Luv makes the world go ’round.
I didn’t know what to think about Muv-Luv.Muv-Luv is a 2003 romance visual novel from developer âge and distributor Degica Games. It just hit Steam on July 14, 2016 after a very successful (read: million-dollar) Kickstarter campaign. It was hyped up to me by friends and fans as the start of one of the biggest Japanese multimedia franchises ever made, and it’s definitely not hard to see why. The franchise has spawned sequels, manga adaptations, and even an anime tie-in that just aired this past January. It was supposed to be this really grand masterwork of a visual novel that turned the medium on its head. I snapped up the opportunity to see what this so-called epic of a game had to offer.
Five minutes in, I was wondering if I got the right game at all.Playing through Muv-Luv‘s first half, Extra, is like playing through the generic visual novel you’d see in the background of any given anime character’s bedroom. Hell, if you even go to the game’s Wikipedia entry, you’ll find out that before it was censored and brought stateside that it was originally a Japanese “eroge,” a game where the majority of the focus is seeing all the different naked anime girls you can. Unless you’re into that (and if you are, more power to you, just not my thing), you’re probably gonna enter the game with fairly low expectations.
The game follows the infuriatingly oblivious, idiotic, and woefully average high-school student Takeru as he attempts to navigate his way through school and life. In the process, he ends up stealing the heart of one of a variety of his classmates, all of whom take on fairly one-dimensional roles (like the absurdly rich transfer student, the uptight class representative, the super quiet girl, etc.) over the course of multiple routes and a lot of different-but-not-really choices (i.e. do you do what Girl A wants to do or what Girl B wants to do, with the occasional Girl C option). It’s as basic and simple as you can get.
With that being said, simple isn’t always a bad thing as long as the story itself is good. And while I wasn’t able to play through the whole of the game’s routes, I was able to play through one of the main routes, Sumika’s. For something so played out in every medium known to man, particularly in Japanese popular culture (the childhood friend who wants to become something more but the MC just doesn’t get it and wacky misunderstandings ensue with the new girl in town, hoo boy!), it’s actually really well done. The plot beats follow a solid structure and build-up, and (as generic as their baseline personalities are) the supporting cast has a fair amount of depth even with Sumika being the ostensible ‘main’ love interest. You won’t learn as much as you might on their specific routes, but each member of the cast (especially the school’s completely bonkers physics teacher Yuuko) has something that makes them important to other elements of the story outside of the romance.
The character designs themselves are actually rather well done for the time, with each character having at least some identifiable features beyond their clothes and hair that make them stand out from each other (thanks to some smart attention paid to character expressions), and their bodies themselves actually seem fairly proportional (which is a godsend in today’s game/anime/manga landscape). There’s enough “movement” with the character sprites both when they speak and in some physical gestures that the game doesn’t feel static.
There are constant shifts in the art style that break up the monotony as well, whether to Sumuka’s crayon visions of the world around her, the “Valgern-On” mecha arcade game sequences that pop up throughout the story, or to the game’s black-and-white manga-styled tribute to the street racing manga Initial D (which, by the way, is one of the most hysterical moments of the entire game). The backgrounds also seem to have meticulous detail put into them, particularly in areas with lots of storyline importance (the big hill overlooking the city being the most prominent). For its time, it actually looks pretty sweet.
The music is…okay. It’s memorable in that once you’ve played the game for hours upon hours, you’ll be hearing the tunes in your sleep. They work well to help convey what emotion the story wants you to feel at any given point, but that’s really all it does. It’s serviceable. Nothing wrong there, but there’s nothing great about it either.The romance itself is surprisingly nice, if a bit outrageous at times. The story actually starts off with Sumika’s diary showing her and Takeru connecting over the years in the previously mentioned cutsey crayon style. It’s obvious she cares a hell of a lot for him right from the get-go. The sincerity of Sumika’s affections makes it extremely easy to want to see her succeed in getting Takeru’s in return. This becomes a bit of an issue when Takeru spends most of his time verbally or physically harassing her, making you wonder exactly what she sees in the dope, but to his credit he does start to grow out of it near the end. Conveniently so, in fact. Without spoilers, everything in Sumika’s route tidies itself up with a nice little bow on top, with Takeru growing more mature and Sumika finally getting the love of her life. Everything seems perfect and everyone’s happy (except for, well, all the other girls, but that’s a given in a VN-not everyone gets a happy ending if their route isn’t the one you pick).
That’s what makes the introduction to Muv-Luv Unlimited, the second half of the game, hit so hard.
Massive spoilers from here on out.
Unlimited starts with a scene from the climax of Sumika’s route, with Sumika and rich transfer student Meiya both admitting their love for Takeru while he eavesdrops. It seems at first like this was a dream or a memory as Takeru wakes up with no sign of Sumika (who serves as his alarm clock) or Meiya (who occupies a room in his house). As he goes outside to see where his friends went, he finds his neighborhood abandoned, the streets empty, and a GIANT ROBOT LYING IN THE RUINS OF SUMIKA’S HOUSE.What makes this reveal even more powerful is that Extra has a lot of moments that just seem…strange. Lines that seem like either throwaway comments or odd interludes litter the game, such as an early entry from Sumika’s diary where she says she couldn’t imagine a world where she and Takeru weren’t childhood friends. The characters constantly meet up to play Valgern-On (with really detailed designs for the different mechas in the game) and there’s multiple references to concepts like parallel dimensions and the multiverse theory. It felt just like an attempt to make things “quirky,” to add some levity to otherwise mundane situations.
