Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: 07/14/2016
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Muv-Luv series of visual novels has made it to the west after over a decade. It’s a case where the advent of digital distribution has allowed a niche to be filled without breaking the bank. There are plenty of western fans just dying to gobble up the dozens of hours of reading and anime hi-jinx these games offer. Muv-Luv is considered to be a classic of the genre, so it’s time to see how it holds up.
Muv-Luv actually contains the first two parts of the trilogy: Extra and Unlimited. Despite being part of the same series, these two games are completely different. Extra is your more typical romantic comedy while Unlimited takes the main character through a war torn alternate time line. You’re encouraged to play Extra first, but each game has multiple routes for you to go down and many hours worth of content. This is a pretty neat package out of the gate.
Extra takes you through a few months in the life of Shirogane Takeru. In many ways, he serves as the typical male character in a harem anime. He’s bright but unmotivated, capable but unfocused, and somehow the center of attention for a group of young attractive girls. The story begins when he wakes to find a beautiful girl named Meiya in his bed. It turns out she is the heir apparent to a powerful financial group and has decided to move in with him without telling him why. This does not sit well with Sumika, Takeru’s childhood friend and next door neighbor. Naturally, she has feelings for him that he has completely failed to notice. You can see where this is going. Rounding out the cast of potential dates are the class rep, the cheery tiny one, and the apathetic one. He can also end up with his teacher if you play your cards right.
You’ve seen this kind of setup before, and it plays out like you’d expect. There are all kinds of wacky and over the top misadventures throughout the story. From Meiya’s inability to take things halfheartedly, people walking in on others, strangely important lacrosse games, cooking competitions, and oh so much more. You’ll be assaulted with comedic moments. The downside for the story is that it holds few surprises and relies on what has become tiresome tropes. Combined with how drawn out some of the jokes can be, an experienced fan is likely to find themselves bored for much of it. If you are new to the genre, it might hit your funny bone quite well. It’s hard to knock the game too much for this though. It originally came out in 2003, so there has been plenty of extra time for the ideas to get old. Still, how many times can a player be expected to deal with the “love interest is upset because she can’t cook without creating death on a plate” story?
The story ends up being interesting mostly after you’ve started going down a particular route. When you do, you’ll learn all about one of the girls and get to see them as more than a two dimensional character for once. Each has an interesting back story and motivations, and Takeru will noticeably grow as his relationship with that character deepens. Sadly, as is often the case, every other story thread will be ignored as you explore each particular route. So if you want to find out who the hell Meiya really is and why she suddenly moved into your house, you must go down her path. Otherwise, the story gets dropped and never mentioned again. This is meant to entice you to clear every route, but it can be frustrating if your intention was to only finish the game once.
Unlimited is a completely different animal. In this game, Takeru awakes to find himself in an alternate time line where mankind has been at war with aliens called BETA for generations. Takeru finds himself thrown in with a class of cadets made up of alternate versions of all his friends from his own world. None of them know him of course. This creates a fascinating tale where Takeru tries to find his place in this new world while trying not to reveal himself and keep his memories of his old world intact. It also has a more mature tone, with life and death decisions taking place of some of the more lackadaisical moments from Extra. It also does a good job of talking about the horrors of war without actually putting you in that war directly. The grand majority of the story takes place in the training base. What’s also interesting here is that the game has a longer, more involved common route. You will get to spend meaningful time with each character before moving down their particular route, which is mostly based on a decision or two at the end.
It’s not all gravy though. It’s clear this game is setup for the third. That’s because of an awkward time skip at the end of the story as well dramatic shift in tone. It feels forced and somewhat silly. On top of that, while the common route is longer and more varied, the character routes are all pretty much the same. This makes it easier to see each route, but far less rewarding. It’s also worth noting that the explanation for Takeru waking up in this new world is also held off until the third game. The lack of resolution is disheartening. If not for the interesting story throughout, the ending would be a complete letdown. As is, it is disappointing but bearable.
