Shuffle! Essence+ Review
Ah Shuffle! a title that holds a special place in my heart as this was my first real introduction to eroge. I have never played the orignal game mind you, not understanding anywhere near enough of the language back then to even come close. Originally I had intended to play when the english patch was released… though since that never really panned out Essence+ arrived to remind me of the original Shuffle! and how badly I wanted to finally play this game. However I did watch the animated series when it came out, thanks to Micchi talking to me about the show. As a result I eventually became interested in the game and how different routes would play out, mostly Nerine. Thanks to Micchi and Shuffle! I have become the eroge player I am today, so when Micchi complains about my being an ass… well that would be her own fault now wouldn’t it?
My nostalgic rant aside I can begin to get down to business, first off the original idea was to have Micchi and I do a joint post where each of us only read through the routes we liked, sorry this is no longer the case. Now that you have to put up with me for the entirety of the Shuffle! review I am going to make a few changes to best suit the nature of this game. I will separate the original shuffle game, which is a part of Essence+, from the new content introduced this time around.There will be two completely separate scores and for the story, characters, H scenes, and conclusion. The reason for this is to apply value directly to the new content rather than having the old game still around to make things confusing. For those of you who have only played the original or have not played any of the previous games I intended for this to be a more useful layout for you to deal with when deciding on whether or not this game is worth the time. Now, with all the ranting and preface notifications out of the way it is finally on to the review of a game which contains soaring highs and crushing lows, giving a bittersweet taste of the very best and very worst of eroge.
Our story starts out rather predictably for those who played the original game with Forbesii discussing the art of picking up girls with Midoriba whereby an attempt is made to pick up Rin’s homeroom teacher Nadeshiko. Promptly following the failed pickup we are briefly introduced to Sia, then Nerine in quick succession during Rin’s walk towards home. Skip ahead and we have Rin being awoken by his private live in maid.. erm I mean Kaede. We then experience a run through of a typical day in the life of Rin, in the process introducing Asa, Mayumi, and a more thorough introduction of the teacher, Nadeshiko. Fast forward to the following day and we have the introduction of two transfer students… who turn out to be old men, or rather the children of two middle aged men. Not only are the two transfer students the princesses of their respective worlds they are also vying for the chance to become Rin’s fiance for no good reason. With the half assed plot setup out of the way we can move on to what really matters.
In the original Shuffle! game the heroines are limited to Nerine, Sia, Asa, Kaede, followed in last and least, Primula for all you lolipedofins. As I am currently in a good mood I will start with the positive of the original game stories. Even though there are handicaps which I shall address later, the stories compiled for the original heroines still manage to come across as well thought out and often end on a touching note after solving the most intimate troubles each girl faces. I enjoyed reading the progression of the various heroines as they try their hardest to win Rin’s affection while slowly revealing more about their characters, personality, and past. Not only were the stories themselves entertaining, there was plenty of comedic relief to prevent the atmosphere of the game from becoming too heavy. In fact most of the supporting characters are roughly ninety percent comedy. I found the pacing used to intersperse comedy with drama very suitable, which helped the game flow easily while reading, making the game such an easy read it is as though it reads itself for you.
On the other hand we have the setup for the stories being just plain lazy and unbelievable. From the very start of the game princesses throwing themselves at the protagonist just because they happened to spend an hour or so talking to him as a kid. Not to mention Kaede and her unhealthy obsession with waiting on Rin hand and foot. Later there is even Primula, who only responds to Rin, I mean come on there is a limit to how central one person can be. The feeling of the universe revolving around Rin had an adverse affect on the overall natural progression of the plot and stories. I understand the need for a quick and easy introduction to get things moving, however there is a problem when the main character does not have to do a single thing to have dozens of girls falling at his feet in desperate attempts to win his affection. In fact I don’t see the point to choices in this game, all the girls without exception like him right from the start so all he had to do was point and say “[Girls name here], I choose you!” and be done with it then and there. Instead the story one sidedly follows Rin developing feelings for a specific girl. As a result even though the relationships do develop slowly the stories lack that proper feel of the relationship slowly progressing through various interactions. Even the simple act of just spending time together before things come to a tense head with the confession and attempt to establish a relationship felt completely absent. Truly the sad aspect of all of this is that even though there are plenty of pre caught fish on display you cannot partake of them all at once. Really this game screams for a harem end especially with the god realm having a system of polygamy, way to tease us Navel. While yes there are allusions to the potential in the future there are no spelled out true harem ends. This makes the Sugisaki in me a little sad.