Yeah, turns out that was all massive foreshadowing.
It also turns out that this huge spoiler IS BEING USED AS A SELLING POINT ON THE GAME’S OFFICIAL TRAILER AND STEAM PAGE.
I couldn’t play the game for the next few minutes because I was too busy wondering how the hell I missed any of that.It turns out that Takeru woke up in an alternate universe, one where hostile aliens ravaged the Earth during the Cold War. Since then, generations of survivors have banded together to fight off the invaders, their numbers dwindling with each passing year. After being taken in by the alternate version of Yuuko, who serves as one of the highest members of the government in this world, Takeru (the genius that he is) freaking volunteers to join a war in order to pilot one of the sweet-looking robots that the government uses to defend the Earth. Takeru is sent to the local army training facility (conveniently located at his high school) where he meets alternate versions of all of his friends from the original world. Everyone, that is, except for Sumika. As Takeru lives out his high school days in a brand new world, he starts to realize that this world isn’t all cool robots and alien fighting. There’s a war on, and he just signed up for the front lines.I haven’t completed all of Unlimited but what I’ve played of it so far makes me rethink a lot of the different elements in Extra. While the story of Extra is still pretty standard, it was more of a first act or a prologue to the real story: the story of a kid who took for granted the mundanities and innocence of everyday life and has to learn the harsh realities of the “real” world. That’s not to say anything from Extra is invalidated by Unlimited. If it weren’t for the familiar nature of the tropes involved in Extra (the sappy romance, the over-the-top nature of the comedy, the standard harem tropes), Unlimited wouldn’t have that same impact. It would just be the story of a kid who wakes up one day in a world ravaged by a horrifying war. Would it still be good? Probably, given what I’ve seen so far. Still, it wouldn’t be nearly as good if we didn’t get to know Extra’s quirky cast. All of the emotional moments that make up Extra are what allow Unlimited to have the emotional stakes that it does. In order to pull the rug out from under someone, you have to lay the rug down to begin with.
This doesn’t mean the game isn’t without flaws. As the set-up to Unlimited, Extra has to lay down a lot of groundwork, and it doesn’t always pay off. For example, its foreshadowing straddles the line between subtle (such as the Valgern-On interludes) or painfully obvious (characters blatantly talking about what it would be like if people could pilot robots in real life). The story also doesn’t seem to know what to do with Takeru until Unlimited starts. In Extra, he’s more or less an audience surrogate, the hapless everyman (with more than a few perverted tendencies for the people using him as wish fulfillment). I know Unlimited is meant to be where his arc really begins, but there’s only so many times you can watch him harass Sumika before you start begging for her to knock him out (to the game’s credit, though, she usually delivers). Things aren’t helped by the fact that Extra spends a majority of its first half focusing on the cast training for and participating in a sports festival lacrosse match. While the match itself is genuinely exciting (and the ballistic rant that Takeru delivers to everyone before the final match shows more personality than anything else up to that point), that “arc” lasts for so long and ends on so much of an upbeat note that it makes you feel like you’ve reached the ending long before you actually do (at least, on Sumika’s route).
As cool as the art style in Muv-Luv is, especially in regards to Unlimited’s mecha designs, it is significantly dated. It’s not awful by any stretch of the word but it’s very clearly a product of its time. You’ve got it all: ridiculously complex school uniforms with shoulder pads for days, comically oversized glasses, bulging eyes with pupils so dilated that the whole cast looks like they just got back from a trip to the optometrist, and absurd hairstyles that would make some shonen anime protagonists blush. I can get the game having the occasional weird-looking face as long as the key moments in the narrative are given the attention they deserve (and to be fair, Muv-Luv usually delivers). More often than not, though, the characters look like they just stepped out of the pages of very early volumes of Megatokyo.
Traces of Muv-Luv’s “eroge” origins are still loud and clear despite the developers’ attempts to tone it down for the steam release. While most of the NSFW content is scrubbed clean in the visuals, the dialogue still relies heavily on sexual content and humor. Takeru runs into Sumika in the restroom at least twice over the course of the game, for example, and the ending to Extra’s Sumika route (and presumably all the other routes) makes it very clear that Takeru and his new girlfriend are having sex. That’s not even mentioning the pilot suit designs for the Unlimited versions of the characters, which leave basically nothing to the imagination. If this kind of stuff bothers you, you can do what I did and just mash the enter key during those moments in Extra, though I can’t say for sure if it’s that easy in Unlimited since I haven’t made it all the way through.Muv-Luv is a hell of a lot to unpack, so much so that I can’t even get into it all in one review. But the vast amount of content it has leaves a lot of room for replay value. While some of Extra may be clunky or played-out (and there were quite a few times I wanted to reach into the screen and throttle Takeru) I’m pretty glad that I played it. Unlimited has been pretty fun so far as well, improving on the flaws of Extra and making me genuinely engaged and excited to see what mysteries and reveals this new but familiar world has to offer. With clever storytelling, surprisingly engaging characters, and a solid sense of style, Muv-Luv is a fun twist on old tropes that will leave you wanting more. Considering Muv-Luv Alternative is on its way, it might not be too long of a wait.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got…HOW MANY MORE ENDINGS TO GO THROUGH?! Oh, this is going to be a long month.
Muv-Luv is available on Steam.