I’ve played a few visual novels over the years, so I’m no stranger to them (understatement of the century).
In fact, I’m part of a development group working on a 3D Visual Novel VR experience in the Unreal 4 Engine, much like how The Assembly went about things. So you could say that Muv Luv, for me, is both another chance to enjoy a game within a genre that I find interesting, and an opportunity to research what the genre has been doing recently. Like a lot of games, there’s been parts I’ve found disappointing, uninspired, and have barely met expectations, then others that have surprised, inspired, and have exceeded expectations.
Much like my last review of The Assembly, it’s very hard to talk about the narrative, because it’s all you have in a game like this; even moreso than The Assembly where at least there were puzzles. Muv Luv is a click-to-proceed style visual novel, where the clicking is done on any part of the screen (or an occasional dialogue choice) to proceed the story. It’s a very linear genre that many game academics even question is a game at all, considering it to be more a piece of interactive software. However, Muv Luv proves that there can be moments of an interactive nature which are too complicated or too strenuous to put in another format of media such as a multiple choice novel, bringing it closer to being game-like than most other visual novels; the more dull and simple ones tending to be click-to-progress in nature with little-to-no input.
This game is actually a 2-in-1 sort of deal, where you get both Muv Luv Extra and Muv Luv Unlimited, the first and second parts of a trilogy of stories. The third title, Muv Luv Alternative planned to be released at the end of the year. The basic premise of the story follows the main character, Takeru. Starting off by introducing your childhood friend (aka “the girl next door”) Sumika, you’re gradually introduced to the world’s setting, and quickly acclimate to the very close relationship the two have with each other, despite them constantly annoying each other and smacking each other miles into the sky (no, really). One morning you wake up to find Meiya, the game’s second main female love-interest, sleeping next to you. Tension between Sumika and Meiya develops over time; Sumika wants you to see her as a woman come of age, Meiya wants you to see her as an approachable woman and not the high-class, rich family’s daughter that she’s been branded by her peers. You have other options within your harem from a wide variety of girls, each with their own unique personalities and quirks that help make them instantly memorable and recognisable, but the game makes no mild suggestion that it’s Sumika and Meiya that are the main two interests at play here.
Whilst the girls are unique and interesting, they also play heavily on the stereotypical archetypes the genre is flooded with. In that sense it plays things very safe as a foundation, and layers on top of understood personality tropes within the genre in order to facilitate strong character growth throughout the story. Those interesting moments take a while to surface however, and whilst the first Muv Luv is a massive game to begin with (taking you somewhere around 10+ hours if taken leisurely), the majority of it is spent drudging through what is mostly a generic and uninspired story with equally generic characters who take too long to become interesting. If you can push through the first half however, the ending pushes things in a more interesting direction. Not that first half is terrible, but beyond some comic relief, a few endearing situations and pieces of dialogue, it fails to be anything but what you expect from a visual novel. If the first half went as strong as the second half, holistically speaking the first story arc would have been a solid game worth looking into alone.
I think the problem with the first story arc is how long it is. I’ve played enough visual novels to appreciate that the argument for quality over quantity trumps any other when it comes to visual novels. Better to have an amazing one-hour visual novel experience than have to wade your way through a 10+ hour mediocre one, right? As a reader, you want your time to be well invested, and grow attached to characters and events as quickly and efficiently as possible. You build those relationships early on, so that you can enjoy the rest of the game actually doing things and going places with the people you like. However, getting to the point where you like a certain character feels as if the first half of the game is one long introduction which could have been easy condensed into a short opening chapter and would have made the second half a lot more accessible sooner.
This has been a common complaint in reviews, where the length of the game feels unjustified. Establishing characters and their relationships with each other should be done early on and quickly, not stretched out over the length of a game’s first half. What results is the more interesting second half being equally as long as the time it takes to get your teeth sunk in the first half, meaning that the ending feels slightly abrupt, and the pacing is lost. Whilst Muv Luv Extra paces a lot of things well, one of its major aspects (being the girls’ introduction and development) is a bit off.
