Muv-Luv + Muv-Luv Alternative Review — Emotional Roller Coaster Between Hope and Despair
Muv-Luv and Alternative will gradually push you to the ropes with an innocent smile, and then repeatedly punch you in the heart with unprecedented savagery.
Muv-Luv and its sequel Muv-Luv Alternative have just been re-released on Steam, and they’re going to finally come to the West on PS Vita this summer. Since you probably have noticed quite a bit of coverage for the series on DualShockers, there is no better time than this for us to finally review the games, and finally let you know what they are about.
This review will be a bit atypical, as it covers two games at the same time. Considering the simultaneous re-release, and the fact that they form a very solid unit, we thought this was the best way. That being said, if you need a per-game score, you should consider Muv-Luv an 8 out of 10, and Muv-Luv Alternative a 9.5 out of 10. I am aware that this doesn’t average to 9.0, but the crescendo that climaxes with Alternative easily pushes the evaluation of the whole trilogy (as Muv-Luv is basically made of two games, Extra and Unlimited) up a notch.
The story starts precisely in the way you expect from your usual romantic/harem visual novel. Relatively worthless Japanese high-school student Takeru Shirogane suddenly finds himself targeted by the attention of Meiya Mitsurugi, the beautiful heiress of a giant multinational corporation. While living his relatively unremarkable high-school life, he has to work his way through choosing between Meiya herself, his childhood friend Sumika Kagami, the usual bespectacled class-representative Chizuru Sakaki, the aloof beauty Kei Ayamine, and the cat-like loli Miki Tamase, supported by his best male friend, the eccentric Mikoto Yoroi.
It literally can’t get more stereotypical than this, and it almost seems that the authors intentionally created the cast this way in order to make the beginning of the story as “usual” and familiar as possible. Despite the stereotypical premise, Muv Luv Extra manages to still be very enjoyable due to the charming writing, and the excellent character progression. It succeeds in making you care about the characters, which is the key to the rest of the saga.
From now on, there will be a few spoilers about Unlimited, so if you prefer to go in blind, please skip the next four paragraphs.
At the start of Unlimited, everything changes: Takeru wakes up in his room pretty much as usual, but Sumika isn’t there to rouse him. As he steps out of his house to go to school, he finds his neighborhood devastated and no one in sight. The most startling sight is a semi-destroyed mecha laying on the ruins of Sumika’s house. When he reaches his school, he finally finds some people, but the place has been turned into a base of the United Nations. After the inevitable issues at the entrance, he is thrown into the brig, where he is visited by a woman who looks exactly like his physics teacher, Yuuko Kozuki.
Takeru learns that he simply isn’t in his world anymore, but in an alternate reality where humanity has been brought to the brink of extinction by the invasion of a mysterious alien race named BETA. All of continental Europe and most of Asia have already been wiped out entirely, and the human race is down to a billion survivors. Japan is basically the front line after most of its land has been reclaimed in a massive counterattack.
The BETA are incapable of flight, but some of their many strains are capable of emitting deadly laser beams that can hit flying targets miles away, completely nullifying humanity’s air superiority. As a result, the development of military technology has changed, and instead of fighter jets, surviving nations fight with low-flying mecha named Tactical Surface Fighters or TFS for short.
Professor Kozuki takes an interest in Takeru’s story as it seems to prove one of her theories. She makes the arrangements so that he is assigned to the base as a TFS pilot in training. Unfortunately, he is just a spineless high-schooler, so things become quite complicated rather quickly. What makes this alternate world so peculiar is that almost all his friends and other people he knows are all there. While they share many similar character traits, the situation of their world turned them into notably different people compared to their counterparts in Takeru’s original world. The most significant differences are that Sumika is nowhere to be found, and Mikoto (who previously seemed to be a bit gender-ambiguous) is actually a woman in this world.
Below you can find spoilers about the beginning of Muv-Luv Alternative and the ending of Extra. Again, if you’d rather be surprised, just skip the next four paragraphs.
At the ending of Unlimited, 100,000 people escape a doomed Earth with a migrant fleet, while the rest of humanity is left to fight and die on the doomed planet. Takeru himself is among them, and he ultimately dies in battle after years of desperate conflict against the BETA.
Yet, this is not the end. Takeru’s demise merely sends him back to what appears to be the beginning of Unlimited. While a lot of his memories are relatively hazy, he retains most of the knowledge, the physical fitness, and the experience that his prior training and years of bitter warfare gave him. He is no more a spineless high schooler, but a full-fledged veteran and a reliable man.
Takeru quickly understands that history is destined to repeat itself. Humanity does not yet know the terror of being utterly defeated and obliterated by the BETA, so the plan to escape with just a small fraction of the population leaving everyone else behind is still ongoing. His only chance is to change history, by supporting the prior plan that was previously discarded in favor of the migrant fleet.
Takeru returns to his base, and with the help of Professor Kozuki, he is once more put in training as a cadet. Unfortunately, as a mere trainee he can do very little to influence the course of history, so he resolves to graduate as soon as possible to bring the fight to the BETA and do whatever he can to prevent the human race’s extinction.
