Just as we learned in Muv-Luv Alternative, it doesn’t take very long for everything that’s been going so well to just crash and burn. Six years after the promise at the end of Akane Maniax, we finally have ourselves a Muv-Luv anime. So it’s a sidestory, that’s okay, I can’t say no to more Muv-Luv. Oh, but it features a song by Koda Kumi. Also, it looks kind of bad. Also, the BETA look really bad. Also, it’s veering into really dumb territory. And the characters are unlikeable and stupid. Oh no, what does this mean for the future of Muv-Luv in animation? No. Please, no. Make it stop. Cue the piano.
A visual novel about disabled girls with origins from 4chan based on some extra pages in some doujin sounds like the most horrible thing and shouldn’t exist, but it exists and is actually not horrible at all. But everyone knew that already when the demo came out, what, three or four years ago? Everyone was waiting for it, but kind of like Starcraft II, I don’t think anyone expected it to get released within our lifetime.
So, the story goes the main character, Hisao, gets a heart attack and discovers he has a heart condition which leads to him being enrolled in a high school for students with disabilities. And then life becomes an adventure with choices.
Katawa Shoujo is a galge and seeing as how I played it right after I finished Little Busters, it was really hard not to compare it to Key’s brand of visual novels. I’d talked about Little Busters before and mentioned that it seemed more ridiculous than the usual Key stuff. Instead, Katawa Shoujo was able to get me to care about the characters more, simply because what they were going through was a real thing that could happen.
And because these were real things, the characters felt more like real people. A big reason why moe template characters don’t feel like real people is because the only flaw that they have is whatever otherworldly problem manifests soon after they meet you. Real and serious problems make the characters more believable and it seems like the writers really had to think about the implications of what each disability meant for the development each character.
For instance, one of the more interesting characters in Little Busters was Kud, whose problem was basically being half-Japanese and half-foreign and not knowing where she belonged. Of course, her Engrish was played up for the uguu factor occasionally, but her being unable to find belonging made her much more interesting than other uguu~s.
Realistic problems affect the characters. Some of them are born with them. They act differently than those who weren’t. Some of them overcompensate for what they don’t have. Some of them don’t care. In some ways, it’s not so much the disability affecting the character, but how the character’s personality is magnified by how they deal with it.
The characters have very strong and distinct personalities. Normally, the main character is a blank stand-in so that you can feel like that guy, but Hisao has just enough written about him that he’s his own character. At the same time, he’s still undefined enough that his personality changes depending on which girl’s route you’re on. A result of this is that in every route, he has really good chemistry with the heroine.
So since the individual routes matter and hit upon different things, let’s go through them.
Shizune’s route was the least enjoyable. I’ll admit that a large part of why I didn’t like Shizune’s route is because I didn’t like Shizune or Misha. They’re interesting when they’re together, but I didn’t like either of them because I don’t think I’d get along with them. I’m not really into the short hair or megane either. But most importantly, I thought most of the route was kind of boring, probably because the problem in this route was relationship drama.
Lilly’s route was enjoyable. Like Shizune, Lilly’s had her disability since birth, so she’s used to it by now and none of her problems really come out of that. And in fact, she’s a well-adjusted person who’s doing well, so she’s not having any problems on that front either. Most of the route is actually about Hisao dealing with his new life and how that affects his relationship with Lilly.
Emi’s route was one that I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. I don’t usually like the archetype that Emi’s character is drawn from, but I think her trolling with the nurse made her more likeable than just the energetic girl. She’s one of the characters who wasn’t born with her disability and has it play a role in the story (the other being Hanako). While the theme in both of their stories is kind of the same, their stories are different in the way they handle their situation. Emi is pretty conscious about her situation and does stuff about it, whether or not it’s actually helpful. Also, the nurse seemed eerily similar to Souma from Working!! (and by transitivity, Izaya from DRRR!!).
Rin’s route was the most surprising. In the other routes, Rin’s disconnectedness and resulting lines are pretty amusing, so I went into it kind of expecting some eccentricity and laughs. It turned out to be rather serious and not hilarious at all. It definitely colours her responses, even outside of her route. Like Lilly, her disability isn’t the root of any problems she’s facing. I can’t recall off the top of my head of any other visual novels where the protagonist and one of the heroines have such unpleasant development and struggle to understand each other.
Hanako is my favourite character, if not necessarily my favourite route. Out of all the characters, I think Hanako’s backstory and story are the most Key-like. She’s basically the shy, quiet girl with tragic past (so the opposite of Emi) and most of the route involves protagonist-kun breaking her out of her shell. Well, at least until the end, where the resolution to her route is not very Key-like at all. While the ending was good, it seemed kinda short. Or I don’t know, maybe I just wanted to see Hanako be happy some more.
Obviously, Katawa Shoujo isn’t about disabilities or disabled people or how disabled people are people just like us. I’d like to think that we don’t need a visual novel to teach us that. And, I mean, the central problems to the stories have very little to do with the characters’ disabilities. It’s all about Hisao learning to understand people, especially the girls he’s building relationships with. The caveat is that they, and most people, make that very hard to do.
So my predictions have been a bit off, but there’s still plenty of time for Little Busters to get a KyoAni anime on that timeline! What I think is more surprising (other than Haruhi getting more anime before LB) is that the translation for the visual novel is finished and I’ve played through it, long before a Little Busters anime has even been announced.
Little Busters is an interesting experience for me, because it’s the first “real” Key visual novel I’ve played without knowing much going into it. Sure, there’s Planetarian, but that’s relatively short, so I don’t count it. Sure, there’s Angel Beats, but that’s not a visual novel. And sure, I’ve played Clannad, but it’s Clannad and I know everything about Clannad.