However, all of this is excused once you start the second story arc, which is Muv Luv Unlimited. Here, Takeru wakes up in an alternative universe, where he is still aware of the universe within the first game, Muv Luv Extra. Think of someone from the future visiting the past, and everyone around them thinks he’s crazy, and you get the initial first few opening moments of Muv Luv Unlimited. Characters are still the same in their personality, but they are shown in a new light; this new universe is full of conflict, so strong characters begin to shine and their temperaments are focused through a different lens, allowing you to see a different side to them. The developers have even gone so far as to reference events from Muv Luv Extra within the new story arc, and if close attention is paid during Muv Luv Extra, you will have spotted some foreshadowing within its story as well. What comes from all of this is a more successful second story, where the game’s reliance on you having played the first game means that there’s no need for lengthy character introductions or relationship building, because you’ve already gone through all of that yourself, setting a reliable foundation for the new experience ahead of you. Sequels have this luxury to be able to rely on past experiences from the first entry in order to do new and interesting things in less time, because you’re already versed in the context of the universe and its characters.
In this sense, Muv Luv Unlimited achieves a great deal more than its predecessor in much less time. Whereas Muv Luv Extra sticks to genre tropes and moulds, Muv Luv Unlimited does more than what it is expected to do by playing around with previously built relationships and understandings from the player. Getting through a somewhat forgettable first story arc is unfortunately necessary to fully appreciate what becomes a great second half. The tone changes quite dramatically due to the nature of this alternative universe and its theme, but it provides real drama and allows you to grow closer to characters than you were able to do previously beyond what the superficial, develop-by-numbers restricted tropes that the first arc employed.
If you can push through what is essentially an introductory or context establishing first game that sprawls upwards of 10 hours to get to the meatier and much more interesting second game, then the payoff levels out overall. If you find yourself only being interested in the setting of the first game, and not caring much for the themes of the second half, then you might want to think twice before spending your money. If you just want another high-school, slice-of-life experience in your visual novel adventures, then the first game is serviceable, and whilst it won’t disappoint, it won’t amaze either. In contrast, the second game does much more to impress, and its setting more suited to those who want something a little different from the usual high-school student, slice-of-life experience that you’ll find in many Japanese visual novels.
It all ends up asking you the question of “Do you want to invest somewhere around 10 hours to get into a much more interesting story arc?”. Some might ask if they can jump directly into the second game, to which I would say no. You can if you want, but to do so would mean not fully appreciating or even enjoying the game because it makes all kinds of assumptions based on the knowledge that you would have accrued during the first title. A majority of the experience of seeing this different world is only achieved by understanding what the world was before, and the characters within it. Because of its dependence on that fore-knowledge, I can’t recommend you buy this game unless you plan on finishing both story arcs. The first isn’t going to amaze you alone, and the second can’t amaze without having gone through the first, so I would strongly advise you either invest yourself all into both, or neither.
So in that sense, there’s no quick-fix to be had for fans of the genre here. You either invest the time to experience everything, or you’ll end up feeling like you’ve wasted your time. It’s a shame that both games are dependent on each other, and the fact I’m scoring this review based on the two games being together as one title on Steam, means that the Muv Luv Extra‘s lower score and Muv Luv Unlimited‘s higher score end up cancelling each other out almost, which is a shame. I’m veering more towards Unlimited’s score on this one though, as the third title Muv Luv Extra will continue Unlimited‘s story arc, meaning it’s the more appropriate one to go by. After lurking around community sites based around the game, I’ve come to realise that it’s after playing the third and final entry, that you come to appreciate the entire series, and why it has the reputation that it does. I can understand and believe that quite easily, since I’ve been repeating myself throughout the review of how much the first title is overshadowed by the second one, and I imagine the same will happen when the third is released. If you’re willing to invest the time in three lengthy visual novels, finish these two off early, so you can enjoy what is touted as a great third entry (which I’m excited to see) released later this year.