Today I'm reviewing Muv-Luv Alternative; the third part of the Muv-Luv visual novel saga that began with the two-part Muv-Luv. It's a story of self-discovery, loss, and, most cliche of all, love. It's also, hands down, one of the greatest masterpieces in storytelling I've ever experienced.
This review assumes that you have played Muv-Luv Unlimited. If you absolutely refuse to hear any spoilers whatsoever, then you'd be best to just play Muv-Luv and come back to this when you're done. The entire story of Alternative relies on the twist in Unlimited.
Alternative starts off right after the events of Unlimited. A small group of humans have fled Earth and fulfilled Alternative V, leaving behind millions on Earth. The remaining humans on Earth are forced to survive against the impossible-to-stop BETA in a suicidal defensive effort.
Our protagonist suddenly finds himself back in his old room from Muv-Luv Extra once again. Rushing outside to see if he's returned, he finds a wrecked TSF in his friend's house once again.
Takeru learns that he has returned to the very spot where everything began in Unlimited and he vows to win this time. He vows to destroy the BETA and save humanity from destruction. He vows to finish Alternative IV and then maybe...
...finally find a way back home.
A Main Character Displaced in Reality and Time:
Alternative is a beautifully conceived story about a young man that's been displaced in space and time. He's a man without a home and without an allegiance in a world where every second might be your last. This leads to glorious character development, the likes of which I've rarely seen anywhere. Takeru is forced to grow up physically, mentally, and emotionally in his journey across space and time. He is forced to go through so many hardships that would almost certainly destroy the average human being. Unlike you'd expect, it really did destroy him. The person he was in Extra is gone forever, replaced a depressed and hardened Takeru.
The game is surprisingly blunt about this. It's both intriguing and heartbreaking to Takeru and the audience alike because he'll never be able to become the man he once was ever again.
An Incredibly Powerful Payoff:
Muv-Luv was a bad standalone game, but it is a crucial component to Alternative. There's a whole ton of foreshadowing in Extra and callbacks to those elements in Alternative that you won't notice on your first playthrough. It becomes very clear that Extra was always planned to be the opening act for Alternative. This was not a story that they made up after they finished that part.
The developer took a huge risk with Extra by making it a borderline parody harem romance and then following it up with something almost completely different. At first this seems like a stupid and ill-conceived idea, but something amazing happens in Alternative: You can't help but wish you could get back there.
You actively root for Takeru to get out of this insane reality and get back to Extra's universe. The writer invoked a feeling of nostalgia in me, which is a feat its own. Muv-Luv was a huge gamble that paid off in all the right ways. Somehow the first game is made infinitely better by its sequel.
An Absolutely Dark and Gripping Story:
Right from the first few moments Alternative gripped me far more than either of the two parts before it. Takeru is now a somewhat seasoned veteran that is now out on a mission: he's going to save humanity. Normally this would result in a boring Gary Stu character, but here Alternative actively rips apart Takeru at every turn. He has the best of intentions but his actions eventually catch up with him as he learns that knowing the future does mean it can be changed just as easily. As Alternative digs deep into its setting, we get to see international conspiracies, alternate realities, and fights with the ominous BETA.
Compared the happy-go-lucky feeling of Muv-Luv, Alternative is almost depressingly darker and edgier. It lets loose the gut punches in such quick succession that many players will start falling into denial. I actually hit a point where I was absolutely convinced that the main character had gone off the deep end because it just wasn't possible. I refused to accept that it was actually happening. There was no way I told myself.
One of the absolutely remarkable things that this game did was deliver a slew of rapid-fire emotions to the player through the eyes of Takeru. We see Takeru overcome incredible obstacles only to see him ripped apart by the consequences of his actions. You can almost feel the pain that Takeru experiences as his sanity slowly erodes away during the game as he's driven to the brink. We're right there with him every step of the way feeling his pain. It's a beautifully emotional story that invokes sadness, happiness, and everything in between.
Surprisingly High Production Values:
One thing that many people are used to with visual novels is the fact that it's text on an image that doesn't move. That's pretty much the paradigm. Alternative caught my eye with its somewhat different approach; the character models in the game have moving lips. In addition, the backgrounds in the game are surprisingly dynamic, particularly in fights.
It doesn't just stop there though, the cinematics are surprisingly high quality as well and the whole novel feels surprisingly solid after Muv-Luv.
The soundtrack of Muv-Luv Alternative is handled primarily by JAM Project, as they provided some of the greatest pieces of the game. The very first piece of the game, Asu e no houkou, the original opening, immediately got me almost ridiculously pumped for what I was about to experience. They would also come back to give us the all-ages version of the OP: Kimi no na wa, which has merit. Numerous insert songs are throughout the game really should get a mention too.
