Review Visual Novel

SHUFFLE! – Review | A Mixing of Worlds

SHUFFLE! is a visual novel created by the company Navel. Released in 2004, SHUFFLE! was received relatively well for a visual novel, eventually spawning an anime adaptation with two seasons, an all-ages port, and an expanded adult release. The visual novel got three spin-off sequels as well, with multiple games coming after it taking place in an expanded version of its initial universe. It even got an official localization courtesy of MangaGamer and YumeHeaven for its English-speaking audience, though this release was discontinued in 2016 on account of licensing issues.

As a visual novel fan, I’ve always been curious about SHUFFLE!. It’s a title that I’ve known about for so long, yet whenever I lurk around visual novel spaces, it rarely comes up in conversation. Maybe it’s too old of a title to talk about nowadays? Well, regardless of the truth, I’d like to know how SHUFFLE! does relative to today’s visual novels. Does it hold its own, or is it a remnant of the past? Let’s find out for ourselves.

SHUFFLE! - Kaede, Primula, and the King of Devils

A Union of Worlds

SHUFFLE! is set in a world where two gates leading to the realms of gods and devils suddenly opened one day, bridging the human world with realities bursting full with magic and supernatural beings. This situation would eventually throw the world into a sequence of events that led to the three realms agreeing to a peaceful coexistence, and with it, allowing travel from one realm to the others.

Fast forward 10 years into the future, the world finds itself embracing this new reality. Devils and gods with characteristically longer ears now roam human cities as if it was natural to do so, and the magic they’ve brought with them is now part of life in society. What had been a world full of humans is now a world where all three races interact with each other and exchange cultural practices, technologies, and knowledge. Even families aren’t necessarily purely human now, as intermingling has become a welcome occurrence.

Enter Tsuchimi Rin, an average male highschool student who studies at Verbana Academy in Koyo Town alongside both fellow humans and those devils and gods. Along with his childhood friend Fuyou Kaede and his other buddies, he lives through everyday minding his own business and trying to make the best out of his current student life. That is, until one fateful day when two exchange students arrive in his class…

Lovers

A Sudden Love Triangle!?

Two dazzlingly beautiful ladies enter the classroom, much to the joy of every adolescent male present. Lisianthus and Nerine, a god and a devil, have introduced themselves and why they’re transferring to Verbana academy. The reason? To chase the hand of Tsuchimi Rin for marriage. And with their backgrounds being the princesses of the God and Devil realms respectively, you have the start of this fantastical romcom revolving around a guy who wants nothing to do with the scrutinizing gazes being cast on him by every other male student in the vicinity. And it’s quite understandable, really, since Rin is now effectively surrounded by at least one of three otherworldly beauties in his every waking second. That’s including Kaede, who lives with him in the same house!

Going forward from there, SHUFFLE! inserts fantasy elements from its multiworld setting to create an interesting backdrop for its romantic comedy story. By incorporating harem tropes such as flirty advances, accidental groping, and scenes that feature specific heroines, you as the reader are treated to a taste of what to expect from each heroine’s route. This helps you decide who to pursue as you progress through the common route. Whilst a little bit predictable, the addition of that fantasy element helps subvert expectations to create an overall refreshing dating sim experience.

Kareha and Polygamy of Gods

Humans, Gods, and Devils

Making full use of its fantasy setting, SHUFFLE! features a healthy number of characters exhibiting traits that are human, divine, or demonic in origin. This helps SHUFFLE! a ton because of how its narrative is structured around mostly slice of life scenes. By weaving in facts about gods and devils into the character’s daily conversations, it helps flesh out their norm and, by extension, the reader’s immersion. But as much as I wanted to praise SHUFFLE! for taking that approach, I felt that it was unsuccessful in what it was trying to achieve.

SHUFFLE! leans heavily into the utilization of certain tropes for its slice of life scenes, and with that forming the bulk of the visual novel’s narrative, I can’t help but feel that it’s incredibly underwhelming especially with the setting it has been establishing. This type of thing usually isn’t a problem, since scenes such as sharing an umbrella, going to the beach, and fighting over the protagonist during lunch are all standard fare for a lot of romance visual novels. It’s just that with the presence of the three realms, I can’t help but want something else out of SHUFFLE!. Something that utilizes its unique points to the fullest. Some sort of convenient teleportation to school when they’re late, or a magical item that helps them study—there’s so much they can do with it! It feels like a missed opportunity to not invest in these elements that the visual novel introduced.

Choice in Classroom

Selecting Your Destiny

SHUFFLE! features a day system that doesn’t have any real gameplay function, but is more of an internal timer to keep track of its common route. There’s no element outside of the story that utilizes the dates, so they’re more of an aesthetic feature than a functional one. Whilst the day system isn’t particularly necessary, it’s a nifty way of estimating your playtime for each route after you achieve your first ending.

