If you love visual novels, there is a good chance that you have at least heard of the Muv-Luv series, but many of you possibly don’t have a precise idea of what it entails.
Even among visual novel fans, most are likely unaware that the franchise expands much beyond what is available in English.
Many consider the series developed by Tokyo-based studio âge among the best ever created within the genre, and there are some very compelling reasons why Muv-Luv Alternative has been for years the highest-rated visual novel on VNDB.
Whether you’re in the dark about the series, or you’re a fan and you’d like to know more about some of the obscure corners of the franchise, there is much to learn and to enjoy about Muv-Luv.
First of all, only four titles of the series have been released in the west, Muv-Luv, Muv-Luv Alternative, Muv-Luv Photonflowers, and Muv-Luv Photonmelodies (This article was updated on 10/24/2020).
Do keep in mind that the descriptions below include mild spoilers about the beginning of each game, as it would be impossible to talk about the series without explaining a few key concepts.
Muv-Luv is your entry point, available on Steam and on PS Vita. It’s in turn split into two separate games sold as a bundle, Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited.
Muv-Luv Extra is peculiar, as it’s set in our familiar and relatively peaceful world.
It’s the story of a lazy and carefree student named Takeru Shirogane living in often uncomfortably close proximity with the most stereotypical childhood friend named Sumika who obviously has feelings for him.
Things change radically when Meiya, the inevitable heiress of an all-powerful multinational corporation, appears in his life with the absurd intention to become his bride.
There are plenty more “waifus” gravitating around Takeru in the most traditional harem sense: we have the smart but naggy bespectacled class representative Chizuru, the cool but indolent beauty Kei, and petite and clumsy catgirl-wannabe Miki.
While not directly romanceable (but this doesn’t mean that you can’t try with some limited success to get closer to them), there are also two beautiful teachers, the motherly Marimo Jinguuji and the beautiful and dangerous mad scientist Yuuko Kouzuki.
Lastly, the cast is completed by Takeru’s best male friend (keep this “male” detail in mind, because it’s relevant) Mikoto.
While some will tell you to skip Extra and you may be tempted to follow that advice, you definitely shouldn’t.
The game starts as corny and cheesy as it could (intentionally so, as there are many elements that basically paradise the most typical harem stories), the relationships Takeru builds during the game are endearing and heartwarming.
There are arguably better romantic visual novels out there, but Muv-Luv Extra sets the stage for what is to come, and for one of the most shocking turnabouts in the history of gaming.
That’s where Muv-Luv Unlimited comes in. At the beginning of the game Takeru wakes up in his room in Yokohama, but something is different.
When he walks outside, he discovers the city in ruins, with a mysterious mecha collapsed on Sumika’s house.
After some wandering, he finds the familiar location of his school. Yet, things are markedly different as the gate is guarded by armed soldiers.
Of course, like the silly, carefree kid he is, Takeru ends up pissing them off and being thrown at gunpoint into the brig in his school, which apparently has been turned into a mecha pilot training base under the umbrella of the United Nations.
Yet, his rambling pique the interest of a scientist basically in charge of the base, who turns out to be… Yuuko Kouzuki. Incidentally, has no idea of who our hero is.
Talking to her, Takeru gradually realizes that he somehow ended up in another world in which mankind has been fighting for decades against an unstoppable army of invading aliens that have taken over most of the world and have pushed our species to the brink of annihilation.
Unable to communicate with these aliens named BETA (Beings of Extra-Terrestrial origin which is Adversary of human race), that appear to have absolutely no mercy or respect for human life, the nations of the world have been fighting a losing struggle with both their populations and their armies being gradually and gruesomely eaten. Literally.
The BETA are powerful, terrifying, grotesque, completely unemphatic with our plight, and very, very hungry. They’re certainly not the kind of alien that you most often see in modern sci-fi.
There is no possibility of dialogue, no option of peace, no chance of understanding, no kumbaya. It’s us or them, and they’re winning.
Incidentally, this ruthless enemy is divided into various species defined “classes” of various shapes and sizes. Each class pretty much serves a specific battlefield role, and the only weak link of this apparently perfect warmachine is that they can’t fly.
Yet, they have this base covered as well with the “Laser” class, able to detect flying enemies from miles away and to shoot them down with lethal accuracy with high-energy beams emitted from their eyes.
This negated humanity’s only advantage in one fell swoop, relegating aviation to a support role, with aircrafts becoming quickly unusable as a frontline weapon.
As a response, mankind started to develop Tactical Surface Fighters, humanoid robots operating on the ground or skimming the surface in order to partly mitigate the dangers of the Laser class BETA and their overwhelming numerical superiority.
Yet, TSF aren’t super-robots. They’re realistic military machines with limited capabilities. While the new weapons gave humanity a partial edge, it only managed to slow the BETA down. Actually reversing the tide appears to be impossible in this doomed world.
Incidentally, let me take a moment to mention that Muv-Luv’s TSF boastsome of the best mecha design in video games and in science-fiction in general. It isn’t surprising that they spawned tons of action figures and plastic model kits in Japan.
The fact that they’re inspired by modern real-life fighter jets adds to their realism and makes them feel grounded and believable as if they could actually exist in the real world if mankind was forced to design its weapons while sticking to the surface instead of soaring the skies.
I’m sure many of you would be surprised to know that some of the best robots ever designed are in a visual novel series, but it’s indeed the truth.
Back to our story, Takeru’s tall tales somehow intrigue this world’s version of Yuuko, and he finds himself drafted as a pilot cadet at the base.
There he meets his stern and inflexible instructor, the combat veteran Marimo Jinguuji, and his new fellow cadets, Meiya, Chizuru, Kei, Miki, and Mikoto, who in this world is female, for some reason.
Apparently, everyone from Takeru’s original world also exists in this one, but they’re obviously different as they have lived in a version of Earth where humanity has been locked in hopeless warfare for decades against an unstoppable and terrifying enemy.
The only exception is Sumika, who is nowhere to be found for unknown reasons.
Muv-Luv Unlimited is the turning point that paves the way to one of the most hard-hitting plot twists in the history of the genre, from the merry, reassuring, and heartwarming world we know, to the most grimdark place that a human mind can conceive, where human life’s only value is as an expendable body to slow down the BETA’s advance by a single second.
Extra draws you in with a sense of false security and the promise of romance and fuzzy feelings, and then Unlimited places you at the edge of a bottomless pit of despair.
Yet, things are going to get worse.