I originally planned to write separate reviews for Muv-Luv and Muv-Luv Alternative, but after finishing Muv-Luv Unlimited, it became clear that this series was made to be taken as an entire piece, not as individual works. I suggest to everyone who wants to play Muv-Luv Alternative to take the time and sit through both Muv-Luv Extra (even if it’s just the two main routes) and Muv-Luv Unlimited to fully appreciate the series. Please enjoy my review of one of the most highly-rated* VNs as of this writing.

Muv-Luv, the first game, is divided into two parts. Muv-Luv Extra is your standard romance VN with over-the-top comedy and harem hijinks. Takeru Shirogane is your standard harem protagonist living next door to his childhood friend, Sumika Kagami. They’re basically inseparable friends, but Sumika has been in love with Takeru since forever; Takeru’s just too dense to notice. His average life gets shaken one day when Sumika comes to wake Takeru up, except an unfamiliar blue-haired girl has already barged in and is sleeping in the same bed as Takeru.

Nearly everything in Extra is something you’ve seen in other VNs  — the patient childhood friend who the protagonist never notices, the teacher who’s overly conscious about her age, the wacky teacher, the overbearing class rep — and it doesn’t do anything with them. Other than the relatively high-budget production, Extra’s only saving grace from this cliche-storm is the comedy, from Meiya abusing her heiress-to-the-mega-corp status to accomplish mundane tasks (like buying the entire neighborhood so she can live next door to Takeru), to insane driving antics giving Initial D a run for its money, to Kei Ayamine’s deadpan trolling. It’s still nothing special, but I feel that it works enough to keep it from being a totally mediocre work.

Finishing the Sumika and Meiya routes of Muv-Luv Extra unlocks Muv-Luv Unlimited, the second part of Muv-Luv. One day, Takeru wakes up wondering why neither Meiya nor Sumika woke him up. He looks outside and finds the entire town lying in ruins and the remains of a giant mecha lying next to his house. Thinking that he had just been dropped into a post-apocalyptic mecha scenario, Takeru decides to explore and have as much fun as he can.

Muv-Luv Unlimited takes the protagonist of Muv-Luv Extra and puts him in a post-apocalyptic mecha world. The cast of Muv-Luv Extra makes a return, except none of them recognize Takeru, and a certain important person is nowhere to be seen. Muv-Luv Unlimited is the world-building part of the series; it introduces most of the concepts upon which Muv-Luv Alternative is built. Put simply, what happens when you take the personalities of otherwise ordinary people — you and your friends — and put them in a world of perpetual warfare? Take, for example, the feud between the Class Rep and Ayamine. While it was a harmless squabble in Extra, it becomes a serious problem in Unlimited when it compromises the unity of their squad. Things that were originally cliched and trivial in the other world has suddenly become important to each character simply by changing the story’s setting.

Unlimited is also surprisingly grounded in reality. Most of the conflict in Unlimited are things we can find in real combat zones: self-doubt, physical and mental weakness during combat training, the unity of the squad, the ethics of the command chain, and commitment to country during disasters. The only real difference is the presence of mechas and non-human enemies. Unfortunately to some, this also means that there is little to none of the mecha vs. alien combat, and thus lacks the “awesomeness” the hype for this series builds. I find this to be a non-issue though, since I feel that Unlimited’s focus isn’t wasted on rebuilding the characters around the new setting. What I find to be the issue with Unlimited is the abruptness of the ending; it comes almost out of nowhere, with just some vague foreshadowing that something wrong is going on behind the scenes. It’s all-too-obvious that Unlimited’s ending wasn’t meant to be the ending, and it’s unfortunate that it had to be cut at the worst possible time. Quite simply, Muv-Luv Unlimited is a cruel tease, more so for those who waited three years for Alternative’s release.

Muv-Luv Alternative is the last part of the trilogy, released in 2006 after three years of delays. Three years after the events of Unlimited, Takeru wakes up to find out that he’s returned to the beginning of Muv-Luv Unlimited. Determined to prevent disaster from striking again, Takeru offers to help complete Alternative IV, humanity’s last-ditch effort against the extraterrestrial invaders.

Saying that Muv-Luv Alternative is an improvement over both Extra and Unlimited is a huge understatement; Alternative simply blows the rest of the series out of the water. Muv-Luv Alternative is an epic — both in the internet and traditional sense of the word. It is the culmination of Takeru’s development over the entire series, his long and arduous tale coming to a conclusion with grand, explosive mecha vs. alien action with a side of political intrigue and hard sci-fi.

Alternative’s change in tone from the rest of the series is best displayed by its opening theme, Asu e no Houkou, a high-powered, hot-blooded piece by JAM Project. The OP sets the series tone perfectly with its dynamic and action-packed visuals, filled with shots of both the mecha and the characters in battle.

Three years in development has done many great things to Alternative; the production values, while not as fluid as an actual anime, are simply fantastic for a visual novel. The quality production from Extra and Unlimited get taken to the next level and finally get put to good use as the reader is treated to jaw-dropping visuals and CGs of all the action taking place.

Muv-Luv Alternative is undoubtedly a character-oriented piece; it is ultimately the story of Takeru Shirogane’s growth as a character and how his growth affects the people around him. Muv-Luv Alternative sees Takeru get hit by the harsh reality of his situation repeatedly — the dense, pathetic harem protagonist thrown into an apocalyptic setting finally learns to stand up for himself and starts putting the course of history into his own hands.

While Takeru is no doubt the central figure of the story, the other characters aren’t left behind. As both Extra and Unlimited focused on the characterization of each character, there is more room for each character to develop in Alternative without much need to build them up. And while the old cast get much of the development, the new characters are also built up effectively and given great characterization while fulfilling their role in the story.

As Muv-Luv Alternative is an epic, it covers a wide variety of themes and topics, ranging from nationalism, to death in combat, to quantum physics. Unlike many other stories, the many threads introduced in the story aren’t left hanging and instead tie in to the bigger picture. Perhaps the best example of this lies in the Valkyries’ motto: “Achieve your mission with all your might. Despair not until your last breath. Make your death count.” The biggest strength of MLA is making each character death valuable; it takes no skill to kill off large numbers of your cast, but it takes a good writer to actually make every single death count. MLA not only pulls this off, but pulls it off with such pathos.

While Muv-Luv Alternative does many things commendably, there are also things which could have been done better. The odd pacing can throw certain readers off; Alternative often throws heaps of exposition or military slice-of-life in between action-heavy scenes. And while I praised Alternative for its treatment of its characters, the main heroine arguably gets the worst treatment in terms of characterization: her personality revolves solely around the protagonist.

Muv-Luv Alternative, on its own, is already a fantastic and tightly-written story, but with both Muv-Luv Extra and Unlimited, it becomes one of the best visual novels out there, despite its many flaws. The Muv-Luv series is definitely not a series for a casual reader, but those who can sit through the less-than-stellar parts of the series will be rewarded with a fantastic, kudzu-like story with no shortage of drama, action, and intrigue.

Overall verdict: 10/10
Possible turn-offs: Sexual content (has an all-ages version), extreme nationalism, mild gore