For an old game, the visuals hold up well. The art is outdated and the resolution is fairly low, but the game makes up for that thanks to story boarding. What I mean by that is that the game doesn’t rely on static portraits and simple text boxes. Instead, the camera will shift and focus on characters, the character will move back and forth, they’ll turn to face other characters, etc. This helps give the illusion of a living, breathing world, and does a fantastic job of keeping the player engaged. One of the problems visual novels tend to have is the long stretches of reading without the screen changing. By avoiding that, this game stands out even all these years later. While the animations are limited to changing character models and lip movements, the effect is no less impressive. However, the reuse of assets for Unlimited is kind of silly at times, as is the unbelievably fan-servicey flight suits the girls end of wearing. It almost kills the tone of the game.
Both games use roughly the same audio tracks. While the script is different, the voices, music, and effects are largely the same. An interesting difference is that Takeru has a handful of voiced sections in Unlimited, but not Extra. Either way, the cast is perfectly fine for the most part. The script goes to enough different emotional points to allow for range, and the energy level is where it needs to be. Chances are fans won’t mind the Japanese only voices either, as that is the kind of feature popular in this niche. The music is pretty much background affair. There are a handful to tunes meant to represent different themes. The themes fit Extra significantly better, however, as the more goofy songs match that game’s tone. When they pop up in Unlimited, it feels forced. Beyond that, there aren’t really that many complaints.
As you might expect, Muv-Luv is light on traditional gameplay mechanics. For the most part, all you have to do is advance the text. Throughout the game, however, you will have choices to make. This might be something silly like whose lunch to eat, or something more serious. The choices matter to a certain degree in both games, but more so in Extra. You see, choosing options builds up points in the background that lean you towards specific character. For example, if you keep picking Sumika’s lunch or agreeing to hang out with her, you’ll more likely end up on her path. There are also various scenes that are only accessible via certain selections. At one point, you have to decide whether to help clean the classroom or whether to run away. If you stay, you’ll converse with your fellow cleaners. Flee, and you have the ability to meet up with other characters and build up points for them. You never see these points that you earn, but all of the decisions will determine which girl you end up with.
As for Unlimited, you will pretty much go down the common route either way, and the choices are more for flavor purposes. Although there are still some scenes that alter depending on these choices, you’ll find that the situations just sub in different characters and play out the same arc. It’s less exciting, for sure, but the pay off is a more interesting story throughout the length of the game.
Speaking of length, a single play through down one route can easily last you a dozen hours per game. Going down subsequent routes is vastly quicker due to being able to skip scenes you’ve seen, but there are enough routes to easily turn the whole package into a fifty hour plus experience. Even if you only go through each game once or twice, you’ll still get a couple dozen hours under your belt before you’re done. Basically, the game will give you back all that you put into it.
It should be noted that this game is censored. The original game featured explicit sex scenes at the end of each route. These have been removed. There are also some costumes and images that have been toned down as well. For example, the flight suits the girls wear have been colored in somewhat to avoid having nipples in the game. If this is the kind of thing that bothers you, you have been warned.
Muv-Luv ends up being a fairly good example of the genre from top to bottom. The keys are the story and characters. It falls into some traps by making the characters into bland archetypes throughout most of the experience. However, going down each route allows you to fully understand each character and end up with a more fulfilling experience. If you’re willing to put in the time, you likely won’t be disappointed. Unlimited is the clear winner here though, as it does more with the character throughout the game as opposed to dumping all of the most interesting bits at the end.
Short Attention Span Summary
If you enjoy visual novels, Muv-Luv will most likely hit the spot. This is especially true because this one package contains two full games instead of one. You get the quirky romantic comedy and the war drama all wrapped into one! It should be noted that there is a third game that will be released later that ties the two disparate experiences together, and that the information in that game is sorely needed. However, what’s here will certainly help you pass the time is a mostly enjoyable fashion. Although it hits many of the tropes of the genre, it’s also an older game and thus the tropes are more forgivable. Although it’s the censored version of the game, it’s worth a look for those interested.
Tags: muv-luv, PC