Great Graphics, Great Sound, Great Production values... And that's about it.
Having watched the Shuffle! anime and loved it, and being a bishoujo game player, I felt obliged to get the game. At a hefty 95$ this was definitely not a cheap game to acquire. But the thought of seeing my favourite anime heroines in the buff more than made up for the fact that I would have to live on Baked Beans and Ramen for a month.
I have to warn you before-hand. If you haven't seen the anime yet and intend to watch it, DON'T play the game. Seriously. The girls' storylines and pasts are essentially the same. The main story and plot is also the same. The main differences between the anime and the game is that (a) Rin, the protagonist, is not indecisive and chooses early on which girl he is going to go for and (b) you explore each girl's storyline individually (the stories interwine with each other in the anime). The Asa path, especially, spoils some great scenes in the TV series as well as the climactic finale.
In short, I suggest you play the game AFTER, you watch the anime. You will get more out of the game this way, trust me. I personally got a kick out of comparing the events in the game reflecting the events in the anime, as well as pointing out the differences.
The game was made by Navel, a relative newcomer in the bishoujo game field which is best known for acquiring two of the best artists in the field — Aoi Nishimata and Hiro Suzuhira — to make the character designs and art for their games. Frankly, I've never played anything that they made so far, so the graphic quality of the game, was pretty much an unknown factor for me.
Immediately after installing the game, I was greeted with a great introduction video that literally blew me away. Gone were the stills and soppy songs that normally accompany games of the genre. Shuffle! featured wonderful CGI animation, breathtaking art and a catchy song "Mirage Lullaby" that has now become one of my favorites.
After banging myself on the head to get over the enthusiasm that the clip caused me, I started playing the game...
It's no wonder that Navel is becoming a major player in the bishoujo game field. The artwork of the game is exceptional. In fact, I will go as far as to say that this is the best-looking bishoujo game I've played so far, and I've played many. The character designs are absolutely beautiful. Not only that, but the way they move and interact onscreen is fabulous. The characters literally come to life before your very eyes.
The audio is great as well. All the characters have their own unique themes, which fit them perfectly. The music that accompanies the events, comic and tragic, is also very well done. The voice actors have great chemistry with each other and manage to provide some solid and memorable performances.
Heck, even the way the text is portrayed is exceptional. There are times when the characters go "Nani?!" and the game's text enlarges and shakes itself to add to the mood. I've never seen anything like it before!
Yes, guys, Shuffle! the b-game is a unique audio and visual experience... But what about the story? What about the characters? What about "the meat" of the game?
Well, this is where, sadly, Shuffle! falls a little bit short.
I wish I could tell you that Shuffle! offers something revolutionary in the gameplay department. Yes, the stories are well written. The humor is very well done. There are some good character development. But at the end of the day, Shuffle! is just another b-game where you just have to focus on a girl in order to get lucky with her. The places where you get to interact with the story are too few and too far in-between, and even then, you basically have to choose your girl and nothing else. It's easy to see what you have to do in order to advance to a certain direction.
This is the game's major flaw. The fact that there are so few choices, and the fact that you can see where everything is going, even if you haven't watched the anime, means that you will basically get all the game has to offer in a few hours. You will love the stories. You will love the characters, yes, but will be done with them quickly and the only thing that will make you return to the game after that will be the H scenes.
Ah, the H scenes, I almost forgot about them, didn't I? The game is actually quite lax on the "H-Factor". There are only two major sex CGs per major female character's path. The focus is more on the story, and the girl's backgrounds. The sex are more like a payoff than the focus of the story, but it is worth getting them as they are greatly drawn, greatly acted, and don't feature anything too extreme.
My only gripe with the game's H content was that the artists take full advantage of the "can-look-young-can't-be-young" legal loophole to display some really explicit sex with a character that looks disturbingly like a 12-year-old. Yes, Lolicons will be ecstatic, but personally, I am not too thrilled.
In short, Shuffle! offers a unique audio and visual experience that well justifies the 95 bucks that you will give away. That, and the fact that you will actually get to see some of your favourite Shuffle! characters getting it on in various ways. However, if you are looking for something different, then you will be disappointed. Shuffle! is a bishoujo game that, for all its technical merits, doesn't offer anything new or unheard of. Then, again, Shuffle!, doesn't pretend to be anything more. It is a fun little experience, and great while it lasts.
PLEASE NOTE: I don't speak Japanese myself. I only managed to play the game through a friend of mine who is in his second year of studying the Japanese language. Therefore, some portions of this review may be inaccurate. Please feel free to add your opinion and correct me if I am wrong. Thanks in advance! A fan-made translation patch is on its way, hopefully soon.