Though I lightly touched on this above I would like to point out in greater detail the flaw in having the two princesses doing their best to become his fiance. I find it difficult to believe that after he had not only stumbled upon and played with the princesses of the two world separately ten years ago, but even more that after spending a few hours at most playing with someone as a child was enough to engrave into their minds they wanted to marry him. For an event that happened ten years ago as children so young the concept of love would not even have begun taking root I would find it astonishing but at least believable if they even remembered him at all. The coup de grace for their relationships being even remotely convincing is the sheer obsession they all have with Rin, which is not just limited to the princesses. There is no feeling of a light crush developing into love but rather going all out from the start and making no attempts to hide it.
The various endings for the original game were upbeat and satisfying, providing a happy conclusion to the developments throughout the story. It is nice to see happy conclusions with no hard feelings though I cannot help but feel there was a significant lack of substance to the endings. Nothing really gets resolved in the end other than who he chooses, compounded by precious little foreshadowing. While it is true you can safely assume the events which are likely to take place as a result of the established conclusions thereby pointing you in the right direction, there is still something to be said for really developing those endings to give a feel of finalization and resolution to the events at hand.
On to Essence+, first I would like to point out what they should have done to make this more than just a fandisk+. Personally I feel that the true “Essence” of shuffle is how the past relates to the current characters and how it affects their present and future selves. In this regard I feel that the past situations were never done proper justice in the Shuffle! series, and was hoping for essence to revisit the childhood events which shaped the direction the entire series headed later on. To this end I was hoping they would take the initial setting back ten years ago in order to delve into the meeting of the princesses, the other side of Kaede’s personality, and his relationship with Sakura. They could have presented options leading to alternate futures, where perhaps he never met the princesses, or only met one, maybe even a story where Kaede still blamed him. The potential for character development based on changes in the past would have allowed for more pronounced character growth for the original cast, giving us new insight into the characters we know and love. While on the other hand the haphazard and forced introductions of new characters such as Sakura could have been done away with in favor of a smooth transition where past events lead to her still being in his life at the current point in time. As things stand the current story and layout of Essence+ is severely lacking with most of the new characters feeling as though they were scotch taped to the story in a hasty and indiscriminate attempt to come up with new content.
A further point of neglect for Essence+ is how the new characters were factored into the existing story. That is to say everything from introductions to conclusions when dealing with the added content characters ends up feeling like post it notes slapped all over the existing story. ironically perhaps the only character I felt had a smooth introduction (Who was truly new and not just previously a sub character) was Matsuri, who does not even get a route. The rest of the new characters from Tsubomi to Sakura all the way through to Daisy are clumsily introduced in ways that neglect the original plotline. To add insult to injury this feeling continues throughout their routes, making use of the same scenes just now with whichever character you chose added in for a quick five minutes or so of bonding time.
Then we come to how Navel pimps out their characters, it seems as though they must be reading from the same business model that Circus uses. If you look back at the entire Shuffle! series starting from the newest and working your way to the past games there is a distinct pattern that emerges. Every previous game advertises the “New” heroine which will appear as a heroine in the following game as a background character. It feels like they test spare character designs and if they feel people sufficiently like the character then they go ahead and slap them into the next storyline. This follows the blatant milking tactics which Circus is known for and I have a real problem with. Matsuri should either have been given a route in Essence+ or not been part of the game at all, after all her character was hardly necessary for the story. All of this would not be so bad if it were not for the uncanny ability Navel possesses to make the supporting female characters give off a heroine vibe. I must admit whether or not I even like a character, if they have potential there is a certain disdain I feel compelled to adopt when the writers hold out after developing a characters potential and offering a slight teaser.
On to the meat of the new game we arrive at the routes finally offered up to the fans who have been patiently waiting for a “finalized game”. After getting over the rather awkward character introductions we come to what ends up being the biggest flaw in both Shuffle! as well as Essence+, made all the more frustrating with the addition of more characters than you have fingers. As you play through each route you notice that almost the entirety of the events and situations are repeats, yes you go the pool, the beach, and everywhere else in each and every route. Not only is the fact that the story progresses the same and at the same pace utterly infuriating but the scenes are very nearly almost exact copies of each other. The worst part of all this is how they add in just enough new sentences to prohibit you from simply skipping all of the repeat rubbish. I mention this along with Essence+ and not as a part of Shuffle! simply because Shuffle! did not have enough characters for this to reach the same level of blood pressure exploding annoyance.
