Rating – R18
Developer – Age
Translator – Amaterasu Translations
Length – 10 – 20 Hours (Extra), 10 Hours (Unlimited), 50+ Hours (Alternative)
Reviewing Muv-Luv has left me a little conflicted. I believe that all visual novels should stand up on their own regardless of whatever is planned for their sequels, but looking at Muv-Luv that way doesn’t quite do it justice. All three parts (Extra, Unlimited, Alternative) work together to build up for a grand finale at the expense of the earlier games and I’m just not sure how I feel about that. I’ve decided to review the instalments as separate visual novels, though I ask you to keep in mind that each requires you to read the one before it to reach its full potential.
As I’ve said a few times now, I believe that visual novels should be able to stand up on their own regardless of what their sequels have planned. Muv-Luv Alternative has made it incredibly hard for me to stick with that belief because, to be honest, if every series had a conclusion like this one I would forgive just about anything. As far as I’m concerned, this particular finale is the ultimate visual novel experience due to the sheer quality of its writing and story. Every single one of those forum-goers recommending the Muv-Luv series because of Alternative is right in a way few people will ever be.
It’s happened again. Takeru knows he has done this before. Waking up in a world torn apart by the BETA, finding his home destroyed, his school converted into a military base and his classmates training to put their lives on the line. This time, however, he has an advantage. While he can’t remember how his past experience ended, all of the skills and knowledge he gained remain with him, and having that knowledge this early on might just be what it takes to save humanity. Acting differently results in different outcomes, however, and Takeru soon finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Still, he is willing to make any sacrifice to destroy the BETA and return to his own world.
Muv-Luv Alternative is the result of taking three years to develop a visual novel that already has a full cast of well-developed characters and all of its visual and audial assets completed. That’s a huge amount of time to spend working on a story and all of that time and effort pays off. Alternative’s plot has been finely honed into a near-perfect product; the quality of the storytelling is superb and to top it all off it’s long. I often complain about titles being too short, but in this case I spent a good number of weeks reading 2-3 hours of Muv-Luv per night and never found myself growing bored. Admittedly, some days I didn’t read anything because I felt I didn’t have enough time to do the story justice and waiting till I did have time was well worth it. During the most exciting portions of the game I was absolutely glued to the screen for hours at a time.
All good stories start off with a strong base and Alternative’s is no different. The amount of detail conveyed about the background and politics of the alternate world, the workings of the Tactical Surface Fighters and the BETA themselves is phenomenal without being overbearing. You will share the protagonist’s frustration over international posturing and infighting and the information you’re given goes a long way towards emphasizing just how terrifying humanity’s enemies are, making battle scenes that much more immersive.
It’s no spoiler to say that people die in Muv-Luv Alternative. In many stories the deaths of characters are used to good effect, whether it be shock factor, taking advantage of emotional connections or highlighting the hopelessness of a situation. The way that Alternative handled death, however, astounded me in both the quality of its execution (pun not intended) and depth of the subsequent resolution process. I began by denying that a character had died and then, when it became clear that their death wasn’t any sort of dream or hallucination, I mourned for that fictional person in a way that I haven’t before, despite their relative unimportance. After letting me stew in my own emotions for a while the game then entered an arc that allowed me to recover along with the protagonist. The whole experience was amazing and quite surreal, considering I’ve never had such a strong reaction in the past.
If Extra was about Meiya and Sumika, and Unlimited was focused on everyone except Sumika, then Alternative is most definitely Sumika’s visual novel, which was wonderful news for me. While trying very hard not to spoil anything, I have to mention that her character and place in the alternate world are very well done. The decision to have a single heroine for Muv-Luv’s conclusion may annoy fans of the other girls but I assure you that the story would not have worked otherwise. I said earlier that Alternative is the result of three years focusing solely on the story component of a visual novel, though that’s not quite true. While all of the characters from Extra and Unlimited remain, a new group is introduced part way through this third instalment and integrates into the existing cast almost seamlessly. Though they were only present for the latter half of the last visual novel, Age did a wonderful job of making them relevant and by the time I finished Muv-Luv I cared about most of them as much as the original cast.
Over the three years of production time Muv-Luv’s art style did not change dramatically, though naturally there was some new background music to accompany the additional story. As with the earlier novels, the backgrounds, sprites and CGs are all cleanly drawn and pleasant to look at but do not do anything special in terms of quality. What has changed, however, is that all of the sprites now blink and move their mouths when talking. I’ve found this feature to be off-putting in other visual novels but it’s done well enough in Muv-Luv that it actually adds to the experience. In my previous reviews I’ve mentioned the creative use of sprites in both normal scenes and action sequences, but Alternative brings that technique to a whole new level. With the exception of one or two rarely used effects, the way Age has used the sprites of the TSFs and BETA to depict battles is really quite amazing. Given that you will never actually see one sprite strike another, the fighting is incredibly engaging and exciting. While I’m on the topic of the BETA, I also have to mention that their designs are wonderfully grotesque and fully deserve their new place in my Hall Of Things I Wish Never To Encounter.
Finally, I don’t think I could forgive myself for finishing this review without saying something more about the character sprites themselves. Though this applies to all of the Muv-Luv visual novels, I noticed it most in Alternative. The use of facial expression and sprite posture in this trilogy is incredible. The amount of information you can gather from the games’ visuals that text alone couldn’t convey is really quite impressive and worthy of note. On top of that, I could not tell you how many CGs Muv-Luv has because, due to the sprite positioning techniques mentioned earlier, almost every scene feels like its own CG anyway.
Summary – Often when I finish a really good story I fleetingly wonder whether any future experience could possibly match it. With Muv-Luv Alternative, this has become a legitimate concern. Most aspects of this visual novel are of excellent quality, with the storytelling reaching a caliber greater than any I have seen before. While it’s a shame that it requires the reading of two lesser visual novels before it can be fully enjoyed, Muv-Luv Alternative sets a bar that all future titles should aspire to. While I would love to give Muv-Luv Alternative a ridiculous score like 15/10, that would defeat the purpose of the scale. However, I feel that the title of “Excellent” is not enough to describe this Visual Novel.
Score: 10/10 – Masterful