Speaking of playtime, one thing that’s frustrating about SHUFFLE! is that it’s actually pretty short. It took me a total of eight hours to read through the entire thing and get 100% of its CGs. Considering it has five routes, it feels incredibly limiting for each character’s story to be condensed into a script that would essentially last only an hour or two (including the common route). So it’s not just that we’re dealing with an underutilized fantasy setting; SHUFFLE! doesn’t even give itself enough time to expand on these elements in the first place.

So how about the heroine routes themselves? SHUFFLE! has a total of eight choices in the common route, the combination of which will determine the route you’ll enter by summer vacation. The majority of choices lead to pretty obvious outcomes, but some establish flags through unexpected coincidences such as bumping into a heroine after deciding that you want to go home early. Additionally, there are missable CGs because of events that require a specific combination of choices to encounter, so if you want to easily 100% SHUFFLE! I recommend using a walkthrough or a guide.

SHUFFLE! - Sia Route

Lisianthus – Princess of the Gods

Lisianthus, or Sia for short, is one of the two transfer students that get introduced at the beginning of SHUFFLE!’s common route. Sia is the only daughter of the King of the Gods Eustoma who dotes on her excessively, sometimes to the point of embarrassing her. This leads to some situations where she has to make use of physical force to stop her father and his paternal antics. Despite this violent tendency, she is actually very caring, well-mannered, innocent to a fault, and knowledgeable about household chores. Her relationship with Rin stems from an encounter they had eight years ago, where she fell in love with Rin who played with her while she was lost in the human realm. Since that time, she’s been working tirelessly to become an ideal wife for him.

Sia’s route plays into her divinity, which is incredibly interesting given the lack of anything of the sort in the common route. The conflict of the route itself is heavily inspired by her being a god, which opens up a lot of opportunities to explore their realm. Unfortunately, it only really amounts to that. Whilst the problem they’re facing is prevalent and frequently implied throughout the route, the bulk of it is still heavily swamped by romantic slice of life scenes that feel mostly irrelevant. In terms of sentimental value, it’s there, but because of the length of the route, the resolution of the conflict was so incredibly fast that it almost felt like it was easily solvable from the get-go.

SHUFFLE! - Nerine Route

Nerine – Hell’s Nightingale

The princess of the Devils, Nerine, or Rin-chan, is the latter half of our duo of beautiful transfer students. The daughter of the King of the Devils Forbesii, she possesses incredible magical powers, enough to supposedly destroy the entire school if she wanted to. Elegant, considerate, a great singer, and sometimes naive, she does her best in everything she does to contend for the position of Rin’s girlfriend. Even in cooking, something she’s notably horrible at! Similar to Sia, she also had a chance encounter with Rin as a child, helping her get back to her father and comforting her along the way.

Nerine’s route mixes normal sentiments with her devil background really well, creating a conflict that’s believable and incredibly moving. However, once again there’s not much of an opportunity to bask in my feelings on the matter because the problem is immediately solved, having been introduced at the end of Nerine’s story. Despite this, it plays nicely into establishing why Nerine is as weak-willed as she is when it comes to matters regarding herself. Her interactions with Rin only serve to better highlight that contrast between how she perceives herself and others. But with her route being shorter than Sia’s, readers may be left wanting something more.

SHUFFLE! - Kaede Route

Kaede – Not Quite Lovers

Fuyou Kaede is the quintessential childhood friend present in every dating sim. She’s selfless, dotes on the protagonist to the point of self-sacrifice, and incredibly cute to boot! Due to some circumstances, Rin ends up moving into Kaede’s house a few years prior to SHUFFLE!’s story, which makes him the target of his classmates’ envy. Not to mention that she basically does everything in the house for him too! With their history together and their current living conditions, it’s no mystery that their relationship is probably the strongest among the heroines at the start of the story.

Ironically, I felt that Kaede’s route was the weakest among the five heroines. With their chemistry already being there from the start, I expected her story to be the most flexible because of the lack of a need to introduce additional fantastical elements. Instead, the route wastes away with scenes that could be called dilly-dallying with how they skirt around its central conflict. Whilst I love using subtle hints to build up tension, this is one case where the vagueness of the narrative does more harm than good. By the end, you’re given only two scenes to resolve the entire thing. I was gravely disappointed with what transpired because it felt like her issue was simply shoved aside.

SHUFFLE! - Asa Route

Asa – Stubbornly Human

Undoubtedly the best heroine, Shigure Asa is the token upperclassman heroine that teases you but is vulnerable to teasing as well! She’s usually accompanied by Kareha, a god that loses herself in romantic delusions. Her relationship with Rin is mostly friendly; she reaches out to him a lot to say hi and fool around and gets teased in return by either Rin or Kareha’s delusions. Their chemistry as a couple is honestly pretty nice, and with the nature of their interactions being humorously cute, their scenes together end up being a blast. There’s just one thing about her that’s weird—she doesn’t seem to like magic.

