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 three titles of the series have been released in the west, Muv-Luv, Muv-Luv Alternative, and Muv-Luv Photonflowers.
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 in 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 childood 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 parodize 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 has taken over most of the world and has 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 in 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 letal 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 meet 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 be 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.
Alternative is the second release of the series, but it’s effectively the third game. Like the original, it’s available on Steam and on PS Vita.
During the heroic and hopeless struggle against the beta, Takeru dies in battle and… wakes up in his room once again.
The situation appears to be the same from the beginning of Unlimited, but there is a radical difference: Takeru remembers everything that happened, and has retained all the skills that he has learned during his training and the following battles.
As he approaches the gates of his school turned military base, not only he knows what is going to happen, but he is not the snotty city boy he used to be. He is an accomplished fighter and pilot forged in the flames of an hopeless battle.
If you have seen Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, the basic concept is similar, but Muv-Luv was released 11 years before the film and one year before the Japanese light novel that inspired Edge of Tomorrow, All You Need Is Kill.
Strong in his knowledge and skills, Takeru sets out to change the future, in a race against the clock to avoid the destruction of humanity and his own.
The trilogy is basically a miracle of continuity, with things apparently strange in the first game all turning out to make perfect sense when you finally reach the third.
Muv-Luv Extra makes you care for the characters of the series. Muv-Luv unlimited throws the disguise of the romantic comedy into the fire and amplifies those feelings as those characters are placed in danger in a hostile world that is out to destroy them.
In Muv-Luv Alternative the feelings that gradually built up in the previous two titles reach their climax and explode with hearthbreaking potency.
In over thirty years of gaming, Muv-Luv Alternative is the first and only game that broke my heart, and it did so multiple times.
I am certainly not the only one feeling this way, and it’s a common sentiment among those who played the trilogy.
It’s difficult to describe just how hard this game can hit you, and you’ll likely realize it only by going through the whole trilogy yourself.
It’s basically a perfect storm, and the way I usually describe it is that Extra gently pushes you to the ropes of the ring with a deceiving smile, Unlimited pins you against them, and Alternative punches you in the heart with absolutely ruthless and relentless savagery.
Yet, despite all the pain, it still feels good. As a matter of fact, just as no other game has broken my heart like Muv-Luv Alternative did, no other game has ever felt as uplifting.
I cannot describe the reason why without going into massive spoilers, so you’ll have to take my word for it and try it for yourself.
The one thing I can say is that the trilogy does an amazing job in creating a deep connection and empathy between the player and Takeru Shirogane, alongside the rest of the cast. Takeru’s growth, joy, love, and despair feel truly “yours.”
Photonflowers is what in Japan is called a fandisc. Originally released on the local market on PS3, it gathers a series of short stories that were previously released on PC as part of different fandisks.
This one is available in English only on Steam.
The short stories included in Photonflowers are also split between some set in our world as described in Extra, and some set in the universe of Alternative.
It provides a deeper look into the personality and past of the heroines of the game, and does an excellent job with that.
You can find a more in-depth description in my review, but Photonflowers features the same contrast that the original trilogy does.
The stories set in the Extra universe are bright, heartwarming, and often comedic, while a couple of those set in the Alternative universe will reawaken all the feelings generated by playing the trilogy, likely making you cry again, and a lot.
We also get the first glimpse (at least among the English releases) into the rest of the Alternative Earth, with one of the stories set in Europe.
This is where you will start to realize that there is much more to the Alternative universe than what is described in the original trilogy. Japan is just one country among many still struggling to contain the BETA.
And now, we move on to some of the games released only in Japan so far. It’s not a 100% full list, but it touches the main entries you should know about.
Photonbelodies is another fandisc originally released in Japan on PS3, and is arguably the best.
While it hasn’t been released in the west just yet, it’s coming to Steam in English down the line.
Perhaps its two most relevant stories are Muv-Luv Alternative Chronicles Aspiration and Kagayaku Toki ga Kienumani.
Aspiration is another look at the wider world of Alternative, providing an extensive story focused on an elite German TSF regiment.
On the other end, Kagayaku Toki ga Kienumani is considered by many (with good reason) the sequel of Alternative, providing much needed solace after so many years.
Muv-Luv Unlimited The Day After
As the title suggests, this is a series of visual novels which serves as a sequel of Unlimited, set before Alternative.
It provides a delightfully grim look at the declining spiral of our Earth doomed to fall to the BETA.
Despite the lack of hope, its characters still struggle to live, fight on, and love. It’s difficult to play without feeling pain in your chest, but it can also be sweet and strangely reassuring.
