To be honest, I had great hopes for this game, based on the fact that Agobarrier wrote up the drafts for the story before his unfortunate passing. I thought I'd see the peculiar humor, the deredere-MAX heroines, and the wacky antics that I associated with the original game. I expected running jokes (frequently used as accents to various scenes), and I hoped that Navel would finally regain some of its original 'magic'.
Unfortunately, it seems that those hopes are a bit too high. Perhaps it was inevitable... the team that did this game was partly made up of the writers that have been doing the Da Capo games, which should have told me they would have a less amusing approach to things (though it saddened me that Ou Jackson didn't manage to force things into his style more often...). The loss of Agobarrier's unique style is sadly all-too-clear in this game, as, while it does channel some parts of the original, the way the most important scenes is handled is far more fumble-fingered and lacking in flare, which is just sad.
That said, there were some parts where the writing quality suddenly jumped up massively, such as in any scene where Primula was involved (for some reason). To be honest, it was that very jump in quality that illuminated just how poorly some parts of the game - in particular the prologue and large swathes of the common route - are handled.
What is truly sad is what they got perfectly right... the characterization of side characters. Primula, despite being, and all the side characters are really well-done. So it kind of amazed me that the heroines were so sloppily done. There is far more effective character development done in the common route for the side characters than the heroines (other than Lims, who has good characterization for the most part) considering their roles, which struck me as a horrible approach. Rishia in particular is a horribly awkward character from the very beginning, and while some of that comes from her character concept, more of it comes from everything from her VA to her sprite poses... not to mention an odd lack of face time in the common route. Her voice actor is a familiar and excellent one, so I can only imagine that it was the director that screwed things up...
To clarify, the heroines that had the strongest characterization in the common route go in this order Lims>Kohaku>Kirara (I hate Kirara anyway though)>Rishia>Nelia. I say this because Kohaku gets more face time due to living with Raito and Kirara's characterization is so blatantly obvious that it can't help but be effective, if annoying. Nelia has the least amount of face time in the common route (even if you pick her 'side' of things in the various choices) than the other heroines, and Rishia suffers from her initial introduction.
What is canon?
Without spoiling the important stuff:
1. It is 100 years since the end of Shuffle.
2. A great disaster happened sixty years in the past.
3. Primula is apparently an eterna-loli and is still alive and well.
4. The current King of the Gods is the son of Shia's much younger (born after Shuffle) brother.
5. All characters other than Primula from the original have long-since passed away.
6. It is hinted that Rin died in the disaster sixty years ago.
7. At least some of the events in each path actually occurred.
8. Rishia was very close to her great-aunt, Shia, who passed while she was still a child.
9. Neria was very close to Nerine, who died childless and was her adoptive grandmother.
10. Rin married Shia. However, it is stated by Primula that worlds where he got together with each of the heroines existed beyond the Gate.
11. Asa and Kaede worked for a long time as assistants to Neria and Shia. Both are famous enough to have movies and books written about them in the Demon and Divine realms. Kaede is practically worshiped as the ultimate woman in the Divine realm.
Primu- errr... I mean Limstone
Lims was the first heroine I went after. This wasn't because of any fetishes on my part (my fetishes lead me to Nelia), but simply because she had the best characterization of the non-human heroines in the common route. Her development and even her story pretty much mirrors that of Primula's, up to a point. More is revealed to the protagonist than was to Rin in his time, and the development of their relationship - up to a point - feels natural and even touching.
Unfortunately, the romance is handled... awkwardly. Considering this comes from a team known for having at least minimal skills in this area (if few others), I was awed at the way the romance in this path felt so unnatural. While this isn't a path-killer for me (because romance isn't that important to me as part of a story), it was a disappointment.
On the other hand, the drama in the last part of her path and the path up to the actual relationship formation were both excellent... too bad the ending was a little wince-worthy in terms of quality.
Nerine's adoptive granddaughter is a seductive young woman who has horrible characterization in the common route (if you read the official character profiles and compare them to the actual heroine in the game, there are almost no similarities). She has inherited her grandmother's recipe for tamagoyaki, and her path has some eerie similarities to Nerine's in Shuffle (in a generalized sense) without having the same impact. I won't spoil the original game for you, but I had to wince at the drama used in this path.
I'll be honest, if more effort had been put into making Nelia into a real character instead of a caricature in the common route, this would have been a good path. Unfortunately, very little time was spent on Nelia in the common route relative to the other heroines, and this has an unfortunate dampening effect on the reader's emotional investment.
I have to wonder after finishing this path if they just intend to partially mirror the paths from the original game...
Rishia's scenes in the prologue are the single most awkward introduction scenes I've seen from a heroine in a commercial VN from a major name in over ten years... no, ever. To be honest, considering that intro scenes are something most charage writers do well, I didn't expect the awkwardness I experienced. I mean, I almost dropped the game inside the first half hour, which I wasn't expecting, considering how much I loved the original. Rishia's character eventually sheds the awkwardness created by the introductions, but I thought my feelings toward her would be ruined by the introduction to the very end.
However, her actual path is a complete turnaround from my experiences in the common route. Suddenly (and jarringly) the quality of presentation goes up and Rishia goes from being a thin caricature of a heroine to an actual person. To some extent, this also happened in Nelia's path, but part of the reason this path suddenly took on depth for me was the way it tied into the story of Spiral. In fact, it feels like a direct extension of the political elements of Spiral, which is why it felt much deeper to me than it probably is if you haven't played Spiral.
That said, the impact it had was enough to overcome the awful introductory scenes... but it still needs to be noted that this game is horribly flawed, not the least of which by the difference in style between the four writers (why they combined the writers of Tsuki ni Yorisou, Otome no Sahou and that fluff-fest series - Da Capo- I'll never understand).
Understand, I have no interest in the human heroines in this game. Kohaku is ok, but I find Kirara to be so annoying that the idea of romance with her makes me want to vomit.
Anyway, this game's primary flaws lie in the common route, which is, to be blunt, mostly fluff. The character introduction for Rishia was botched, and there was a severe lack of face time for the two main heroines. These flaws don't make the game unplayable, but for fans of the original, it can't help but be a disappointment. Rishia's route manages to overcome most of the weaknesses of this particularly mismatched group of writers, but that is more because of the existence of Spiral than the inherent value of the story.
Also, there should have been a path for Marine and Citron.
To add to the canon above, I should note that Spiral was apparently written as a prequel to this game. It occurs a few months before Rishia's arrival in the human world, and it is centered around an agent from the Divine Realm. I originally thought it was a prequel to Shuffle, but it turns out that it was a prequel to this game, lol.