Muv-Luv is a journey.
Maybe saying it’s the longest visual novel I’ve played is a bit unfair because it’s really two or three games, depending on how you see Extra and Unlimited, and there was a good two or three years until Alternative was released. Still, going through the entire thing takes a ton of time.
The way I like to think about Muv-Luv’s unique structure is by comparing it to Clannad, where the really good stuff, Alternative and After Story, requires a lot of time invested beforehand in the content that comes before it. That’s not to say that the non-Alt/AS stuff is bad, but it’s definitely not earthshattering. And in the case of the Clannad visual novel, it’s probably not as important.
This isn’t true for Muv-Luv. If you’re only in Muv-Luv for the sci-fi, going through the school life hijinks of Extra is going to seem torturous but it is absolutely vital. This isn’t the same as Clannad’s school life routes or Fate/stay night’s Fate route. Extra matters, possibly even more than Unlimited does.
So when I say school life, I mean Muv-Luv Extra is basically your standard school life harem thing. Unremarkable guy goes to school and all of the girls he knows is inexplicably attracted to him. You’ve got childhood friend, mysterious rich transfer student, kuudere, and class president. Other characters include a bro and two teachers. And comedic and romantic things happen in this part and by the end of it, you’ll have a girlfriend. Congratulations!
So you finish Extra and suddenly the title screen changes and all of the heroines are wearing different uniforms. Here is where I’d really like to have been around for when this thing first came out because I have no idea if anyone expected this and what the reaction was. Even more so once you start a new game and find something called Unlimited. Now in Muv-Luv Unlimited, we start with some scenes from Extra. See, because you’re the same guy from Extra. Except now you wake up, walk outside your house and find that the city has been destroyed. HMMMMMMMMMMMMM.
Essentially, this entire thing is about Shirogane Takeru, a normal guy who gets thrown in to an alternate universe in which humanity is under attack by aliens and are losing. How does he deal with this? By breaking into a military base to steal a mecha and save the day, of course. Except that he can’t because he’s a high school student from 2000s Japan and doesn’t know about anything and knows no one.
That last thing pretty much guarantees he’s dead, but with some luck, he ends up becoming a trainee at the local UN military base and he gets a chance to show off his chops. Except, again, he’s a high school student so he fails miserably and holds his entire squad back because of his ineptitude. Unlimited is basically him learning the ropes and somehow getting it. This part ends fairly uneventfully, which brings us to Alternative.
In Alternative, Takeru mysteriously starts over at the beginning of where he was in Unlimited, except he’s retained all of his memories and experiences from Unlimited. This time, he’s going to do it right, which, as it turns out, is quite difficult even if he’s not the complete failure from before. It turns out saving the humanity is hard!
Here’s where everything exciting happens. Political intrigue! Mecha combat! Alien horrors! Military briefings! We finally get to see the mecha in action and there are some really fantastic action sequences. Yes, this is a visual novel and yes, it relies on tricks similar to Fate/stay night that use sprites and the visual novel engine to create a sense of dynamism to the combat. The other thing that adds to it is how the characters work together. Good squad combat is not something you see a lot of in mecha anime, but it’s here and I’d say it’s plays a pretty big part in the story’s themes.
This is also where all of the emotional payoff (read: gutpunches) is. And this is where all of the time you spent with Extra comes in, as the nature of the world you’re in is revealed and casualties mount. While Unlimited and Alternative take place in the same world, Unlimited doesn’t have quite the sense of danger that Alternative does because the aliens do not mess around when they show up. Sometimes we kind of forget that there’s a reason that humanity’s losing. All of this causes a number of oh, shit moments.
As we move from Unlimited to Alternative, the goal changes from trying to get the hell out of crazy apocalyptic world and get back to fun times high school to trying to save that world and the people in it. So now, he’s invested in that place, except that’s a scary place to have people to care for, especially if they’re fighting aliens bent on their destruction. What’s more is that even if he does end up finding a way to gtfo, can he bring himself to abandon everyone so he can chillax with his harem back in Extra?
Muv-Luv is not really about saving the world. It’s a lot more personal than that. How else would you explain Extra? It’s about Takeru coming to terms with this incredible situation he’s been thrown into and rising to the challenge of dealing with it. And it’s something that’s true for all the characters in Alternative. Everyone has things they would rather be doing, but instead, they have to deal with this terrible world filled with aliens and loss and it’s up to them to deal with it and decide to do something about it.
The game’s genre is “a tale of love and courage” for good reason.