It’s no understatement to say that I enjoyed Asa’s route the most. Fun, quirky, but awkwardly relatable—these are words I’d use to describe Asa and the issues in her story. Although lackluster in its resolution, the route is mostly straightforward with its plot. Thus, while short, I felt like its narrative flowed better, especially with its limited length. In fact, even though it’s weird, it was able to characterize the type of person Kaede is better than her own route through comparisons she makes!

SHUFFLE! - Primula Route

Primula – Stuffed Feelings

Last but not the least, Primula is SHUFFLE!’s resident small girl heroine. A homunculus created through the collaboration of the two supernatural realms, she was bestowed an unimaginable amount of power for an experiment on magic. Cold and unmoved at first, Primula is left in the care of Kaede and Rin to learn more about humans and their world. After a number of scenes where she hangs out with members of the cast, she finally learns to be a little bit more expressive. It was a treat watching Primula slowly develop ways of subtly relaying her emotions, which Rin picked up on due to living with her. They end up establishing a sort of sibling-like relationship that’s both wholesome and heartwarming to read.

What Primula’s route does better than the others is that, because of the nature of her character, she’s given ample time to establish herself as a heroine even before the route starts. Her scenes from the common route felt significant going into her route proper. Even after finishing it, progressing through her route didn’t feel awkward for the most part. Unsettling silences, lack of understanding, growing affection, and vulnerability—all these elements are felt throughout each scene, making each and every part of the route feel important, especially when compared to some parts of the other four. The climax at the end was also satisfying, even when considering the underutilized aspects of SHUFFLE!’s fantasy world.

Adult Content

The version of SHUFFLE! that I played for this review is the 2009 MangaGamer release containing adult content. The visual novel features 2 H-scenes for each heroine, ending up with a total of 10 H-scenes for the entire game. None of the scenes were particularly out of the ordinary. Most of them simply featured the couple getting intimate with each other. In terms of naturalness, most of them felt appropriately placed within their respective routes. Their timeline was independent of each other too, Instead of there being a common date in its day system where you can expect the H-scene to happen, it only transpires if their route progression makes it feel like it’s the appropriate time to do so.

By the way, please be aware that the adult content for this version of the game is mandatory to view. This release of SHUFFLE! does not include an all-ages feature for those who might be looking for it.

Art and Music

As a visual novel released in 2004, SHUFFLE!’s artstyle retains a lot of the features of bishoujo characters that were prominent during the time. Looking at it at first glance, people who are acquainted with today’s art will immediately feel the age being exuded by the game’s CGs. This is not to say that it’s bad, of course. For an old title, SHUFFLE!’s variations of poses and expressions portray their characters as lively and animated. The characters are super detailed too. Just looking at their hair, you could feel the amount of work that was put into each character’s design. It’s a definite plus if you’re interested in older anime art styles.

The voice acting of the characters was well-done too. Even side characters such as Itsuki and Mayumi felt like they were full of life despite their overall role. Heck, even Sia and Nerine’s dads felt like they came to life with the effort put into their voices. As for the music, it felt fitting for the kind of title SHUFFLE! is. Most of them were lighthearted tones (such as my personal picks “HAPPY RUN” and “Kocchi kara Acchi, Acchi ga Kocchi”) that imbued me with energy to read, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they skimped out on intimate tracks like “With You…” and “In the Dream”. Overall, with 23 tracks in its Extra section, there’s no real shortage of tunes that can be used to give life to different scenes in SHUFFLE!.

Verdict

SHUFFLE! sets itself up as a unique experience by creating a fantastical world that’s chock full of stuff that can make its story a lot more interesting. Sadly, due to underutilized story elements and a short runtime, it falls short of actually doing that. Instead, it settles as a slice-of-life romance visual novel with a few supernatural elements. This mismatch between its premise and what it ended up becoming bleeds into the routes as well, making most of them feel a little bit inconsequential in their gravity.

I feel a little bit disappointed that it didn’t maximize its potential, but it’s good to remember that it is an old title. Whilst it may pale in comparison to a lot of titles being distributed today, its concept and tone overall made it a successful title during its time, eventually spawning sequels and spin-offs that take inspiration from the same universe. I can’t exactly recommend it as is, but I’ll say that I’m looking forward to how its sequels expand upon its world and, by extension, its heroines. If you’re just looking for a romance visual novel, there are a whole lot of other titles out there that are better. Pick up one of those instead.

WAIT FOR SALE ON SHUFFLE!

Platforms: PC
Purchase Link: No longer available for purchase in English.
Physical copies in Japanese are available via services such as ZenMarket

Want to check out more visual novels? Why not check out our review of Harem Kingdom? We have also covered a wide variety of visual novels both original to English and localized from Japanese, which you can check out here.

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