Many harem anime are cursed with eventually having to break their stalemate and decide which couple emerges from the ravages of romantic warfare. With a cast as lovable and diverse as that of Shuffle!, upsetting a good portion of the fanbase was inevitable as the series moved to its conclusion. Fortunately, however, Shuffle! was based on a visual novel. Disappointed fans were free to pick up a copy and experience the story again with a different “victor”.
The basic story setup remains unchanged compared to the anime, so I won’t go into it too much. You still play as Rin, now a voiceless audience stand-in, and read about his complicated love life as various girls compete for his affection.
There are various differences in the story between the anime and the visual novel with different degrees of success. Both feature scenes not included in the other, but the most prominent difference is that some minor plot points are treated very differently. The anime literalized the idea of the girls having jealous fan clubs, leading to repeated comedy-action scenes where Rin had to fend off middle-aged perverts. I found those to be pretty cringeworthy and out-of-tone with the rest of the series, so I was glad this doesn’t happen in the visual novel at all. Another pleasant change was the dialogue between class pervert Itsuki and homeroom teacher Nadeshiko, which I found to be much more comedic than the anime’s running gags between the two.
However, the visual novel does have one major weakness: its length.
While the opening chapters are fairly complete and even feature some scenes excluded from the anime, the middle and end portion of the novel feature chapters so short you’ll barely notice them zipping by. Several chapters are just brief bits of small talk between Rin and one of the girls, comprising less than a dozen lines in total. It’s inoffensive, but it feels like filler and can be particularly vexing when you’re already locked into a route and want to see that story continue on.
This also means that events that take up entire episodes in the anime are shortened down significantly here, which often made it feel like nothing was actually happening. Dates begin and then immediately skip to the evening after, a trip to the beach is over in 2 minutes of reading. There’s this one scene where Rin runs into Kareha by chance and agrees to accompany her while shopping; a neat opportunity to characterize a likable side-character. Then they set off and the chapter immediately ends.
Also obnoxious is that a lot of the story decisions don’t actually matter. They’ll lead to some alternate dialogue or sometimes an entire extra scene, but you have terribly little control over the story as a whole. I was surprised when the novel gave me the choice to not take in Primula, but it’s a fake choice. If you refuse, Rin won’t actually say no. He just stumbles for a bit and then agrees regardless. This reoccurs later during the big shopping trip as well, where you can choose to look for a present for Primula or shop for yourself. If you go with the latter, then Rin just runs into the present by chance and buys it anyway.
It makes it feel like Rin isn’t really your character, which is a shame because I sought out the VN specifically to have a more personal experience with Shuffle!. Fortunately, the novel does begin to shine once you get to the actual romantic parts of the story.
While the anime was by no means lacking in this department, it did decide to include bits and pieces of as many routes as possible instead of focusing on the one it ultimately settled on. The visual novel has more focus and is willing to side-line the other main characters to do so, meaning you don’t get most of the way into the arc of one character before hopping straight to the next. If you decide to follow Sia’s storyline, then Nerine, Kaede, and everybody else become side-characters. This is neatly reflected by the chapter transitions, where a transparent image of your partner becomes more visible as you gravitate towards their route.
A lot of the story is a bit redundant if you’ve already seen the anime, but the visual novel advances and concludes several story threads that were otherwise left to dangle, and oftentimes does a better job of explaining certain twists. Of course, this being an eroge, that also means love is celebrated more… spectacularly. It amuses me that actual chapters can be over in a literal minute, but every erotic scene runs on for an eternity and features multiple, detailed illustrations. If you liked Shuffle! and wished there were actual erotic scenes, then the VN has you covered.
The art is quite nice in general. A lot of scenes play out over illustrated backgrounds with character sprites, both of which look very good and have a lot of detail worked into them. I love how they added in details like having variations of the classroom with different numbers of students present. Sprites have different poses and expressions and the novel also features plenty of full illustrations even outside of the aforementioned erotica scenes. These are nice for variety and help make some of the most memorable scenes more impactful.
Barring Rin and his internal thoughts, the novel is also fully voiced and quite competently so. An English dub is not available, however, and the official Manga Gamer translation of the written text leaves a lot to be desired. The odd typo could be forgiven, but more annoying is how often the novel reuses words and entire phrases. Most notably, it loves calling the female cast members “domestic” or “domesticated” whenever they display the slightest aptitude for taking care of themselves. Who even talks like that?
This also brings us to my final point: the game’s availability.
Manga Gamer held the license to officially distribute the visual novel up until January of 2021, after which it was pulled from Steam and the Manga Gamer website. Developer Navel has not entered any kind of new agreement, making this a conscious decision to just not sell the product in the Western market anymore. Manga Gamer also never got around to publishing the various sequels and re-releases either, so those who want to get as much out of the Shuffle! universe as possible will have to rely on piracy either way.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the visual novel on its own. While I greatly enjoyed getting to see the storylines of all the girls get a proper conclusion, not to mention the eroge scenes involved in that, the anime “feels” more complete. The visual novel is so laser focused on the romantic aspect that a lot of opportunities for character development and activities are simply skipped over. This makes the story feel uneventful and rushed, and I wouldn’t have cared about these characters to the degree that I do if it wasn’t for the anime that did elaborate on all that side-stuff.