With the mindless repetition out of the way the routes themselves were nothing too impressive either. Nadeshiko especially was just plain horrendous, her route felt five minutes long and the last minute of it made no sense whatsoever. Tsubomi was more of the same as everyone else and Sakura felt completely out of place. On the other hand Daisy’s route was almost a completely separate game, if only that was the end of her problems it may have been salvageable. I found the Daisy route to be almost unplayable with how badly it tied into already established stories, and yet somehow managed to drag things out in such a mundane manner I was bored to tears. Thanks to Matsuri we already know how the Daisy route is going to end from the beginning anyway, as there would be no purpose for Matsuri’s character at all if it was resolved in any other manner. All of the new routes with perhaps the exception of Kareha, most likely since she was involved in the PS2 version and was part of the original cast, were frankly lacking in all areas of writing and plot development. The routes lacked a sense of cohesion with the original story making for a disjointed and uncomfortable sensation while reading. Even though there is new content the majority of it comes as similar scenes with a new sprite exchanged for an older one. New routes feel like they were stamped out by cookie cutters, dull, repetitive, and created with about as much passion as a robot assembling a car.
When you overcome trudging through all of the mindless drivel, repeating scenes we have read a dozen times already, characters with less personality than cereal mascots, and stories so compelling they make counting sheep obsolete, you arrive unceremoniously at the endings. Or perhaps more appropriately lack thereof. Now Shuffle! endings were always a bit lacking to me, they left many open ended suggestions at the end, all the girls keep trying to win him over, and essentially nothing gets resolved whatsoever. So continuing the traditional non committal anime style endings Essence+ fails to deliver satisfying conclusions, leaving you feeling empty with a question mark lingering over your head. While yes, we do know who Rin ends up with in the endings and that much is established in every ending well enough, the fact that nothing changes, and there is no concrete feeling of commitment and moving into the future together, no making a choice and sticking to it because he really cares for that one person more than others. Perhaps this is a part of Navel’s marketing strategy, that in order to produce more games they leave it as open as possible, especially involving the possibility of a harem end. Really the need for a separate harem route and end along with the individual routes would solve everything and allow the single routes and especially endings to be more clearly conveyed.
The original Shuffle! game came with five heroines, and while they all have pre existing feelings for Rin, they still manage to feel clearly defined from one another. Their personalities and traits complement one another to manifest a vibrant sensation of life, giving birth to characters that drive us to feel for them, their situations, and the problems they must face. The keystone of this connection stems from how their individual routes draw out ever more depth from their personalities and pasts, and is something that the original Shuffle! hit upon quite skillfully. Truthfully I feel that of all the fragmented elements interwoven together to produce a game, Shuffle! characters are the only thing that has made the series what it is today. While every other aspect of the game lags a bit behind many other games and series, Shuffle! remain memorable. As to why, I for one feel this is solely due to the characters being able to carve a niche into our hearts, inscribing a deeper memory upon us which shall not allow them to be forgotten.
Shuffle! characters are, more than anything else, what has made the series such a well known favorite, there are few people who cannot find something to like among the plethora of choices now available with the release of Essence+. You have your pick from dere with long ears, dere with short ears, dere with human ears, all with slightly different dere to reflect their respective ear-head ratio. In fact this time around you even have a bit of tsun as an appetizer before you get your dere. With such wide ranging personalities there is plenty of dere to go around. Well now, obligatory sarcasm about lack of personality trait variance out of the way… lets continue where I left off *ahem*. However while characters may be the strength of the original game, in Essence+ the characters end up becoming something of a weakness. There are simply far too many characters, too much personality overlap, and not enough traits to clearly distinguish one character from another. It seems as though all shuffle characters have one defining trait, for the originals it would have been Nerine’s voice or Sia’s never ending arsenal of chairs. While this trend continues in Essence+ these small character hobbies and quirks essentially become the only defining features of their characters apart from looks or social situation.
New characters may work well to get people to buy the game but not so well when you fail to properly bring the characters to life. Simply adding in some new faces with sub par storylines that mostly just repeat, or minor differences in hobbies or a “New” character trait which is already far too overused, does not qualify to be presented as a new game. In the end the problem I have is that Navel went for quantity over quality with Essence+.
I get the distinct impression that the more a character as appeared before Essence+ the more developed their character was during Essence+. Of course this is ignoring the main heroines of the original game as they had nothing especially noteworthy change about them during Essence+. I suppose that having some of the character fleshed out helps when grafting them into an existing storyline.
Rin embodies everything you would expect from a typical eroge protagonist, he is “Kind”, dense, and of course everything female within the few local universes loves him and only him for no real reason. In fact so badly developed are the birth of relationships in Shuffle! that I feel only Kaede and Asa really have any right to claim being able to like him. The typical kindness he displays to everyone really lacks a lot of impact for being such a driving element for his character and the story.
