes are nicely done, with each girl having a succession of pictures to portray various events that happen during a set path. Whether it's to highlight emotional outbursts not possible with the normal artwork, casual friendly gatherings or the sexual encounters, each one is wonderful and working to unlock them is quite good.
It's not all perfect though, and for its visual flair Shuffle does stumble on some of the more technical aspects. The settings menus are terribly designed, with an ugly layout and it is all very cramped. Comparing it to something like Snow Sakura is rather upsetting. The default display settings also make it hard to read the text, and while it is possible to fix this by adjusting the text box opacity it is weird to require the player to fix the problem.
Shuffle's music collection is definitely impressive. The big songs used alone really sound awesome, with tunes such as Mirage Lullaby (the novel's opener song) easily being music player material. What's even better is that the music tracks used as background sounds can be the kind you might want to listen to a lot as well. Purple Moon happens to be a favourite of mine, but there are other tracks from the collection worth listening to. The music is generally upbeat with a fair few frantic numbers in there, which is complimented by a few more serious toned down melodies for the more intimate moments, and the balance feels just right. Each girl also seems to have her own theme music that matches up with the personality, making Kaede's music more relaxed than the energetic Asa music, for example.
As usual expect the Japanese vocal track to be in full force and it works. While there wasn't any specific vocal work to pick out each VA did their job to convey their character as needed, so Sia's girlish hyperactivity or Primula's shyness come across to the player as the story unfolds. You can also switch individual vocal tracks on and off, just in case anyone happens to sound irritating to you.
Shuffle has a backstory, although it's also quite a flimsy one with no other purpose than to kick things off. Rin is a typical horny guy who just happened to be nice to two girls when he was younger. However, these girls just so happened to be princesses of alternate worlds, and now they've come to Verbena Academy with the intention of marrying Rin. Of course, with another three potential partners for Rin to hook up with this sets the stage for the harem to begin (minus an actual harem scene).
During the course of the story Rin must make various decisions in the first half that will shape his destiny in the second half. The decision points (handily labelled "Choose your destiny") tend to be very straightforward and often it was easy to see who would get affected by what decision. Sometimes an event happened that you wouldn't have even noticed was there but for the most part you should have no trouble at all hitting any of the five paths. Oddly there is a decision point (or a few, in Sia's case) in place during each route that determines which of certain CGs you get, but it seems rather pointless. It has no real impact on the story so it more seems like a cheap way to get players to go through each route twice (or to get the smart players to save at the point and take the other choice afterwards).
During the first half are friendly gatherings amongst Rin and his friends in addition to the girl specific scenes that are triggered by your choices. There's definitely a warm atmosphere and a fair bit of humour involved with this, especially thanks to supporting characters like Mayumi and Itsuki who do their fair share to enrich the experience. The events typically revolve around the usual slice of life stuff like taking school lessons and getting dragged along for shopping trips and it's nice to see the interactions.
Into the latter half of the tale these scenes become less common as the story turns to focus on whichever girl has grabbed Rin's affections. While humour is still a factor it is certainly less of a focus and Shuffle attempts to take on a more serious tone. This is where you find out more about the troubles haunting each of the girls you can date and realise that the happy exterior is just a mask hiding what lies beneath.
However, the execution does suffer a little in places. The biggest problem Shuffle has is that at times sequences are over too quickly. Sometimes this leads to me thinking that a specific event is left unfinished because just as it is getting developed it ends and we move onto a new day. The real issue is with the more dramatic events. When delving into the depths of each girl's torment you can't just pull off quick summaries, but at times that is what Shuffle does and a lot of the impact is lost. This is most noticeable on Nerine's and Kaede's routes, although its effects can be felt throughout. It does not drag the product down far but leaves a sense that it could be more than what it is.
One thing I appreciated is the tone of the translation. Aside from being a high quality work, the translation also retains specific Japanese terms and provides onscreen notes explaining them for those unaware. Given the setting of the novel this extra touch is nice.
I decided to start with Nerine's route and easily got it first time. Nerine is one of the princesses that came to Earth to take Rin as her beloved partner. She's pretty much as one would expect a princess to be with a reserved elegant nature. Rin feels that something is immediately off when she denies her own singing voice and acts totally unsure of herself. A big truth is in store regarding their past encounter and Nerine finds herself questioning whether her feelings are truely her own. A couple of scenes made my roll my eyes at how pathetically pointless they were but Nerine's story was decent. Unfortunately, a lot of the impact is lost with a lack of development. Her story had the potential to really go places but it's not given the time to fully grow.
Primula's story was next, with a girl that was created and therefore feels like she does not belong anywhere. Her actions are driven by someone she was once close with but after her loss she finds it difficult to express herself. Partway through Primula hits a life changing moment that allows her to express herself and the result provides us with some heart warming events. Her personality change felt a little too abrupt, which is possibly another result of Shuffle's tendency to keep things shorter than usual. However, this does not impact her story so immensely and therefore it was genuinely enjoyable to see her story through to completion.
Then we come to Kaede, who had such a great anime portrayal that I had high hopes for her novel story - hopes that were utterly crushed. The base story is there, where Kaede devotes herself to Rin in an effort to make up for her past actions and yet cannot bring herself to allow Rin to love her. The big problem is that most of it was pretty boring. Kaede is too much of a doormat throughout her route and while her backstory has such potential it goes largely ignored. There is a spike of interest at the end when the writers force through a resolution but I seriously had no interest up to that point. Kaede's a nice supporting character but without development she does not work as a leading lady.
At the opposite end is Asa, whose route is easily much better. A strong willed girl whose unique parental situation caused her to inherit magic power her human body cannot cope with, and the most obvious solution is something she doesn't want. The one thing that struck me about Asa is how different she acts around Rin. Whereas every other girl is practically falling over themselves for his affections, Asa starts as friendly and develops a more meaningful relationship where she isn't willing to bend to his every will. This alone makes her a far more interesting character and gives the resulting relationship more substance. Her scenes also felt more developed and I feel she was given all the time needed to flesh out her story.
Finally it is Sia's turn, who surprised me by having the most interesting route of all the girls. At first it's typical stuff with her fawning over Rin, although her cheery personality is quite infectious so she brings a shine to her scenes even this early on. As her story progresses we learn Sia's other self, and the conflicts caused give way to some emotional scenes. Various events play out that provide us with an insight to both and this gives their relationship to Rin special meaning. By the end of her story I really felt for the pair involved and the conclusion was handled superbly.
Then there are all the extras in store. The ability to skip previously read scenes is there, along with the ability to custom colour the text for said scenes, making it easy to pick out what is safe to click skip on. You can also view CGs and listen to music you've come across, along with an expression viewer that lets you cycle through the various half body artworks of characters with different poses, outfits and expressions they use throughout the novel. One slight issue is that these extras need to be unlocked first before you can start viewing any CGs or listening to any music tracks. Worth it though.
Shuffle has some technical issues, one bad route and one meh route. What's left is still three good routes and high production values. It's fun with some interesting diverse storylines and more than enough eye candy and sweet music to be worthwhile.
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