While Takeru appears in a relevant role, he’s not the protagonist, and the story is told from a completely different point of view. Yet, it also offers a look at some of the characters we know and love in an unfamiliar situation.
It expands the cast considerably, and it represents another valuable branch of that complex tree that is the Muv-Luv multiverse.
Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse
Once more the title is a good indication of what to expect: Total Eclipse is set in a similar timeframe in the world of Alternative.
This time around we’re in Alaska, as a multinational TSF development and testing project is trying to improve new prototypes to fight against the BETA.
Total Eclipse represents another large expansion of the Muv-Luv world.
With its international and diverse cast, it provides the player with a valuable perspective on the situation of many more countries than the previous games did.
It’s a story of love, growth, and sacrifice, and it strikes some of the same chords that alternative does.
It was also adapted into an anime, even if it doesn’t compare to the game in terms of quality of the storytelling and scope.
That being said, if you liked the anime (or even if you didn’t), you should know that the visual novel is a lot better.
Despite the lack of “Muv-Luv” in the title, this is very much part of the series. To be precise, it’s a prequel of Alternative, and it’s also the latest release in Japan.
Schwarsesmarken is set in East Germany in 1983, as the army of the communist country struggles to slow down the unstoppable advance of the BETA in central Europe.
As you may imagine, the setting is very unique, as there really aren’t many games set in East Germany, with East German protagonists.
Split in two separate games (Kouketsu no Monshou and Junkyousha-tachi), it’s also extremely good, and it’s arguably the “most-wanted” localization among many fans of the franchise.
Once more, it massively expands the perspective on the setting, and it shows just how much potential for further expansion there is within the franchise’s Alternative universe.
Being among the latest releases, Shwarzesrmarken also bioasts arguably the best art, with absolutely fantastic character design by Carnelian. Its production values are through the roof for a visual novel.
While some of the Muv-Luv visual novels are also very linear, Schwarzesmarken features some really radical branches, and Junkyousha-tachi is the first title featuring save-game transfer to let your choices from Kouketsu no Monshou carry over.
It’s beautifully tragic and dramatic story arguably stands on par with Alternative, which means a lot.
Like Total Eclipse, it was adapted into an anime series, and while the quality of this one is higher, the visual novels are still much, much better.
Faraway Dawn and Faraway Dawn 2
Released as part of two fandisks (Altered Fable and Haruko Maniax), these two games are often overlooked.
Yet, I consider them relevant because they are turn-based strategy games set in the Alternative universe, in which you get to control TSF squads locked in battle against the BETA.
Many fans see this kind of gameplay as a perfect complement to the visual novel narration, and would like to see the two styles merged at some point.
Kimi ga Nozomu Eien
While not formally part of the Muv-Luv series, this is basically the prequel of Extra, set in our version of Earth.
It’s a really deep and emotionally involving romantic visual novel that rivals with Alternative in terms of dramatic impact.
It also gets really, really crazy with some of its storytelling and plot twists.
It’s important for Muv-Luv fans because its main heroines reappear in relevant roles in Muv-Luv Alternative.
The same can be said for the romantic visual novel published by Age two years before, Kimi ga Ita Kisetsu.
Kimi ga Nozomu Eien was adapted into an anime series localized in English by Funimation with the title “Rumbling Hearts.”
There is even more to the series between fandiscs, spinoffs, and related titles, but it would take ages to describe them all.
That being said, I think by now you may have realized that the Muv-Luv multiverse is an absolutely fascinating set of stories that fully deserves its fame among the fans of the genre.
Its deep lore can easily stand on par with more famous multimedia franchises like Star Wars or Tom Clancy’s modern military fiction.
It covers basically all relevant genres, from romantic comedy to science fiction and political/military drama, and transitions between them with impressive fluidity and ease.
While the series did not receive new games since the release of Schwarzesmarken: Junkyousha-tachi in 2016, tomorrow âge is hosting an event in Tokyo to celebrate the studio’s 20th anniversary that could bring Muv-Luv back under the spotlight.
We don’t yet know what will be announced, if anything, but hopefully the developer has good news in store for the fans.
When I interviewed the series creator Kouki Yoshimune last year, he was quite cryptic about the studio’s plans for the future, but it definitely felt like something relevant was in the works.
Yet, if you care about good stories that will make you both laugh and cry, and want to explore an extremely fascinating science-fiction universe, I can wholeheartedly recommend giving the Muv-Luv series a try.
It may break your heart as it did mine, possibly many times over, but it’s definitely worth it.
If you’re interested in the series and want to learn even more, you can check out my article on the real-life tree that served as an inspiration for many of Muv-Luv’s iconic scenes. There’s also a nice Discord channel where you can discuss with fellow fans.