The Muv-Luv trilogy pulls on the player the most radical 180-degrees twist that I ever saw in a video game. The story tricks you into being complacent, but then it hits you straight into the gut with the force of a thousand suns as soon as you think you’re safe.
This isn’t limited to the beginning of Unlimited, but it extends to many, many events over the course of the saga. The tone will change gradually as you progress: Extra is apparently lighthearted (with a few broader areas), Unlimited becomes darker, but still provides plenty of smiles, and Alternative delivers a false sense of comfort and safety and then drags you kicking and screaming to the ropes to savagely punch you into the heart time and time again.
Unless you’re much stronger than I am, you will smile, you will laugh, you will feel disturbed and uncomfortable, and you will cry — a lot. As a matter of fact, there is a substantial possibility that especially Muv-Luv Alternative will genuinely hurt you. That’s actually a good thing, as too few games manage to achieve that result nowadays.
Many of the characters are quirky, but this just adds charm to their depiction. They are set up gradually so that they sneak their way into your heart, making you genuinely care about their antics and feelings. Even Sumika, who initially is unbearable like most childhood friends with a violent streak, will astonish you by the end.
The writing is superb (while the localization is occasionally a bit more liberal than I’d personally like), and the voice acting is absolutely fantastic, adding immersion and value to the whole package.
While the story is ultimately a coming-of-age tale, it delivers the clear message that just coming-of-age isn’t enough, and that creates an emotional rollercoaster that has very few equals.
Sci-fi lovers will appreciate the realistic depiction of the world, crowned by absolutely top-tier mecha design, and fueled by the hand of an obvious military nut. Some masterful elements make everything feel more solid and credible, like the reference to the real Hiko Kyodotai aggressor squadron of the Japanese Self-Defence Air Force in Russian colors and many, many more.
The world itself isn’t limited to the games described here, but it includes many spin-offs, prequels, and sequels that paint a complex and utterly enthralling big picture, from the grim past of Schwarzesmarken to The Day After. Unfortunately, most are not localized just yet, but I certainly hope that they will be because Muv-Luv‘s universe is simply too good not to be fully explored.
Another element of delightful depth comes from the depiction of politics, intrigue, and philosophy. The development team managed to masterfully create a world with a culture that is entirely different from ours as a direct consequence of the fact that humanity has been locked in a bitter war for so long. Everyone’s moral compass is quite far from that of the average person in our relatively peaceful world, and even Takeru Shirogane’s culture shock is presented in great detail, taking a long time to mitigate.
Since we’re talking about visual novels, the games throw quite a lot of fanservice your way (not that I’m complaining), but it’s interesting how well it fits into its universe. Most games of the genre demand that you suspend disbelief when you wonder why an utterly average student is surrounded by beautiful girls in love with, but Muv-Luv comes with a single, but elegant and completely appropriate solution. Humanity has been at war with the BETA for decades, and men have been drafted first. Most are already fighting on the front-lines or long-dead, which means that freshly-enlisted cadets are mostly women.
The visuals of the games are a bit dated in some aspects, especially in Extra. Of course, we should keep in mind that we’re talking about a game first released in Japan in 2003, so even the character design is more akin to what was en-vogue back then, and may feel a bit foreign to fans used to modern visual novels and anime.
Things become gradually better into Unlimited and Alternative with more mature designs and the addition of full-fledged anime cutscenes around crucial moments. Limited, but mostly effective, animation is also gradually inserted into the games, specifically to give a more dynamic look to mech battles.
Speaking of mecha, their design is probably one of the best you’ll see in the gaming industry, overall. The authors managed to create a fleet of TSF inspired by modern fighter jets that will satisfy the most demanding military enthusiasts. While they come with prominent sci-fi elements, they retain a degree of realism and functionality that makes them look like machines that could have been built if the world’s superpowers were in a similar situation to that of the game.
The score features a similar progression as the graphics, with tunes that start bright and happy, to gradually progress into moody, epic, and inspiring tracks that do a good job in setting the atmosphere.
As a direct result of the game’s visual novel genre, there isn’t much to say about the gameplay, besides the fact that, even for a visual novel, it becomes increasingly linear as the trilogy progresses.
In the end, this resulted in a marginal flaw for me. In part, that’s because I’m used to visual novels and I know what to expect, but the most relevant reason is simply that the story is so intense and overwhelming that gameplay naturally takes a back seat.
This is not to say that I wouldn’t enjoy a full-fledged action game on modern platforms with actual mecha combat on top of the same deep story and awesome characters, but for now, that remains a personal pipe dream. If that day ever comes, you’ll probably hear me scream in joy from miles away.
Ultimately, Muv-Luv is a very solid package that sets the stage for something exceptional, and Muv-Luv alternative is the perfect crowning for an emotional rollercoaster that will shake you up harder than the cockpit of a TSF at full running speed. You probably won’t need a barf bag (you’ll understand what I mean when you play Unlimited), but I won’t make promises.
If you love strong storytelling, solid and realistic sci-fi, diverse and engaging characters, quite a bit of charming fanservice, and to be deeply engaged on the emotional level, you owe it to yourself to try the Muv-Luv trilogy out.