All this aside Rin lives with his childhood friend Kaede in her home where she dotes on his every whim. His daily life prior to the princesses boils down to just being pampered by Kaede day in and day out. His kindness pretty much boils down to being capable of eventually stumbling into the correct answer after exhausting all other possibilities, as though he is a blind man playing whack a mole.
PS. I really wanna know what kind of shampoo this guy uses to attract all those girls …
Nerine is the daughter of the demon world’s king, and thus a princess, she came to the human world in order to claim the main character Rin as a result of falling in love with him ten years ago when they met for a few hours as kids. Nerine is a soft spoken and reserved character, however somewhat explosive when she gets angry, usually when someone says something bad about Rin. Other than fawning over Rin Nerine enjoys singing, although strangely it also seems to depress her while she is immersed in her memories at the same time. During Nerine’s steady development as a heroine she begins to show more of her insecure side thanks to the traumatic events from her past leaving lingering emotional scars. Nerine, like most of the girls in Shuffle! places Rin ahead of everything and everyone else, though Nerine takes it a step further by using the “Sama” suffix which for me comes off as a bit uncomfortable and distant. unfortunately for Rin, Nerine is not the most skilled person when it comes to housework, especially cooking thanks to her father insisting on taking care of everything as his hobby. Then again the times when she clumsily tries her best serve only to evoke the desire to hug and comfort her in response to such adorable innocence. On the other hand Nerine is very intelligent and does very well in school, much to Sia’s chagrin.
With her cute mild mannerisms and berserker rage combined I find Nerine to be the most attractive character in the Shuffle! series. Hauu Omochikaeriii~
Sia, just like Nerine came to the human world in order to become Rin’s wife, only she happens to be the daughter of the god realm’s king. Sia is in much the same situation as Nerine, having met with Rin ten years ago when separated from her father. As a result she has of course also traveled to the human world intent on marrying Rin. Sia is a cheerful person who always tries to look at the bright side of everything, often cheering others up in the process. Behind her bright and happy exterior Sia covers the difficult situation she finds herself in with her twin sister. On the other hand Sia though not as intelligent as Nerine is far more capable when it comes to cooking and other household chores. Though not as blinded anger as Nerine when she is angered Sia has no qualms in beating the perpetrator with whatever she happens to be sitting on. I suppose her special assault skill would come handy on moving day.
Rin and Kaede’s friend and senpai Asa is an extremely energetic character. Asa, a member of the cooking club, also happens to be the one who taught Kaede to cook, of course the result ended up with her becoming an acquaintance and eventually friend to Rin as well. Often taking on an older sister role for Rin, even going so far as to refer to him as Rin-chan, Asa often manages to offer up useful insights and guidance in between her perpetual teasing. Often coming across as a carefree tomboy Asa like most of the original cast also has a more painful side to her life which gradually reveals a character with a deeper personality and more to worry about than her cheerful and upbeat mask would otherwise indicate. Interestingly Asa has an extreme dislike of magic despite having no problems with the other races, even having a best friend in Kareha who is of the god race.
Kaede is Rin’s childhood friend, when both of his parents and her mother died in the same accident he came to live with Kaede and her father. As Rin’s loyal slav… serva.. uhhh caretaker? Well whatever you want to call her she obsesses over Rin, wanting nothing more than to take care of him forever. Quite skilled at doing her job, Kaede takes care of all his meals, laundry, and cleaning, as an added bonus she doubles as an alarm clock waking him up every morning. Of course laying in wait behind her maid like smile she has perhaps the darkest streak of all the characters in Shuffle!. Kaede can be downright vicious when she is provoked or in danger of losing her reason to live.. Rin.
An artificial life form Primula was created from scratch by a joint effort between the god and demon realms (An artificial loli.. does that make her a dutch wife?). Can’t say I understand why they chose to make her a loli if they had the choice for anything, however she was made as such thus I can only deal with it. Primula is lacking in emotions due to living an isolated life. Having come to the human realm for none other than, yup you guessed it, Rin. Primula is rather clingy towards Rin and only Rin in the beginning, however over time she develops into a younger sister type of character, becoming more outgoing and open with her emotions.
Kikyou is Sia’s younger twin sister, a bit more mischievous than Sia she also is far more insecure and shy. Being unaccustomed to dealing with other people Kikyou is rather awkward with everyone at first. When she feels comfortable around the people at hand, Kikyou becomes more outgoing than Sia with a straightforward type of manner and speech.