I mentioned before that Angel Beats made me wonder whether I really like Key or if I just really liked Clannad. Even better than an anime, I think the Little Busters visual novel is a perfect opportunity to see where my tastes lie.
Like any good Key work, Little Busters has to have a theme. That theme happens to be adolescence or childhood. Alright, then. From this, there are a bunch of things that are pretty similar to Angel Beats. We’ve got the setting down and there’s a good chunk of the game that’s spent on trying to put together a baseball team. At a glance it seems like it’s all about living out your youth and all that. The common route mostly just made me wonder why they bothered to create Angel Beats when they had this lying around.
You’ve got your usual suspects in the cast: socially awkward childhood friend who likes cats, disgustingly cheerful nice girl, shit-stirring genki girl, suspiciously combat-hardened and cool onee-sama, quiet book girl, and dojikko with verbal tic. But, the main character isn’t the usual Key template blank but mildly snarky dude. Instead, you’re a Hayate (from Hayate the Combat Butler) except you’re kind of weak instead of absurdly competent. You’ve also got a bunch of childhood friend bros, the Little Busters, who watch your back and are actually pretty important to the main story. Obviously, every important character ends up on the Little Busters baseball team.
Structurally, the whole thing is pretty similar to Clannad. You’ve got all of your routes that you have to do before you get a swing at the route that ties everything together. What’s different is the common route, where you’re building up stats and rounding up people and comedy happens. I actually like the common route, if I ignore being put through it about six times.
Where I’m pretty dissatisfied is with the side routes. I went in expecting the usual Key stuff with fatal sickness and astral projections. I think the main problem with this stuff in Little Busters is that the writers realized that they couldn’t fall back on the same old stuff again, so they tried to spin up some new awful tragedy for each character.
Before, the tragedies were pretty grounded. Someone lost a family member or someone is terminally ill. That stuff is easy to empathize with. The most outlandish stuff is the astral projection or animal spirit stuff, but even then, that stuff is sort of left to mystery.
In Little Busters, they take something simple and try to add another layer to it to try to make it new. So someone loses a family member, but they also regress into a catatonic state whenever they remember. Or someone is feeling out of place because they’re half-Japanese and struggling with their cultural identity, which is a real thing and you can empathize with that. But then they add this crazy backstory about their homeland under civil unrest and it’s like what.
And it’s not like they succeeded in making these developments new. I’ve watched and played almost all of the Key anime and visual novels and that basically let me SEE THE ENDING, so to speak (not that they weren’t making it extremely obvious). When I didn’t predict how a route would go when I got halfway through it, it was because there was the aforementioned ridiculous thing that was bolted on.
The “real” story, as in the right girl’s path together with the final route, is better in that the twists were actually kind of interesting instead of dumb and it’s where it differentiates itself from Angel Beats. How the story unfolds is a bit more clever than Clannad’s handling of the After Story route.
It’s definitely not as great as Clannad and I don’t think even the main route came together all that well. Even though it was better and actually interesting, a lot of it was still kind of ridiculous. I’ll let light orbs go, but this was kind of pushing it.
This all makes me kind of worried about Rewrite, but that has a trailer where a guy fights a dinosaur, so who knows?
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.
I don’t remember where I heard about Sekien no Inganock, but when I was trying to figure out which visual novel to play next, Inganock jumped out because of how different its premise was. I mean, the last few visual novels I read before it were Cross Channel, Tsukihime, Sharin no Kuni, and Muv-Luv and all of those started off with high school shenanigans and even if they did end up in very different places, all of the principal characters were a guy in high school and other high school students.
Sekien no Inganock is set in a steampunk city inhabited by half-human, half-animal people and is about a travelling doctor. He goes around healing people with, uh, math, I guess? So you can tell that I like this guy a lot already. Besides that, he’s fairly calm and unmoved and his brand of snark is pretty deadpan.
Anyhow, I really love everything about this visual novel. Yeah, the story is kind of obtuse, especially once it gets close to the end. And yeah, that internal monologue system is convoluted and impossible to beat without a walkthrough. But everything else? Fantastic.
The art is stunningly gorgeous, even the character sprites. All of the landscapes are great, but it’s the monster event CGs that are amazing. It’s one of those games that I probably don’t want to see as an anime because an anime will never be able to capture the art (kind of like how the Steins;Gate anime can’t retain huke’s texturing). The music is really fantastic. I really liked the voices, whenever they were present. All of this adds to the great atmosphere and setting. This is something that’s shared amongst all of the games in the What a Beautiful series and this alone is enough to get me to pounce on the rest of them if I ever get the chance.
What separated Inganock from Sharnoth was the characters. I already mentioned our travelling doctor main character Gii. He’s great. But the other character that I thought was awesome was Ati. She’s a catgirl tsundere bro, kind of like Ami from Toradora. Regarding Gii, she waffles between the line of friendship and romance. They help each other out in various business ventures and get drinks at the pub. She’s more of the street smart one, since Gii is kind of a nerd, being a doctor and all. These two really made the game for me and when I got to the end of Ati’s story, well, I mad.
A lot of people complain about the repetitiveness of the story. I guess that aspect of it reminded me of Star Driver because it wasn’t too long after it had finished and we all remember all of the people complaining about how Takuto always wins. Well, it’s the same thing here. We get an encounter and Gii figures the monster out, so he stretches out his right hand. And then after Porshion, who we are assured is not human, burns the monster up, we cut to some dudes with a clock or watch trying to climb some stairs. This is the sort of stuff I enjoy.
I didn’t go in with the expectation that it would answer every question I had and I didn’t really have a desire to understand everything I didn’t get. It was just a really nice thing to experience and I was quite satisfied with having gone through it once I got to the end of it. Well, not quite satisfied in that I’ll be jumping at every bit of news of more WAB games getting translated.