Let me get this out of the way first: Muv-Luv is an incredibly conflicting experience. Thanks to a Kickstarter last year, Muv-Luv recently came to the American market with a fresh English localization, and given its popularity since its initial Japanese release in 2003, I immediately jumped into it. Without a doubt, the hours that followed were the most polarizing hours I’ve ever spent on a game.
Muv-Luv‘s first half, titled Extra, follows the daily life of Shirogane Takeru as he begins his third fall term at Hakuryo High School. Takeru’s only wish is to just get through the year peacefully with occasional shenanigans with his childhood friend, Kagami Sumika. His hopes, however, are quickly dashed with the abrupt arrival of Mitsurugi Meiya, a girl with mysterious ties to his past.
Extra‘s structure is identical to almost every other romance focused visual novel. Rather than following an overarching plot, you simply chase after one of the heroines of your fancy. Of course, the game makes a very conscientious effort to try and make you pick one of the main heroines—Sumika and Meiya—with some blatant dialogue options, but you still have the option to follow one of the three side heroines instead.
However, even if you want to see all the routes, you can probably only expect about twelve hours of actual content, due to the metric ton of shared text between them. As a matter of fact, four out of the five heroines follow an almost completely identical route until around the halfway mark, which drastically reduces the replay value. I often found myself dozing off in front of my screen after my first two playthroughs as the auto-skip function went to work, while occasionally checking the backlog to see if any lines had changed (they didn’t).
This brings me to my biggest gripes with Muv-Luv Extra: the vapid quality of the writing and the excessive amount of filler. I’m completely serious when I say you can probably condense each of the routes into three hour bite sized chick flicks and lose nothing of value. Every single route is so excessively stretched out and similar to one another that when they finally start picking up in quality towards the end, it only serves as a tiny consolation for the all the muck you had to trudge through to begin with.
Unimaginatively, the characters are all walking tropes and clichés. The main heroines suffer from this more than the side characters as they hardly develop over the course of their routes at all, only to get walloped by a sudden melodramatic trainwreck towards the end that had me wondering what shoddy DIY romance manual the writers got their script from.
In the end, that’s exactly what Muv-Luv Extra is like: a scrappy, thrown together visual novel that feels like a waste of time regardless of your expectations at the beginning. So you might wonder how this review even remotely correlates to the score you see on the side.
Well, that’s because the second half of the game, Muv-Luv Unlimited, is a pretty damn fine visual novel.
Without giving too much away, as the surprise factor does make a huge difference in your experience (so please avoid reading the game description on Steam as it’s chock full of spoilers), I will say this: Muv-Luv Unlimited introduces a dramatic genre shift, going from a light hearted high school romance to a fairly serious tale of conflict and survival.
Unlimited‘s story is markedly more linear than Extra, making for a less interactive experience overall, but the presentation of the plot is so well done that the lack of interaction didn’t bother me at all. However, I have a few peeves with the gameplay, mainly that some of the dialogue options are completely redundant. For example, there were more than a couple of times throughout my playthrough where every single line I could choose from during an event resulted in the exact same response from whoever I was talking to.
This flaw is symptomatic of Unlimited‘s gameplay as a whole, in that all of your decisions until the last three or four have no impact on the outcome of the game whatsoever. There are couple of extra lines of dialogue, and maybe an extra scene or two if you pick correctly, but by and large your choices don’t really matter.
Characters mostly follow the same basic outlines they had in Extra, but are also given a new lease of life with the genre shift. Now that there is more than some arbitrary high school romance at stake, their individual quirks and the actions they take because of those quirks actually matter. This adds a nice layer of drama and genuine tension throughout various moments in Unlimited that is sorely missing in Extra, and definitely makes for a much more memorable experience.
In terms of graphics, Muv-Luv as a whole is very lively game. The background art is a bit bland throughout both halves, but the character designs are sharp and vibrant. Of course, they suffer a bit from the ridiculous hair colors that anime characters tend to have, but aside from that, Muv-Luv is a great looking game. The sprites are nicely animated, so there is never a dull moment while you’re talking. Characters cross their arms when they’re upset, raise their eyebrows while questioning, quickly try to cover their faces when you go for a cheeky flick to the forehead, etc.; the small details in the animations add a nice sense of immersion while playing.
Music, though, is not a terribly strong suit for Muv-Luv as most of the time you’re just listening to the main riff of the opening credits over and over again, but some of the more affectionate scenes have their own delicate scores. Voice acting is top notch as per industry standard in Japan, but you can turn off individual voices as you please in the menu.
If you’re looking for a game that pulls you in for the long haul, Muv-Luv is the game for you. Although Extra is nothing more than a glorified character introduction (and a terrible one at that), the game went far beyond my expectations in Unlimited, making the mediocrity of Extra almost forgivable. Almost. If first impressions make or break the game for you, steer clear of Muv-Luv. However, if you think you can trudge through at least eight hours of terrible writing in order to experience a great visual novel, then by all means dig in.