Kareha is Asa’s best friend, taking up the role of a kind and gentle senpai for the group, that is when she is not off daydreaming in her delusional world. Also a member of the cooking club, it is rare to find her separated from her best friend whom she thinks the world of. Somewhat important to note is that Kareha does not start off with complete crush on Rin mode, as almost everyone else does, leading to her feeling more down to earth and realistic as a character. While Kareha is personable and gets along with everyone she does give off an air of aloof indifference to the world around her, where everyone who is not Asa or Tsubomi is the same in her eyes. The sense of a caring yet distant senpai I find to be one of her more attractive qualities, as well as something that the Navel writers pulled off very well.
Someone needs to research her brain chemistry to come up with a new antidepressant.. im sure that cheerful LSD class hallucinations would cheer anyone up.
Tsubomi comes in next as Kareha’s little sister. In standard Shuffle! tradition she starts off with a crush on Rin, even entering as a charcter by stalking him. A bit clumsy at times, Tsubomi is a bright and cheerful character, if a bit hyper active. Tsubomi often helps bring Rin and Kareha together by being the one to aggressively invite him along. While in most areas she is the complete opposite of Kareha, Tsubomi seems to share her sisters flair for delusions, only instead of “Maa maa maa” her delusional trigger is “Kya kya kya”. Speaking of which her “Kya kya kya” sounds so bad to me, almost as though she is some bird squawking, I found it to be incredibly annoying.
Rin and Kaede’s Childhood friend who attends a separate all girls school. Appearing randomly after having gone their separate ways from middle school, we are quick to find out she too has a crush on Rin, and has for some time. Unlike the others however she was already turned down once by him. A little bit insecure about her own feelings, which she feels betray her friend Kaede,Sakura has a hard time being as up front and open as some of the others. I suppose her character was born to have something of a midway point between the longtime friend of Kaede, and the sudden reappearance of someone from the past in Nerine and Sia. As her unique hobby Sakura likes to sew together stuffed animals of her own design.
Nadeshiko is Rin’s homeroom teacher who apparently like everything else female in this world has a strong attraction to Rin. An exceedingly strict character Nadeshiko is slow in coming to terms with her feelings. Her character is perhaps the most inconsistent, doing a completely one hundred and eighty degree turnabout without any warning, completely randomly in the middle of the story followed by a quick rush to the end. Ignoring her nonsensical personality switching, Nadeshiko doubles as a personal trainer, usually for Midoriba, whenever they cross the line she is the one to inflict painful punishments upon the perpetrator. There really is not much to her character other than her strictness as a teacher and her attempt to come to terms with herself, it is disappointing considering how Navel had the opportunity to develop her character further.
Mayumi is your typical self conscious flat chested girl who also serves as the source of any and all gossip. Her character exists mostly for flat chest jokes and putting Midoriba in place. Eventually her personality lightens up and becomes more affectionate but in Shuffle! so is every other female… for no good reason. With her only appeals coming from her gossipy nature, heterochromia, and flat chest I for one cannot say much effort was put into developing her properly.
Daisy is your standard tsundere, in fact I get the distinct impression that she was added specifically to cater to this most popular of personality types as Shuffle! was a pure dere game prior to daisy. When all your heroines do nothing but fawn over the main character all day every day I suppose a bit of tsun would be a nice break, only other than tsun her personality is bland and her route is predictable. There is nothing about daisy that cannot be summed up by simply calling her tsundere, it really shows how much of an add in character she was.
A member and founder of the broadcasting club she obsesses over Sia, doing all in her power to coax her into joining. Due to how much she admires Sia she has an intrinsic dislike of Rin and has no qualms making this known, leading to a few humorous situations when she insults Rin in front of Sia. Daisy enjoys playing video games, and even has a part time job working at the local arcade. I suppose even Navel realized her character was lacking when they assigned her pet, Erica the bunny thing.
Other characters that actually have real interactions amount to the two kings and the typical perverted best friend. Other than those staple Shuffle! characters and generic friends, the supporting cast is limited to characters who only show up much if ever in one route and a character who feels like an advertisement for a potential future heroine.
While character designs may be Shuffle!’s selling point, the supporting cast is around for little more than comedic relief. Usually there occurs a single instance of them offering insight or perhaps becoming the driving force behind a decision by Rin, of course this occurs in a brief scene or series of scenes near the end of a route. While the characters are very well done for what they are, they also feel a bit more two dimensional than I would have prefered, leading to their characters having a bland air, and singular purpose as a supporting cast.
