Giant robots, alien invasions, badass girls and time travel. What part of that sentence isn't awesome?
Oh hell yes.
Part 1 is here.
Alternative is the 2006 sequel to Muv-Luv (I'm gonna try and use that title as little as physically possible), a visual novel in two parts by Japanese developer âge. It's currently the highest-rated visual novel on vndb by a sizeable margin, and has been found to contain the largest non-lethal dosage of your recommended yearly intake of mind-blowing awesome. A not entirely inaccurate description would be if Japan took the military/hard(ish) sci-fi bughunting action of Starship Troopers, added large sections of the plot of Donnie Darko, threw in giant robots, political intrigue, more cute/badass girls than you can shake
your a stick at, and one of the better-handled occurrences of post-traumatic stress disorder. Finishing it put me into a state of "amazingness withdrawal" wherein I couldn't bring myself to properly enjoy anything else for a full week.
Let me explain. It's like...it's like... No! It is too much! Let me sum up. Alternative is not to be compared to any particular awesome thing. Awesome things are to be compared to Alternative. It's the benchmark by which all great things are judged.
Who the fuck thought it'd be a good idea to give the Zerg lasers?
I tried to make this a reasonable length, I swear.
SECTION 1: WHEREIN I DESCRIBE THE PLOT
Can't even talk about the good parts; virtually everything is a spoiler.
Without spoiling too much, to say the end of Unlimited was an unhappy one is like saying that the end of Requiem for a Dream is "a bit of a downer," or the end of End of Evangelion was "a bit weird." I don't know how people who followed the game when it was released dealt with it; it was a long 3 years between Extra/Unlimited and Alternative, and another 5 years for the English translation. I'd have scratched my throat out and blamed it on brain parasites if I had to wait that long after that kind of ending.
Three years have passed since the beginning of Unlimited, and with the failure of Project Alternative IV comes Alternative V, a miserably shitty last-ditch effort to save humanity. While it may or may not have worked, Takeru was very much displeased with the outcome, and I was screaming obscenities at the cold, unfeeling computer screen.
War. War never changes.
Alternative opens with a suspiciously familiar scene: Takeru wakes up once again in his bed in the middle of October three years before; only this time he's still in the world of Unlimited. And this time, he remembers everything that happened. After tightening his resolve even more than my pants watching the intro cinematic, he sets out to Set Right What Once Went Wrong: make Alternative IV succeed, defeat the BETA, save the world, and go back to his original world with his head held high. Armed with the knowledge, training and experience of the last 3 years, Takeru works his way back into his old squad, where he both impresses and inspires them to levels far beyond his previous self's efforts.
Soon enough, the squad graduates, and from there on out unforeseen events start pouring in, the stakes are raised high enough to scare Dracula shitless, and the proverbial fan is buried under an avalanche of shit. The events that follow take both Takeru and the player on an adrenaline-rushing, fist-pumping, manly-tear-jerking, hilarity-inducing and just downright fucking epic adventure as he fights against time, the BETA, and himself to complete Alternative IV. Along the way, he'll meet new friends, lose old ones, scream like a girl, cry buckets, man the hell up, kick copious amounts of ugly alien ass, and generally be a big damn hero.
He also challenges the BETA to a friendly game of paintball.
SECTION 2: WHEREIN I DESCRIBE THE GAMEPLAY
I use the term "gameplay" fairly loosely here: it is a single-ending visual novel after all. You'll be given choices at surprisingly few places, they don't really affect much beyond additional scenes/dialogue and in fact the choices virtually disappear towards the second half of the game. One of my few and minor complaints about the game is that since it's a single-ending game, it means you're railroaded into one particular girl. Not that that's a bad thing; it's very well justified and explained, plus she's an excellent choice to boot. I'm just peeved I don't have the option - even if it'd probably cause the end of the world. You do get to pick your "second place girl," though.
As for how it looks? Like a $4 million stripper: gorgeous, classy, and more than willing to show off what it's got. Backgrounds are varied, detailed and fantastic to look at; jaw-dropping quality CGs are a dime a dozen, and the character sprites themselves are like 50 ccs of pure joy injected directly into the eyeballs. One thing especially I'd like to point out is that Alternative actually uses depth, unlike virtually every other visual novel. Characters can be positioned near or far, at varying distances from the screen, and can turn from side to side or even show their backs to the player. Yeah, it might not sound all that impressive on paper, but just to see attention paid to little details like this adds that extra bit of FUCK YEAH. Oh, and one more thing. Widescreen. Glorious widescreen.
Gah! What the hell is that thing on the left?! Oh wait, it's a guy. We don't see too many of them around anymore.
Aw hell, I can't pick just 4 or 5 pictures. Have an image dump. This one's on the house.
Designs are another high point. On the human side, you've got your color-coded cast of impossibly spiky-haired beauties who can easily be identified despite the fact there's at least 12 of them. They didn't slouch with the robots either, the ordinary grunt mechas are cool enough, but the upgraded Takemikazuchi are impressive as all hell. The BETA's appearances are very well handled: though Unlimited takes place entirely in a BETA-overrun Earth, the player doesn't see a single one until a good ways through Alternative. This turns out to be excellent planning on the writers' part; like a good horror movie monster, they work best out of sight where the imagination is allowed to run free. Then shortly after their first appearance, there's a, well, mildly traumatizing scene that will make damn well sure you remember how ugly these sons-of-bitches are.
Now if you'll allow me to
gush talk about the music, I shall introduce you to JAM Project (yes, all caps). JAM Project is what happened when Japan heard about Iron Maiden, but decided they weren't nearly hot-blooded or hammy enough, so they added two more singers and set fire to the audience's faces. These guys do both the opening song, "Asu e no Houkou" (translator's note: this means "awesome"), and two more insert songs, the most notable of which is "Carry on". That last one deserves special mention for being played during a "preparing for suicide mission" montage, all whilst the glorious voice of NORIO WAKAMOTO makes sweet love to your ear canal delivers a dramatic inspirational speech. So...yeah. It's...very, very good; is what I'm getting at here. Oh, and the rest of the background music is stellar as well, with some great adrenaline-pumping pieces like this one and this one and (I'll stop now) this one. Japan's take on The Expendables, deemed too manly to contain actual men.
SECTION 3: WHEREIN I ATTEMPT TO GIVE UNBIASED FEEDBACK...AND FAIL
I've mentioned before that nothing gives me quite the raging stiffie like good character development, and sweet zombie Jesus Alternative made me tip over my laptop several times from the sheer force of my excitement. To put it bluntly, our hero Shirogane Takeru starts off in Extra as a spastic, unlikeable, entitled twat dense enough to acquire his own personal gravitational field. (That's the only explanation I can give for his harem being attracted to him) He matures a fair bit in Unlimited, but this is nothing compared to what he goes through in Alternative. We the player fully experience his transformation from manchild, to stubborn teenager, to a fully-grown man capable of making decisions and dealing with the consequences. His dialogue is a major indicator: Extra has him mouthing off, making stupid noises, and generally not shutting up; Alternative has him stopping to think before speaking so often people think he's just spacing out.
One might compare his development to Emiya Shirou in Fate Stay/Night's three routes: in the first, a young, naive protagonist pursues his ideals uncompromised by reality. The second shows him struggling against the world as he realizes his ideals are merely unattainable dreams; but stands by them nevertheless. The third and final act shows his ideals crushed before the weight of reality, as he forgoes his dreams and desperately tries to save what he holds dear. Takeru follows this almost to the letter from Extra, through Unlimited, and on to Alternative. I wanted to reach through the screen and snap his twiggy little neck all throughout Extra, but when Alternative reached its peak I couldn't do anything but sit there, saluting the screen, manly tears running down my face like an idiot.
The girls are impressive in their own right. Like Takeru, we've seen them mature from flavor-of-the-week harem leads, to compent soldiers, to outright war heroes. Even the new batch (imported from some of the sidequels/spinoff games) holds their own despite much less screentime. It says something when you've been thinking of them more as comrades-in-arms than sex objects/moeblobs for the last 2 games. No one gets left out, either. Every character gets their time in the spotlight. Some do more than others with it.
Ayamine, for instance.
I suppose I should probably nitpick a few things to keep this from being entirely one-sided. For starters, âge has an atrocious grasp of the English language. The opening scene features some English-speaking Americans infiltrating a Hive...and it requires English subtitles in order to understand what the hell they're saying. Several warnings on the cockpit HUD are flat-out gibberish as well. Fortunately the fan-translation picks up the slack and does an excellent job of making an already stellar game even more so. There's also a particular scene about 2/3rds of the way through the game that struck me as wholly unnecessary (and unwanted), but it was thankfully short and had little to no impact. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.
The only other flaw is the entry barrier. As I repeated endlessly in my review of Extra/Unlimited, in order to get this kind of life-changing, transcendental experience from Alternative, you have to play the first 2. You can't really skip through them, either. That's like fast-forwarding through Fellowship and the Two Towers and then expecting Return of the King to be as good as it should be. Just...don't. Unfortunately, that means a fair chunk of people lacking patience (or taste) are turned off by Extra's fluffy harem antics or the sheer length of the two combined, and never even get to feel the joy of Alternative. Poor bastards.
C'mon you apes! You wanna live forever?
The writing itself might be a point of contention. Alternative has a tendency to fully explore Takeru's train of thought, making sure the player knows almost exactly what he's thinking and how he arrives to his various conclusions. I thought this was a fantastic respite from the usual poorly handled 180-degree mood swings of lesser characters, and was absolutely engrossed by his mental breakdown and subsequent recovery. Seeing that through the mind of the sufferer, instead of 30 minutes of watching a sad guy mope around looking sad, was an infinitely superior experience. Then again, some people might find it boring or that it drags on too long. To those people I say:
"Your opinion is different than mine, but I respect that" Boo, you whores.
So you've probably already figured out my general opinion about this game: if Alternative was a person, I would hand it this review after school, blush furiously, and ask it to accept my feelings. I make no apologies for this kind of blatant tongue-glued-firmly-to-ass flattery: this is not a triple-A big-budget EA game or even a cult classic by most standards. It's a criminally unknown game in a niche genre of a niche medium, buried under an avalanche of other weird shit that gets churned out yearly by Japan. It deserves every bit of the sloppy oral sex I've been writing, and more. It's the kind of experience where you finish, bask in the afterglow, eat some pie and think about it, then race to the internet to babble excitedly about everything you loved...and then it turns out there's no one to talk to. Which is essentially the point of this review: to convert people.
And there you have it. Muv-Luv Alternative: a lesser known Japanese visual novel, and a goddamn great game that deserves so much more love than it's given. You owe it to yourself to try it out; I myself can now die safe with the knowledge I lived a fulfilling life.
That has been your host Deskimus Prime's inner raging fanboy with yet another visual novel review. Noticing a pattern here? Stay tuned for next time, when hopefully my rationality comes back from its extended lunch break.