"Whether you liked Muv-Luv or not, if you're a fan of visual novels you owe it to yourself to experience this absolute genre-defining crown jewel of a story. "
Editor's note: This review contains spoilers for Muv-Luv Unlimited.
As the ending credits for Muv-Luv Alternative began to roll, tears began to trickle down my ugly mug for the first time in years. I've had tears well up countless times throughout my time with video games and other media in general, but this was the first time that I had to reach for the tissues to clean up my face. I didn't think any game could evoke such genuine emotions out of me since I played through Bioshock, but it appears I can add another entry to that rather tiny list. The wait for this series conclusion was long, and at times hopeless with the numerous delays and sporadic developer updates, but I can safely say now that it was worth it.
In another universe, worlds apart from home.
Decades have passed since the extraterrestrial invaders known as the BETA ravaged the Earth. Unstoppable and brutally efficient at razing everything in their way, humanity stands on its last legs in a handful of safe havens scattered across the globe, praying for an answer to their doomed future. Welcome to the universe of Muv-Luv Alternative.
This is the unfortunate reality that protagonist Shirogane Takeru was spirited away to in the previous game. We've experienced his struggle for survival in this barren world before. We watched him laugh. We watched him cry. We watched him find happiness in this new life. We watched him die. Yet by some inexplicable twist of fate, Takeru finds himself back in his room again, with slight amnesia, but alive. Of course, fate wasn't so kind as to bring him back into his original universe where the invasion of Earth didn't take place, but he finds solace in the fact that he can use his knowledge of this universe's events to rectify the mistakes that led to the bitter ending of Muv-Luv Unlimited.
This isn't to say that Alternative is a story about time travel in the slightest. While certain aspects of Takeru's mysterious leap through time are significant to the story, the core of Alternative's plot is an excellently paced down-to-earth tale about personal growth and redemption. Admittedly, the start is somewhat slow, especially for people coming straight from Unlimited, but once the ball gets rolling it doesn't stop until you're watching the credits.
Unlike Unlimited, where politics and war served more as backdrops to what was ultimately a romance visual novel, Alternative plunges into these themes with no holds barred. Intricate political conspiracies, high stakes covert operations, and epic battles are just a few of the events that you will encounter during your playthrough, with each subsequent event dwarfing the previous one in terms of gravitas. Fortunately, Takeru does an excellent job simplifying all the confusion that might come from these larger-than-life moments, putting even the most obscure political motivations and ideals into layman's terms, making sure that your focus is always on the story at hand.
When I mentioned that there are no holds barred with Alternative's presentation of the horrors of war and despair in the face of total annihilation, I seriously meant it. The kiddie gloves are off, and the plot armor that many stories of this nature tend to have is nonexistent. While this makes for a much more visceral and compelling experience, several moments are more soul crushing than I can possibly put into words. Takeru's despair as these traumatic events take place is intensely tangible, so much so that I had to stop playing for the day several times just to recover and remind myself that this is a work of fiction. Truly a testament to just how well Alternative develops its plot and vast cast of characters — both new and old — throughout its thirty to fifty odd hour campaign, the peaks and valleys I went through as I resolved each character's story was emotionally taxing to an unprecedented degree. It's definitely not for the faint of heart.
It should be noted, however, that Alternative isn't all doom and gloom. Fifty hours of exclusive abject despair isn't something that makes for a very good story, and the game does a quality job at realizing that, despite its much darker tone than its predecessor. Jokes and laughs are to be found aplenty, especially during the earlier segments of the game, and it's these lighthearted moments that allow you to form a surprisingly profound emotional bond with the cast, making the later twists in the story all the more heart wrenching.
The quality of the writing is further proven by just how adeptly the game weaves in newer characters with the main gang that you've been with for the past two games. I was initially quite worried that the new additions would fall by the wayside as simple plot devices, but the extent to which they are fleshed out and brought to life is nothing short of phenomenal. I felt just as comfortable with characters I first encountered two chapters ago as I did with the group I'd been with for multiple games.
Unlike most visual novels, Alternative sets out to only tell a single story, meaning that there is only one ending at the end of your journey. The gameplay certainly reflects this, as the choices you make are few and far between with most of them serving aesthetic purposes rather than having actual significance. That being said, the few decisions you do make add small differences to the ending. Whether it is worth it to go through the absolute emotional wringer that is the campaign multiple times just for small nuanced differences in a single ending is up to you, but it certainly wasn't something I could get myself to do.
Much like the writing, the production quality for Alternative is significantly higher than in the original Muv-Luv. The sprites are as expressive as ever, and while my previous gripe of bland background art wasn't completely addressed, Alternative nonetheless offers a much more varied and detailed landscape than its predecessor. Additionally, many of the in-game scenes themselves are animated, most notably with some fully fleshed out cutscenes. The added dynamics aren't all well and good, though, as most of the bigger battles rely a little too much on jump cuts and often made me feel slightly nauseated by the end.
Music has been expanded upon for this installment as well. While the original tunes of Muv-Luv make up a large portion of the background music, there are several additions to the soundtrack that perfectly complement the more nuanced moments in Alternative. However, some of the music did feel a bit overpowering at times, often dictating the moods of certain scenes entirely on its own instead of simply just adding to it. This isn't a huge peeve per se, but there are certain moments where the music jumps the gun, often spoiling the general mood of a subsequent scene.
Muv-Luv Alternative, and the series as a whole for that matter, is something that should simply be experienced before anything else. I haven't been this moved by a game in years, and it's definitely not something I was expecting from this series given its unimpressive beginnings. Much like Alternative's central theme of love that transcends the boundaries of space and time, this is a story that transcends its genre and has survived the test of time as it continues to influence some of the most beloved works of Japanese fiction to this day. Whether you liked Muv-Luv or not, if you're a fan of visual novels you owe it to yourself to experience this absolute genre-defining crown jewel of a story.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.