I am going to lump the two kings together because well… they are the same character essentially. The main difference between them is that the demon worlds king and Nerine’s father, Forbesii enjoys housework, excluding Nerine from learning anything due to his love of taking care of cooking, cleaning, and just about everything else. Eustoma the god realm king and Sia’s father on the other hand relies on Sia to take care of him. Both of the kings are extremely laid back, giving an air of irresponsibility when they would rather party than take things seriously. Pretty much whimsical characters who do whatever they wish (Dragging everyone else with them) the two do have their serious sides that show during the conclusions to various routes when various plot elements come together for the climax. Despite their carefree nature both of them take their daughters very seriously, and would do anything for them. In fact the only way to control the two is to make an appeal for their daughters to step in and threaten them. Perhaps this is the reason for their surprising level of acceptance towards Rin, even to the extent that they tend to treat him as their own son most of the time, even when he choses someone other than their daughters.
Midoriba fills in the generic character slot of perverted best friend who once in a while offers up useful insight, in his case most notably during Mayumi’s route. Further distinguished as perhaps the only character in the entire Shuffle! series who is not attracted to Rin.
A new addition to the cast, Matsuri straddles the line between the supporting cast and a heroine, there is far more development of her character than other supporting cast as she is given a significant (Though utterly pointless) role in Daisy’s route. The student council president, Matsuri possesses a firm will and is very strict with herself, holding her sense of duty in high esteem. A bit too hung up on social status, Matsuri is nevertheless a trustworthy friend to Rin who would do anything in her power to assist him.
I am willing to bet that if there is an opportunity to place her in a following game or fandisk based in the Shuffle! universe, Matsuri will be a heroine. Her character served no point than as an advertisement for a new character design.
Asa’s rather young mother Ama gives off the feeling of a carefree airhead. A kind and gentle mother whose world revolves around her daughter, she nevertheless finds teasing Asa to be a rather entertaining pastime.
Filling the role of Daisy’s pet comes Erica, a spirit… bunny… thing. More than just a pet Erica can also be considered Daisy’s best friend, often helping her with work and serving as a confidant. Erica does not like Rin much at first, but since she is the pet of a heroine, of course she will eventually come around just like her owner.
On the whole Navel’s artwork is decent given the time frame it originated from, though a standard cell shaded affair. There is more detail than usual put into hair by Navel’s artists, bringing a finer look to the individual strands as well as enabling a better sense of motion when properly employed. Colors chosen are generally more vibrant than realistic, lending itself to a brighter overall tone to the artwork. I do like their style as it is rather distinctive, giving a sense that this is a Navel game.
Oh who am I kidding, Shuffle! art is generally sub par. Despite my feeble attempts to say nice things about it, whilst what I said is true… the art comes across as stiff and awkward. Lines are often far too straight, rulers are bad when illustrating anything organic. If one does not look too closely there is little to complain about, the only issue becomes whether or not you like Navel’s particular style or not. However when sparing more than a half second glance at the artwork I cannot help but feel the lack of polish and care normally given to details. To be more specific, character poses and positions are unnatural and rigid, shading is mostly simple as are lighting effects (Though employed skillfully in a few select CGs). The colors chosen, while fine on their own as it is a stylistic choice, never quite feel properly blended in many CGs, as though a child had a limited pack of crayons. Final issue to point out before going into greater detail is that many lines are far too straight, people do not have straight lines on their bodies, yet either from laziness or ineptitude Navel artists love straight lines and use them wherever they feel they can get away with it.
Covering said issues in order first up will be the character poses. When looking at Shuffle! CGs you can see how especially those CGs which depict motion instead give a feeling of a partially static pose. I suppose it could be said there is the illusion that the artist simply took a picture of their articulated doll for each pose then colored it in, retaining the rigid posture. Certainly not every single CG suffers from this, or indeed any flaw, they are quite noticable in the CGs which do have the problems. Being unable to properly convey motion hurts the ability of the artwork to properly express the emotions and actions taking place in a given scene. Without the feeling of organic curves and flexing of the body I cannot sense the breath of life within the characters.
Cell shading is in itself a simple yet very effective method to portray lighting and the impression of a three dimensional form, granted. So when I complain about shading and lighting effects it may come across as me just trying to find something to complain about. However I am being a bit more specific here and less about the style and more about how it is employed to portray light and shadow. If you look closely there are instances of not only incorrect shadow placement, but there are also areas where the level of shading being used is incorrect, rarely is the shading used to properly bring out the depth of an object properly. Much of my distaste for the shading in use in Shuffle! stems from their inability to stick to one style, a normal hard line cell shade would be fine and fit stylistically, however they decide to use a graduated gradient fading effect for the shadows at times. The biggest problem I have with this method is their gradient is too harsh, making it look clumsy and giving a flat feeling to the image. On top of this there is the loss of the final dark level of shading, which with a narrow gradient leaves the tones appearing understated.
