Writing a spoiler-free article about Muv-Luv is not the easiest of tasks. Even answering questions as basic as “how can a VN be both romcom and mecha war story at the same time” would ruin some of the initial surprises of the story. Despite that, I’m going to attempt to give my thoughts on this series in a semi-coherent way. Bear with me.
JP titles: マブラヴ and マブラヴ オルタネイティヴ
Opening (Alternative) – also known as “the best VN opening in the history of ever”
So first off, let’s quickly go over the basics. The VNs I’m about to discuss are actually two games: Muv-Luv and Muv-Luv Alternative. The former consists of two stories, Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited, which unlocks after beating Extra. Alternative is a sequel to the previous two. So all in all it’s basically a trilogy, consisting of Extra-Unlimited-Alternative, in that order. The reason I’m reviewing all three at once is because the three stories are all very much connected and should optimally be read in the order mentioned above, starting with Extra. People will often tell you to skip the first two stories and go right to Alternative – one reason for this is because that’s when the real story begins. The other reason is that the general consensus on Extra seems to be that it’s an absolute garbage of a VN. In all honesty I can’t quite agree with that. I felt that going through Extra made the subsequent events of Unlimited a lot more personal, and the main character easier to sympathize with. Seeing everything that happens in Extra, only to have the rug completely pulled out from under you by the first 20 or so minutes of Unlimited was a very cool experience in itself, and well worth sitting through some of the not-so-good bits of its predecessor.
So, about Extra. I’ll agree that it is by far the weakest entry in the series, and if you have a low tolerance for its genre in general, you *will* find it pretty bad. However, after going into it with an open mind, I honestly thought it wasn’t *that* horrible, as long as you focus solely on its two main heroines. Frankly, it does actually start off pretty bad in its first half, but ends up being fairly decent when the romcom hijinks take the backseat in the final few hours and a bit of romance/drama takes its place. In fact, Meiya’s route alone makes the later half of Extra a sufficiently pleasant experience if you don’t outright hate the romance/harem genre with a fiery passion.
So that’s enough about Extra for now. What makes the first Muv-Luv special is its second story: Unlimited. As I’ve implied above, this is going to come as a complete 180. It is true that everything that happens in this story is basically just a set-up for Alternative, but I feel it is just as important and therefore shouldn’t be missed. Even if you do end up skipping Extra, which I can understand, I feel that Unlimited is an absolute must-play for the full enjoyment of Alternative. Besides, it’s a pretty good story just on its own, and is relatively short to boot, so I see little reason to rob yourself of the experience it provides. Unlimited may start off slow, but it plays an important role in establishing the characters and their personalities in greater detail, making you get used to and grow attached to them by the time Alternative’s plot switches to full gear. I overall found it to be a very solid VN with an ending that left me completely satisfied. In fact, I might actually prefer its ending to Alternative’s, but more about that later.
And now we come to Alternative.
It is several times longer than the previous stories, taking me almost a whole month to finish, if you can believe that. So obviously, this is where the real meat of the plot happens. The cast should already be more than familiar to you if you didn’t skip Extra and Unlimited, so when shit does hit the fan, you can fully understand and appreciate where some of these characters are coming from and why they do what do in light of everything you’ve seen and experienced alongside them in the previous two titles (but mostly just Unlimited). It needs to be said in advance that this is by far the darkest of the three main Muv-Luv titles. If you can’t handle tragedy and gore, this one will hit you very hard. And I’m serious about the gore as well, it gets quite… graphic in one scene. It came so out of left field that I almost could not believe what I was looking at, and actually had to stop playing right there to collect my thoughts for 10-15 minutes. The game also has a tendency to get fairly emotional, especially towards the end. So… just prepare yourself for that.
I have to say, though, it’s been a long time since something had me this hooked. The plot prepares a number of twists for you, but aside from a select few (like the one mentioned above), I didn’t feel especially strongly about them, and it wasn’t the primary aspect of the VN that really made me appreciate it so much. Maybe it’s due to how I personally view VNs, but once a solid cast of characters is introduced, I find it fairly easy to come to care about them and see through the “journey” that is reading the VN alongside them. This couldn’t be truer in the case of Muv-Luv. The countless hours you’ll spend together with these characters will really make you feel like it’s your own comrades that are heading out onto the battlefield, constantly putting their lives on the line for the greater good. The sheer level of tension and desperation that comes through Alternative is near-perfect, especially once it is fully established how insanely powerful the main antagonists are. A great amount of care was given to flesh out not only the main cast, but the world and its history as well, which I suppose is expected from a VN this long – nonetheless, once I got fully hooked on the plot and characters, both Unlimited and Alternative were very hard to put down.
The pacing itself might feel sluggish to some, but in all honesty, I never felt this to be the case. When the action and surprising twists weren’t the main focus, there was instead a decent amount of character interaction to both give you a quick breather between all the drama, and deepen your understanding of the main characters at the same time. Compared to certain other VNs (looking at you, KnS2), there was always something happening, always something pushing me on to keep reading just for another 10 minutes to see what would happen next. Not many stories can achieve that. Basically, the main cast (Meiya in particular) is strong enough to make you enjoy pretty much any scene they’re in, and that’s quite a feat. This, of course, is amplified if you already know a great deal about them from Extra and Unlimited, which is another reason why I keep stressing that said two games shouldn’t be skipped.
I do have mixed feelings about the ending of Alternative, though. For one thing, I felt that it ends up abruptly giving you the solutions to things that might otherwise deserve a bit more screentime. It basically plays out like this: “oh btw remember the huge on-going mystery throughout the entire game? Yeah, the answer is this and this. kthxbye.” I mean, I guess I understand that they didn’t want to dwell on it too much, but I would’ve expected a bit more from a VN that was already so tremendously long. I was expecting some sort of huge, earth-shattering reveal at the end of the trilogy, and I don’t really feel like I got one.
Additionally, despite all its surprises, the plot has a number of predictable developments as well. Death flags in particular are insanely easy to spot (except for that one time) – of course, this doesn’t lessen the impact of losing a character, but still, some scenes go as far as using the good old “once this war is over, I’ll do this and this” trope. Doesn’t get any more obvious than that. As for the actual last scene of Alternative -as in, the final epilogue shortly after everything is concluded-, it did not live up to my expectations and honestly even felt somewhat out of place and a bit rushed.
And yet this is still easily one of the best VNs I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Looking back on the entire trilogy and considering the massive amount of enjoyment I got out of it, I feel like it’s a VN that I will not forget anytime soon – it is an exceptional tale of war, courage and camaraderie that no self-respecting fan of sci-fi/mecha should miss out on.