We don't know what's happened this past couple of months, but it feels like every visual novel in the entire universe has been released at once. We've romanced our way through Victorian London with Code Realize, swooned over samurai in Hakuoki, solved a mysterious murder in 7'sCarlet, and got lost in a strange mansion in Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly. But perhaps one of the more memorable story-driven games we've played recently has been Muv-Luv, a trilogy of tales that bring together light-hearted high school romance, war-torn post-apocalyptic wastelands and giant mech-like robots. With the three games spread over two separate Vita instalments, and with the first two, Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited already under our belt, it's time for us to don our fortified suits once more and jump in to Muv-Luv Alternative, the third and final part of the saga.
Muv-Luv Alternative opens with the strangest sense of deja vu for teen protagonist Takeru. Waking up in his room, something feels more than a little off when his childhood friend and makeshift alarm clock Sumika doesn't make her usual morning call. And neither is there a mysterious purple-haired lady sharing his bed either (unlike the first game - and if you haven't played it yet, it's probably worth reading that review first). Heading outside, he finds himself in what appears to be the dilapidated wasteland of his former neighbourhood, with the remnants of a huge mech-like robot crashed out in next door's garden. To top it all off, what was once his school is now a high-security military base, tasked with defending the remainder of humanity from an alien scourge known as the BETA - and Takeru is their latest recruit.
Yet none of this surprises Takeru in the slightest - in fact, it's all eerily familiar. A little over two years ago (during the events of Muv-Luv Unlimited), he found himself in the exact same situation, waking in a war-torn world and training to take on the BETA as a mech-driving 'surface pilot' with the rest of his squad. Except things didn't quite go to plan, and the dreaded BETA won the war, forcing humanity to flee from Earth. Now, through some strange events that aren't immediately clear, he's travelled back in time to try and take on the BETA once more - only this time, Takeru has a brand new game plan, and two years of military training under his belt.
As it's the last part of the trilogy, we really cannot stress how important it is to play through the previous games, Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited, first, as Muv-Luv Alternative really does follow on from them. Not only is Takeru basically reliving all the key events that took place in Muv-Luv Unlimited, and trying to change them for the better to get an edge over the BETA, but there's also a heck of a lot of references and memories from the first Muv-Luv game thrown in too. Because technically this game marks the third time Takeru has woken in his bedroom to a world turned upside down, his memories of Muv-Luv Extra, where the mysterious Meiya gatecrashed his normal, happy-go-lucky high school student life, are just as important to the story as those of his military training from the second game.
All the familiar faces from the previous games are back for Alternative too, becoming your fellow squad mates in the military academy. There's serious squad leader 'Class Rep' Chizuru, purple-haired pseudo-aristocrat Meiya, cutesy elite sniper Tama, and silent enigma Ayamine - as well as survival skills extraordinaire, Mikoto (who was a guy in the original Muv-Luv Extra's universe, but is now very much a woman). Each has their own over-the-top personality, and there's rarely a dull moment in the daily life of Squad 207, whether it's Class Rep and Ayamine's constant quarrelling, acting as an awkward first aid dummy for Mikoto, or discovering quite how far Ayamine will go for some yakisoba. However, it's not all fun and games, and Muv-Luv Alternative really does have a much darker and depressing tone than its predecessors, especially in the latter half of the game.
Much like the previous entries in the series, Muv-Luv Alternative is a visual novel, so sitting back and enjoying the story is pretty much the entire point. As you read your way through the reams of text, you'll sometimes get the option to choose a dialogue response, or a particular action, with your choice often aligning you with a particular character. There's also the mysterious bunny girl Kasumi, who plays a much more significant role this time around, as a key part of a world-saving plan and possible link to Takeru's old life. Different characters may have different scenes to watch, different side stories to discover, and, if you can play your cards right and get close enough to the gal in question, different endings to play through too. Compared to some visual novels, the endings aren't as hugely different for each character, as the main story still follows the same kind of arc, but it's still nice to see how things change along the way.
For the observant among you, you may have noticed that, while Muv-Luv is two games in one, Muv-Luv Alternative is just one game on its lonesome, and they're both the same price on the Playstation Store. While we initially wondered if this was some cheap tactic to make more money form the last part of a trilogy - because you'll want to know how it all ends by then - we can assure you it doesn't seem to be. Muv-Luv Alternative really is that much longer than the first two games, it's more like two games in one.
However, Muv-Luv Alternative also suffers from the exact same issues as the original Muv-Luv collection - while typos are relatively few and far between, there is still the strange case of the accented é. Any words, like cliché, touché or fiancé come out as clich, touch or fianc, for some reason, and you'll often find yourself doing a quick double take while reading. As with the first instalments, we also found the Auto-Skip Mode to be a bit touch and go, which, while technically set to only fast-forward over sections we've already read and pause for anything new, still insists on skipping over absolutely everything. Annoyingly, you generally only realise it's gone too far when it's already too late, and have to go back and catch up on what you've missed via the log.
However, if you're after a truly epic visual novel story, Muv-Luv Alternative is probably up there with the best - but you really do need to work your way through the first two parts of the saga first. There's some properly edge-of-your-seat stuff here, as the game takes you through quite a roller coaster ride of emotions, especially in the last few chapters, and it's nice to see some of the other characters, such as mysterious bunny girl Kasumi, playing a much bigger part this time round, answering many of the questions that cropped up in Muv-Luv Unlimited. All in all, a stellar story and well worth a punt, as long as you swot up on Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited first.