I will devote a paragraph to explain where to look in the above picture in order to properly illustrate what I am speaking of in a single CG. Since I addressed poses first I will start with that. In the picture of Kaede the easiest problem to see here is how she is holding the sparkler, it appears as though it should fall out of her hand, her fingertips are out in the middle of nowhere and her thumb is at best barely touching it. Moving on look first at her legs in general and you may be able to spot a bunch of flaws at once. starting from the top her knee shapes do not match, the angle of the top of her thigh is wrong in relation to her right arm, calves, back, and hips. Continuing with her legs, focus on her calves, at the top you can see how the line for her left knee where it is displaced by her left arm gives the illusion of not matching up due to the shape not corresponding to her right knee. Next when observing her two shins we can see that they made an attempt to make the two legs almost perfectly parallel, with the exception of her right shin being concave and her left being convex. Lastly for the legs look at the top of her sock and the underside of her thigh and notice how they simply filled in that area with a single color, rather than defining the shape of her leg or even the top of her sock. To make matters worse the back of her calf is almost a straight line, nearly perfectly parallel to the front of her shin. Finishing the proportion and position errors is one that is a bit harder to see as it is rather slight in addition to being mostly covered by her hair and eyes. Despite this I wanted to make a note as this is a common mistake in Shuffle! artwork that shows up far more noticeably in other CGs. Look carefully at the relation of her head to the position of her neck, back and the sparkler, her head is too level, a slight tilt is necessary to keep form with her shoulders and neck along with the curvature of her back. Essentially her head is not in place quite right, pay attention to this particular area in both the CGs and sprites and you will find yourself noticing the awkward positioning far more often.
Since that went on longer than I had intended I will segment each section with its own paragraph for ease of reading. Next up we have shading, first thing to note is not a specific area but rather that with cell shading there are typically three shades in use for a single color, the color itself, a light shade, and a dark shade. Keeping that in mind first obvious flaw comes from shadow placement, look at the lit portion of the sparkler, then just under it to where the bucket is, notice the shadow is formed pointing AT the source of light, in this case the sparkler, not away as it should be. For the sake of keeping things simple and easy for my lazy self to explain I will continue to skip over anything that can be covered by a single example. So now without further ado direct your attention towards Kaede’s face and neck area, first thing to note is that they chose to use a faded gradient style of shading instead of a solid cell shade. Pay attention to the location of the light source then compare her face with her neck, notice the two have different shades in use. Completely ignoring the light source to shade as though the light was coming from the top down and fill the neck in a darker shaded tone save for a small bit around the middle of her neck. Since I am lazy and tired of pointing these things out, and feel I have done enough justification, in addition to feeling quite sure you as sick of reading my nitpicking as I am of writing it I’ll end this segment here, letting my case against the art stand as is.
I realize I am perhaps being unnecessarily harsh, however there are so many little flaws which when added together I found it to be quite irksome while playing. Normally I am willing to completely overlook one type of flaw even when it is repeating, when at the professional level though, one should not be content with numerous easily spotted mistakes. I felt that while there are very good CG, they are far and few between, with the potential beauty of the remaining CG being marred by mistakes which could have been easily repaired. Had the CG quality been consistently poor, there would have been no reason for me to be as critical over the issue. Navel artists have proven they are capable of doing an excellent job with their CG and that is why I feel let down by the poor quality of many CG. There are images with quality comparable to the best eroge has to offer, while on the other hand others can almost make Umineko look good. This inconsistency means they slacked on some CGs, allowing a huge gap to exist in quality.
Voice acting in both the original game and Essence+ is of average quality, good yet sometimes feels a bit stiff and abrupt, as if it were a machine or sigh, vocaloid doing the speaking. I suppose a better way of wording things for clarification would be how though the voices are acceptable, and nothing to really complain about in terms of them being terrible, at the same time you cannot really feel the depth to their emotions. Occasionally I felt as though the emphasis while talking was a bit off, as though they skipped a breath to keep things short.
The background music on the other hand has very little if anything going for it in my opinion. Music in Shuffle! is extremely obnoxious, constantly playing bubbly and happy songs which, granted is normal in eroge, however the painfully simplistic notes in use over and over for almost every song makes it unbearably repetitive. In conjunction with the music almost never fitting mood properly the music by itself does little to impress or even properly bring anything additional to the game. Even though there are a fair number of songs, and maybe it is just me, but they all sound so similar that I cannot help but feel as though I am listening to the same song on repeat. This sensation of dull repetition became worse as the game wore on, each subsequent route made the music that much more monotonous and mind numbing. The few songs which were not constantly overused nor sounded generic, appeared maybe once in the entirety of the game. Eventually I had to end up turning the BGM off completely and just playing my own music instead. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a few good songs in the list, however they are almost never used, and instead we get a far too cheery and energetic eroge version of jazz repeating over and over, where every song sounds almost exactly alike.