Completely Reliant on the First Game:
As I said, this game relies on Muv-Luv to an extreme extent. It's a package deal. Alternative leaves the basic worldbuilding and character development to the first two parts and plows headlong into its plot and its exploration of Takeru's conflict. As such, you'll have to force yourself through what, at first glance, is pretty bland game to get to Alternative. It's definitely worth it though and the first game improves greatly when coupled with Alternative.
Pretty Much Abandons the Branching Story Approach:
Aside from decisions that affect minor story differences, the game is a one-route trip. It's a linear title with only one ending. This is certainly not a bad thing since it makes sense in the game's lore (indeed it does, trust me) and it allows for a tighter narrative across the board. Still, one can't help but think that the lack of branches in this addition constricts the possible narrative a bit too much. This is supposed to be a crapsack world where any decision can get me killed, it seems like a silly choice to make a game where most (if not all) decisions will always lead you to the same conclusion. As a result, I don't see this visual novel having much replay value over time. You'll likely play it only on a rare occasion after the first time.
The Nightmare Fuel:
Honestly, if there is one thing that this game left me that I can do without, it's the nightmares I'll have from it. We're talking just mere steps away from being a horror title at times. The nightmare fuel runs so deep in the veins of everyone that played Alternative that you can tell who has played the game by just making them listen to this and watching their reaction. It's that simple. This isn't the kind of game you let people suffering from PTSD play because it seems likely that anyone who plays this game will get a minor case of it.
This story hates you. It hates how you think it'll turn out all right. It hates the preconceptions you've formed about this game after playing Muv-Luv. You can't spell RAGE without AGE!
It Really Doesn't Know When to Stop:
This game and this saga are extremely long endeavors to undertake. My Extra/Unlimited run took me around 30 hours in total and Alternative hasn't missed the cue either as it clocks in at well over 40 hours. This is largely due to the game's tendency to linger on exposition for long periods of time. While it's great for world building, it's just as detrimental in some ways because it's just long-winded.
It just has the tendency to drag on and on with such little regard for pacing at times, particularly in the final act of the game. It actually manages to detract from what should be extremely emotional by making it ridiculously melodramatic.
This category makes another appearance, but in a very different way than last time. The game tends to parse in the backgrounds of the H-Scenes in the previous games to show the continuity between the timelines and they are a bit uncomfortable for me, but I digress. The new stuff though? The other new scenes of the game aren't very notable in many ways. Honestly, I'd let these pass... but then comes that other scene in the game. Dear God.
The most notable H-Scene of the game is quite possibly the most horrific and creepy part of the game. It's the epitome of Fan Disservice in every way. It's just absolutely creepy and one has to question why it has any right to exist. Once again, this game is probably better in the all-ages version because this is just freaky on so many levels it hurts to watch. I think Âge got together and said, "How can we deconstruct H-Games so painfully that our fans start hating us?". Oh yeah, they totally did. Remember kids, you can't spell RAGE without AGE!
I feel the need to quickly remind everyone that this is an adult visual novel series. It totally is. Let's keep that in mind. Moving on...
I called out the original game for being pretty terrible in my review on its own. Alternative has righted that wrong by giving it a right to exist. I'm not sure how to explain this beyond saying that both games are package deal; neither one is good without the other. When they come together though? They form the most powerfully chronicled saga that I've witnessed in my life: video game, movie, television, and beyond.
How far will you go to achieve your goal? Will you be willing to get your hands dirty to do so? Will you be able to accept the reality that you're handed when you make a decision? These are just a few questions that the game will ask you over the course of the story.
Muv-Luv Alternative is my favorite visual novel to date and, more importantly, my favorite video game. The story and emotions that I experienced in Alternative are unparalleled and will stay with me for ages. Takeru is a brilliant character that undergoes a ton of development, but even he is unprepared for the hell that he experiences. It was incredibly emotional.
Of course it gets dragged across the ground a bit with the pacing, particularly at the end. It starts getting extremely long-winded during the emotional climax and it was unfortunate. The game itself is extremely long to begin with, so dragging it out was even more egregious. It's also a bit derailed by the... really freaky H-Scene.
Still, I love a good story and I've seen so many great stories in my time, but this saga singlehandedly outmaneuvered everything I've ever played. It truly is a masterpiece by any standard that combined a tight, intricately conducted script with excellent characters.
This review was created with Talk Amongst Yourselves' official review format.
This review is part of my video game review series. I will be running it parallel to my Anime Marathon series. You'll be able to find all my video game reviews on Dex's Corner using the tag "Game Review".
You can find all my posts on Dex's Corner.