I'm not going to shock anyone by saying Extra
is one of the weaker entries in the Muv-Luv series am I? It's not the worst, that honor is reserved for a very specific side story I am going to absolutely rip apart between Alternative
and Altered Fable
. But it certainly is the weakest of the four main entries of the original series with only Altered Fable even arguably being close. I don't think it's bad, and I even hesitate to call it average because their are some really good moments here that betray the brilliance the future novels will one day reach, but as many times as it fluctuates up it has just as many turns the opposite direction. I don't think like some that this is because Extra is primarily a comedy, which are universally known to translate poorly, but that is likely a factor. Extra IS however responsible for establishing a precedent that the entire series will follow of "best hair" choice structure which is just the worst way to include a choice mechanic and I almost wish they hadn't bothered. When half the choices the reader is presented have little to no effect on the flow of the story, some resulting in less then 5 lines of dialogue difference, you might as well cut them out.
For all the negative things I'm going to say about this novel however I can't deny it was brilliantly marketed and designed. In the interest of preserving the mystery for any readers who are unaware of the coming twist I won't spoil it here but I'll fully admit I was caught off guard when I first saw it. If nothing else Muv-Luv deserves praise for its audacity and risk taking. But I've got a lot of material to cover here and over 120 hours of content to read so forgive me if I dive straight in. A fair word of warning though, despite rumors I've heard that the "directors cut" patches no longer work I've managed to keep my copy running fine. Which means some dialogue in my version may not match 100% with a clean copy purchased today. I can only think of one instance where this will really come up but it's better to cover my ass now rather then later. LITERALLY NOTHING BUT PROBLEMS BEFORE I EVEN GET TO THE TITLE SCREEN
So starting the application for the first time meets the reader with a disclaimer that instantly confused me because it both had no mention that the characters were all 18+ or 21+ or whatever localization number and yet at the very bottom of the paragraph stated point blank "This game may contain content inappropriate for some users."
First of all Visual Novels as a genre are not games. They don't have rules and you can't win them by skill or chance. some individual novels have mini games in them, but that does not make the novel a game. Fight me on this at your own risk.
Second, This game has a Lolita... are we really sure we don't want to claim her as "adult" now? No? No we're... just gonna leave that up in the air then? Can't wait for THAT to backfire later.
Three, I have incredibly mixed emotions about labeling a novel as "mature" because "maturity" is different for everyone. I have thirty year old friends I would never call mature and a little brother who's more mature then I will ever WANT to be, it's just a meaningless measurement. Plus calling attention to "Mature themes" without actually saying what those themes are frustrates me because that could be anything from drug use to sex to politics. If I theoretically had a problem with gore, but was totally fine with literally every other "mature" element in stories even up to my one red line how am I supposed to gauge from this sentence if this game is for me? I can't, so do I just put it down and never read it because it MIGHT have one thing I don't like? Of course not! I read it anyway because I already paid for the dang thing and I'm going to get my money's worth. So even if the warning WAS for my one problem category it failed at it's purpose. Now the part that mixes my feelings is I don't really have a good answer for what we should do differently or replace these disclaimers with to make them work better without bogging down every VNs opening with spoiler heavy trigger warnings but their HAS to be something better then this.
But if you think I'm being excessive about what is literally a single frame of information most people aren't even going to read allow me to spend over double the space ranting about the opening cinematic.
montages, doubly so if they occur before the novel even starts. They're lazy, a waist of time and resources, and actively detrimental to a reader's experience. I've read well over 100 visual novels at this point and I can't name you a single opening montage I don't think could have been cut from the novel entirely without harming the novel in the slightest and four times out of five the novel would benefit from its exclusion. I genuinely have no idea who thinks they need to be put in every modern VN, but instead of only putting them down let me explain my reasoning.
Pretend you're a visual novel developer on the cusp of finishing your novel. The CGs, voice acting, writing, programming, all of that is done and polished and the only thing you have left to do is the finishing touches. The thought occurs to you that you haven't planned out the screens that happen before the title appears, you know the logos and such held over from 90's gaming that everyone clicks through nowadays, so you're considering an opening cinematic. In broad strokes you have two choices. Option one, make something entirely new costing time, money, and effort that people will inevitably watch the first time they start the game and skip every time after that. Option two, reuse sprites, CGs, and backgrounds from the game that you already have and just slap a filter over them with MAYBE a special opening song that runs for a minute.
Both of these options should sound TERRIBLE to you.
If you pick option one you just committed to potentially hundreds of if not a thousand dollars of animation, sound design, music, etc. that could have gone into literally any other part of your novel being invested into a sequence that by its very nature is disposable. If you want an animated sequence so badly why don't you use that same time and money to animate one of your already existing CGs? Or barring that why not just commission four or five extra CGs for the common route? Essentially you get the same result but I can promise you your readers will be far more impressed by earning an animated sequence during the novel then they will by you giving one before the novel even gets going. Their is no justification for wasting your development time on something that superfluous.
Now the industry agrees with that point and often picks option two, which is in my opinion EVEN WORSE because not only do you STILL have all the problems from option one you are now actively harming the reading experience by showcasing your CGs early and removing the surprise of earning them organically.
Now I'm not some kind of elitist that thinks you have to 100% complete every visual novel you buy nor am I going to look down on people who read one route and then skip through the rest of the romance options just to get the full gallery. Feel free to experience VNs however you like. But I WILL look down on choices that actively prevent readers from experiencing a novel the way they prefer and this is one of those. Their is absolutely no point in using a novels CGs in an opening montage, period. It cheapens the experience of eventually earning those CGs and makes them less engaging.
"But Raven" I can already hear someone saying "You can just skip it by clicking if you don't want to watch it." To which I respond with the statement that if I can skip it with no consequence why does it exist in the first place? Like it or not the designer of the game intended for me to watch that video before anything else, and I'd like to assume they had a reason for that. Plus the fact I have to skip it every single time I start the application is maddening.
"But Raven, that's just a common visual novel thing, you can't judge a novel for having something hundreds of other novels do." Yes, I can, and I couldn't care less if it's a common trope it's a BAD one that needs to be disposed of.
"But Raven, It's an homage to anime openings, it references so and so." Well firstly I don't care and even if I did so what? I don't expect my anime to follow VN tropes why should VNs copy anime tropes? And for the record I don't like montage openings to anime either.
"But RAVEN, this is just a stupid nitpick." Okay you have a point with that one, this isn't really important when looking at the big picture, but that's not an excuse. If you have time and money to spend on an opening video you have time and money that could be spent on literally anything else related to your novel and you're wasting it.
"BUT RAVEN! How else can I show people I'm making a good visual novel without animation?" Well this might be an out of the box concept but how about you show people you've made a good novel by MAKING A GOOD NOVEL! Katawa Shoujo
, none of those novels had intro movies before the title screen and I didn't see anyone complaining about them. If you REALLY have to show off your animation you can always go the Love Esquire
route and just animate your title card readers spend way more time there anyway.
But fine, even if you still don't agree with me and somehow think intro montages are the best part of the whole novel Muv-Luv's opening specifically is BAAAAAAAD. Like even by my low standards it shockingly disappoints. The video
opens on an ugly yellow brown filter that washes out the background images completely while playing harsh piano music that is mixed far too loud. That's followed by the novel's catchphrase "Save in the name of true love" over a spinning heart which is alright I guess but quickly gets replaced by the worst character intros possible. The bubblegum pink background is changed into a gaudy character showcase that looks more at home in a sitcom about the 80's then a Japanese novel. After showing some of their CGs *sigh* each character gets their name beside their sprite but an astute observer will notice immediately that Sumika
are getting some serious favoritism. They get double the CGs, Sumika gets an Onsen towel shot, their sprites are featured one after the other in a clear showing of opposition, and the whole thing caps off with the two of them, center frame, before ending with Sumika materializing from fairy dust beside a male sprite which is most likely P-kun.
"But Raven, they're setting up a rivalry between those two characters. You see it's all clever foreshadowing because after you read the novel you see that-" I'm going to stop you there. That is a terrible excuse. Why in the name of all that is unholy would I want my first impression of these characters to be the blatantly obvious fact that they were favored by the development team? Not only do NONE of the future novels lean into that assertion all this intro has done is give me the impression that the three other showcased girls are less important then the chosen two. Before I even pressed the new game button the novel has forcefully colored my opinion toward the entire roster. Instead of organically building the relationship between the readers POV character and the supporting cast I am now primed to see these two specific characters as the center of the story. How in any reality is that a good thing? Keep in mind we don't know anything about these people yet, I couldn't name you one character trait any of them have outside of surprisingly the side girls where the pink haired one blushed a lot and the one with glasses is sporty. If this is supposed to be foreshadowing it should have been in the novel already. If it's something I wouldn't understand until after the novel is over it shouldn't be here at all because obviously I HAVEN'T finished the novel, this is the first thing I've seen of it.
But I can almost get over all of those issues if it wasn't for the fact that the screen immediately after this intro literally serves its purpose better in a single frame.
The title card group shots aren't perfect, but are pretty damn close. Sumika and Meiya are still center screen but unlike the intro video it isn't nearly as obnoxious and more importantly everyone in the shot has an actual personality. Meiya has a sword, which can easily be taken as her being characterized as traditional or Samurai like. Sumika is holding a heart for devotion and maybe even a sign she already has feelings for P-kun. Glasses has a lacrosse stick, the pink haired girl has cat ears and an obnoxious bell, the black haired girl has a sandwich.... okay then. And our future comedic relief best friend character given his different uniform is literally already neck deep in shenanigans. Point blank perfect introductions to everyone's personality, enough detail to guess what they're like, not enough to be 100% sure. No idea why they felt the need to have two title screens and force the reader to click before being shown the new game option but whatever.
Normally I'd dive into the settings menu and analyze that before starting the actual novel but the only real thing it's missing is a sample text indicator and I've stalled long enough already. You press new game, get prompted to select English or Japanese, and then we FINALLY start. LIKE A BAD CARTOON
The novel opens on a series of diary entries from the perspective of one of the heroines and I can already tell she's supposed to be the "cannon" choice so I'm predisposed to dislike her. You can't tell me how to feel novel! I'll cry when I CHOOSE to.
The first "entry" tells the story of a red haired chibi breaking a fossil, her male friend P-kun telling on her, dick move, and then being punished for trying to replace it with a snail. Not the best first impression of our protagonist but these kids are like what, ten? I'll give him a pass, little kids just do that stuff sometimes.
I like how these little segments are partially animated like kids drawings. It's cutsie and charming.
Next one is short, P-kun wants to go to some fancy school and chibi girl doesn't think she has the grades for it. Months of studying later and apparently she made it in, P-kun pranked her saying she didn't, she was mad.
Now its the summer, she wants him to compliment her swimsuit...
AND THEN THE SCREEN IS FULL OF MOTION AS TWO GIANT MECHAS FIGHT WITH BEAM SWORDS AND THE MUSIC IS AN EPIC LIGHT ROCK BALLED!!!
God that's some whiplash.
Apparently our shields are at 10% which according to Star Trek is bad so naturally I'm concerned. But three sentences later P-kun does 40 points of damage in one attack, so I guess we still got this.
Except we get punched in the face and lose so that sucks.
Like any experienced gamer P-kun starts ranting about strategy guides and lag because obviously he had the SKILLS to win the match something OUTSIDE his control must have lost it for him.
and suddenly boobs... yeah apparently P-kun plays enough vidja games to dream about them and when presumably the same red haired chick as the diarist came to wake him up he grabbed her tits because that's something sleeping people do I guess. But he just keeps going with it, theirs like a good 15 squeeze sound effects at least, and red haired girl who is apparently named Sumika is PISSED so she hits him.
The scene changes to the best music track in the game (That's not a compliment) and the reader gets their first look at the sprites which went the extra mile to have actual moving mouths and blinking eyes. I pity poor innocent me not knowing that I would associate blinking eyes in VNs with Vietnam flashbacks because of this series.
P-kun's accused of squeezing her boobs, which he totally did, but denies it because he's terrible AND THEN HE HITS HER! BRO, not cool. She's like, actually tearing up, SO not cool. AND WHEN SHE CALLS HIM OUT FOR IT HE HITS HER AGAIN! Like I'm not the only one that thinks he's totally in the wrong here right? But I mean even if he wasn't you do NOT just wail on girls man.
Righteous payback is served in the form of a chibi scene of P-kun being blasted like team rocket and it is immensely satisfyingly.
Scene transition to a train, apparently the pair has to go shopping for P-kun's parent's vacation. He hits her again on the train, abandons her on it, makes her carry the bags by herself after shopping, talks over her, and hits her AGAIN when she confuses two types of mushrooms even when she was trying to invite him over to her place so he wouldn't starve. So she hits him so hard he falls unconscious.
I'm sorry am I supposed to like these people they both seem horrible.
*sigh* What else happens? OH! A chibi scene of red hair standing alone with all the shopping bags by herself. Yeah, it's blatant emotional manipulation but she didn't try to grab his boobs and pretend it was a natural reaction so I'm going to cut her some slack and feel sorry for her. P-kun negs her into buying lunch which is just a whole extra level of scummy given his behavior.
The two of them sit down for a burger and P-kun yells at a dog. Theirs a CG... It's okay I guess. After feeding P-kun's fries to the dog Sumika offers to split hers with him and he thinks about how this is emotional manipulation OKAY THATS IT! TAKERU IS THE WORST PROTAGONIST I HAVE EVER HAD THE DISPLEASURE OF INHABITING.
In case his actions didn't speak for themselves Takeru is a selfish, narcissistic, jerk who in ANY other visual novel would be an obnoxious side character who doesn't understand why he can't get a girlfriend. He treats everyone around him like they exist to hold him back, doesn't care about anyone's feelings but his own, leads on multiple women, and is just plain ABUSIVE to Sumika. I can't even PRETNED to like him he's just AWFUL. You have no idea how badly I want to fill the rest of this part of my review with just PAGES of reasons he's not worthy of his good fortune but I'm already over my quota for side tangents and I REALLY want to finish the prologue for this weeks post so I'm just going to have to take solace in demoting him from uppercase P-kun to lower case p-kun and passive aggressive my way to the end of extra but so help me GOD I can't wait to find a good spot to rant about this down the line I am NOT done with this conversation.
Anyway, p-kun has a trip down memory lane about a park by his house where he buried frogs alive...
Oh that rant is a comin, it's a comin, but not today.
Apparently he promised Sumika he'd marry her when they were kids playing at that park but she doesn't remember it because he never follows through on his promises because of course he doesn't. They eventually go home to his room which is just a mess like MY room IRL is cleaner then that and I don't even get visitors waking me up in the morning. p-kun opens the window and gets a book to the face before we get the first choice of the game which makes me exceedingly nervous because its so blatantly obvious the first option is the one for Sumika's romance route. Look, I don't hate you or nothin, but I'm going to do you a favor and NOT hook you up with a scumbag. You clearly like him, somehow, but you can do better. So I pick the choice that makes p-kun whine about a dog taking his fries. Sumika says she's going to wake p-kun up tomorrow, whatever, he references the Dreamcast which I was slightly too young for but makes me painfully aware that this novel takes place in 2001, Ocrober 2001 no less, and right about now is the beginning of the end for the America I wish we never lost so that's depressing. Guess I should consider myself lucky this is set in Japan because we would be getting some pretty heavy war themes if it was in America and who wants to play a VN about cute girls in a nation obsessed with terrorists and conflict?
The next day, October 22nd, is probably the most important single day in the Muv-Luv series which is a statement I'm sure will make no sense now if you haven't read the novels but memorize it because I am going to reference it A LOT as time goes on.
Sumika wakes p-kun by yanking on the locked front door and loudly screaming, which is just obnoxious but p-kun deserves it so I'll let it slide. After throwing off his sheets in frustration he turns to see Samurai girl, hair already done up in a physics defying pony tail for some reason, lying in bed beside him and promptly has an internal freak out. Fair. Sumika breaks into the house by cutting the chain lock with bolt cutters and discovers the pair still in the bed. Which admittedly looks pretty bad but this time hitting him into a low earth orbit was a bit much. I mean he's not your boyfriend, at least not if I have anything to say about it. And then... theirs another intro video. GETTING IT RIGHT THIS TIME
Extra's specific intro video
is probably one of the best parts of the entire novel and I like it more then half the romance routes. If that makes me a hypocrite so be it this is the exception to the rule
I can't tell you why yet, because the subtle details here only make sense in context and I would have to spoil way too much of the upcoming novels but even limiting myself to what's relatively spoiler free this video is still a master stroke. Opening with a much more palatable and upbeat music track the camera zooms out from Sumika's eye to show her and the girl from p-kun's bed standing on a heart followed by a quick CG for each of the heroines. Unlike the opening before the credits which takes CGs from the full length of the novel this quick scene makes the tactful choice to only use common route CGs which while still not ideal is at least an improvement over using some of the last CGs from the romance routes like the previous video. The logo is spelled in frame before the female vocals kick in with a much more tonally appropriate sound creating a sad but upbeat feeling. We see Sumika standing on a hill overlooking the city as time advances before she suddenly disappears with a spike in the music and a brown tented filter colors the screen like an old home video or a nostalgic memory.
Time keeps moving forward but now it's months instead of hours. Snow fall in front of the same window the reader just saw moments ago was part of Sumika's bedroom and when she sadly looks outside and opens it that same nostalgic filter appears over her face. The girl from p-kun's bed flashes into view before the same effect covers her and with that brown tint on the screen the reader watches scenes with the rest of the cast flash by. Theirs a juxtaposition between the heroines and supporting cast as the music starts to swell behind a quick view of several sprites before finally reaching its peek over pictures of Sumika in heart shaped frames like thoughts in the mind of the blue haired girl who closes her eyes rather then look at them. The juxtaposition of Sumika and the girl clearly set up to be her rival is shown as they stand a few meters apart but facing away from each other. Sumika smiling and the other frowning.
They don't exactly stick the landing with the final moments being Sumika and p-kun sharing a kiss on the hill from the opening of the video but this video is such an improvement I'm going to forgive that. The difference between the first and second movie is night and day and that prologue, though short, is what made all the difference. Knowing that Sumika is p-kun's childhood friend brings the tone of the movie to the forefront as the heavy theming of nostalgic imagery and the passage of time highlight the clear foreshadowing that Sumika is in love with the protagonist. Her heart shaped CGs, the heart shaped Sakura petals behind her, and of course the kiss at the end paint a picture of a girl, in love with a boy, but fearful of being or doomed to be only a memory in his mind. The juxtaposition of her rival implies she's in a similar boat, also in love with the protagonist but because the reader knows so little about her the movie chooses to lean into that mystery and show very little about her. While not perfect the video also highlights the possibility of p-kun's relationship with someone else in the cast, not seriously just hinting at it, glimpses of possible scenarios like we're looking at alternate timelines or false memories. Clearly these two are the leads, they are the real competitors in this race but realistically it's possible neither of them will win and that scenario is expressed as a negative outcome.
What can I say, this is just a better way to convey the themes of the novel. It's not perfect, I could have done without that shot of the Lolita grabbing p-kun's sleeve at the end there but it's honestly great as it is. Eventually when I get through Alternative I'm going to have to come back to this video and heap even more praise on it because their is a whole nother layer of secret brilliance here but for now this marks the end of the prologue and also the end of part 1 of this review. STEP BY STEP
I'm sure their will be a contingent of readers who make it to the end of this part of the review, or not even that far, and condemn me for only reaching about twenty minutes give or take into the novel before posting. But to answer a question I'm sure I'll be asked at some point I think this level of detail is necessary because while nothing seriously interesting is going to happen in the next several hours of the novel something to keep in mind is that everything in Muv-Luv builds on everything else. If I jumped straight in to something later in the series, even a simple side story like "Atonement," I would be at a loss trying to cover all the subtle references to previous work in Age's catalogue. Technically this isn't even the first novel in the series as Kimi go Nozomu Eien
and Akane Maniax
both came out beforehand and feature the same characters, setting, and most importantly several plot details that will feature in later instalments but I have to pick somewhere to begin and only so many people have read the Japanese only novels. Maybe I went a little overboard analyzing the opening to Extra but if I want to guarantee I only have to come back here the minimum amount possible I'll have to deal with it. Part 2 will introduce most of the rest of the cast with p-kun being a unique brand of terrible to each of them, and I'll get a chance to talk about the strangest character in the Muv-Luv cannon who fights aliens for the good of mankind and friendship or something else ridiculous. Isn't this series taking place at a high school?