A rarity for me, I did like the opening song a lot. Figured I would throw that in as a final good point! Especially considering that I have a hearty dislike for most eroge openings with their happy bubbly jpoppy music. In fact while I am writing this I am listening to that song on loop. So there! It is not all bad.
As usual there is precious little to point out in regards to the interface, everything is the usual standard for eroge. I did like that you have the ability to remove the border, and then there are the fairly common color as well as transparency settings for the text backdrop. There are one hundred save slots, ten auto saves, as well as ten quick saves. With so many saves I had far more than enough, though I also used more percentage wise than normal thanks to taking a lot of breaks during the more boring routes. If you are someone who reads slowly and takes your time, you may want to save as sparingly as possible in order to prevent running out of save slots by the end.
As I am sure you can imagine after a quick glance along the top of the gallery, there are a lot of heroines, and as a result a lot of CG. Since it is organized by heroine there are no complaints from me as the interface is simple quick and direct. The button to the right of 1 at the bottom left corner of the gallery takes you to the OP when you select the secondary characters, Matsuri tab. All the other tabs have scene recollections in the same place, along with an amusing sound clip which added a nice touch, in particular Kareha made me chuckle.
Another section where there is a bit of divergence between Shuffle! and Essence+ H scenes generally comes off as a bit out of place in both games though still manage to feel even more awkward and out of place in Essence+. At the very least Shuffle! H scenes provide a more natural flow and segway into a deeper relationship, that said that is, sadly not always the case. Even when the mood and plot match up and properly move into an H scene I still felt a bit of resistence while reading Shuffle!, in fact something I cannot quite put my finger on always felt a little bit.. well just off a bit.
Essence+ on the other hand feels rather like they are sticking to a preset formula and must put the H scene in the game so just sorta randomly stuck that in near the end. Part of this may be the general lack of connection I felt with the characters in Essence+, leading to a feeling of distance which did not really close when arriving at an H scene.
The original game of Shuffle! was fairly good, and when considering how long ago it came out well worth a play through, given the fun characters who are hard to dislike. Despite the flaws, such as the completely unbelievable plot setup, boring music, and character development that is not fully explored, the original game delivers an enjoyable experience. Perhaps that is the real Essence of the Shuffle! series, characters who drive us to keep reading, compelled to learn more about them, watching over them as they develop; to the point we are willing to suspend our disbelief, just to feel we have gotten to know them a little bit better for the all too brief amount of time we share with them.
Then we have Shuffle!’s younger sister Essence+, a game that really feels like a fandisk, only instead of expanding the stories of characters we know and love we get mannequins doubling as dutch wives. Like any good little sister Essence+ is best left in a supporting role, providing comic relief as a backdrop or add-on for her infinitely better older sister. When deviating from the place they belong, Essence+, just like a little sister with romantic feelings ends up feeling awkward and out of place.
All light teasing aside Essence+ fails to deliver anything significant to the Shuffle! storyline, even the routes that many of us were looking forward to most such as Kikyou were a complete letdown. Unfortunately many of the comments I would have liked to make, either directly or indirectly spoil parts of the game best left untouched for those who may not have played it. Beauty is only skin deep was a saying made for Essence+, instead of spending the time further developing the characters they had, yet had not developed individually, they focused instead on stuffing all the brand new characters they could conceive into a single package.
When taken together the original Shuffle! gives us a glimpse of memorable characters with heartwarming stories, while Essence+ ends up as a haphazard collection of stories centered around inconsequential sub-heroines. If you have read through the original game there is little value in Essence+ save perhaps the Kareha route, otherwise save the cash, replay the original game, and buy something with more substance instead. Maybe had you like me never played the original then Essence+ may be worth a look thanks to the inclusion of the original game.
I use a percentage based system to grade the various aspects of a game in a final section here. The breakdown will be that a 50% is dead neutral, completely apathy, no plus or minus. Below that is bad and above is good. The Overall score is simply a rating of the game in its entirety and is somewhat unrelated to the other scores. It may end up being better or worse than the sum of its parts.
- Overall: 81%
- Story: 78%
- Characters: 84%
- Artwork: 72%
- Sound: 57%
- Interface: 50%
- H Scenes: 63%
- Overall: 64%
- Story: 53%
- Characters: 62%
- Artwork: 72%
- Sound: 57%
- Interface: 50%
- H Scenes: 55%
The offical Navel website can be found here.
Walkthrough for the game can be found here.
Getchu link: http://www.getchu.com/soft.phtml?id=562145
Shuffle! Essence+ Opening: