The Fall 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Muv-Luv Alternative ?
What is this?
The story is about humans who wage a long battle against the extraterrestrial species BETA, with humanoid weapons known as Tactical Surface Fighters.
How was the first episode?
Muv-Luv is one of those sprawling franchises I've always wanted to get in to. Sadly, at the moment, I have only seen the spinoff Schwarzes Marken (which helpfully takes place in the Muv-Luv Alternative timeline, though in the 1980s). However, those who are bigger fans than me that I've talked to all seem to agree that Muv-Luv Alternative is the pinnacle of the franchise—and after even only a single episode, I think I am beginning to see why.
At first, this episode seems to be your average first episode of a mecha anime. We're introduced to the world, the enemy, and our mecha suits. We get know a bit about Komaki—our protagonist and the only surviving member of her previous squad. Through her, we get introduced to characters who are obviously going to become key members of the supporting cast, including two other transferees and Komakai's wingman, Kusano.
Except here's the twist: except for Komaki, they all die brutally horrible deaths before the final credits roll. In fact, nearly every recognizable character dies save for Komaki, Bravo Squadron's commander, and the civilian girl they manage to rescue.
What we have here is a prime example of show, don't tell. We could have been told that the war against the BETAs was brutal and violent—been slowly introduced to which aliens were particularly dangerous little by little across the series. Instead, we get a front row seat for the fall of Japan. We see firsthand the BETAs breaking one line of defense after another—showing that while they are monstrous in appearance, they have a clear understanding of tactics. We also see quite clearly that they hold no regard for human life. The deaths of the human soldiers and civilians are violent—with some, like Kusano's, being particularly cruel.
This episode is not actually about setting up characters or story—it's about establishing the setting in the most emotionally impactful way possible. It's a bold step for a first episode togo 100% world-building. And as the next episode takes place a full three years later (if the stinger is to be believed) and follows a different person entirely, we're basically going to get a second “first episode.” Color me intrigued. I'll definitely be back to check it out next week.
I actually got around to playing through the PS Vita versions of Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited a couple of years back, right before the pandemic hit in earnest, and I really enjoyed my time with them. The cliché romcom shenanigans of Extra weren't exactly revolutionary, but all that time with the characters meant that the story's shift into science fiction isekai action saga had a lot more impact. I even started playing the very opening hours of Alternative, but then the pandemic hit, and I had a surgery that knocked me on my ass for a few weeks, and by then it had been announced that Muv-Luv Alternative was getting a shiny new anime adaptation.
Well, imagine my surprise when the anime premiered, and I still didn't have a clue what was going on, despite having beaten the two games that the story serves as a conclusion to. Sure, I'm familiar with the evil alien BETAs that have ruined most of the world, and I recognize the TSF mecha fighters that our intrepid heroes use to fight back. But outside of a single shot at the very end of the episode, we don't get a single glimpse of Takeru or any of the other main characters that I recognize from the visual novels. Instead, it's the year 1998, and we follow a girl named Komaki, a guy named Kusano, and a bunch of other random characters in the years before Takeru's story takes center stage.
Now, this shift in perspective wouldn't be a terrible thing, in and of itself. For newcomers that haven't played the games, an introduction to the BETA war is probably necessary, since otherwise they'd be getting thrust into final act of a trilogy that has already spent dozens of hours establishing all of this context. My problems come from the premiere's two core failings. The first is the most obvious: We don't care about any of these characters, so watching them all die in battle feels perfunctory at best. For an episode that's all about introducing viewers to an apocalyptic space bug war, Muv-Luv Alternative almost feels bored with its own premise.
Worse, though, is that, artistically speaking, Muv-Luv Alternative is a truly disappointing affair. Characters are stiff and lifeless in motion, the colors are drab, and the direction is mostly flat. There's a little bit of spark when the fight against the BETA reaches its full swing, and even the awkward CGI can't completely dampen the BETA's alien weirdness, but I was expecting something more like a AAA blockbuster for a season premiere, not a direct-to-video filler episode.
Maybe the show will pick up once the Alternative story begins, proper. I haven't touched any of the spinoff media, either, so it could be that this premiere satisfies fans that are more hardcore than me. In fact, hardcore fans are probably the only ones who will be properly pumped up here. Everyone else will probably just be confused.
Up front, I know nothing about Muv-Luv in any of its various forms. I remember watching maybe an episode or two of its spinoff adaptation Schwarzes Marken a few years back but couldn't tell you anything about it or how it relates to anything in this episode. From what I've garnered, one of the big worries for Alternative here is that it's adapting the third of a trilogy of visual novels, which could very easily make for a totally incomprehensible “introduction” for anyone not already familiar with the original games. On that note, I feel pretty confident that I understood everything in this first episode, and never felt like I was missing out on anything vital in the moment-to-moment storytelling so far. Unfortunately, that's because this first episode is 50% exposition per part.
We of course start off with narration explaining the basic timeline of the BETA, their invasion of Earth, and humanity's failing war against them. That's pretty standard and just there to get us up to speed. But the trouble comes when the next several minutes are spent with our blandly designed characters doing nothing but explaining more details of the war to each other, with nary a second spared to give any of them personality or distinctive characteristics. They're all just dull-faced ciphers here to explain the military situation of their current location, then hop in their robots, after which the majority of their dialogue reverts to shouting “god damn BETAs!” until they are killed by said god damn BETAs.
It's a fatal flaw, sadly. There's just nothing in any of the numerous characters here to get attached to, and their animation designs are so sanded down they could pass for background characters in any number of other shows airing this season. This means the large cast's extended, doomed battle against a BETA invasion doesn't hold any emotional impact outside of the general gruesomeness of sci-fi war, and that's just not enough to get me invested. The only moment that really sticks in my head is a particularly gnarly scene where one soldier's mech is crushed under a BETA corpse, and just as he thinks he's being rescued from the wreckage, the alien's acidic blood pours into the cockpit and melts him in seconds. It's a genuinely creative and brutal moment in what is otherwise a sadly cliché war story.
It doesn't help that pretty much everything about the visuals in this adaptation feels phoned in. The mech animation itself is technically solid, and the monster designs mostly move alright, even if they're an acquired taste, but everything else looks like paste. Characters are totally indistinguishable outside of our main glasses girl, with the giant boob socks on their pilot uniforms being the only eye-catching aspect of anyone. The mechs aren't bad, per se, but they're clunky and overly busy, aspects made all the worse by all being identical, gunmetal grey, mass produced machines. That makes the lengthy battle that takes up the majority of this episode feel totally incomprehensible, as it's never entirely clear which forgettable character is getting killed at any given moment. And all of this is hampered by largely stiff action animation whenever a combatant isn't CG, which makes the brutal civilian deaths lose any impact towards the end of the episode.
In total, fans' fears that this adaptation would be totally inaccessible from the get-go have been laid to rest. Unfortunately, the much bigger issue is that this premiere failed to communicate any of the charm or appeal of its source in any form, leaving it a wayward, lumpy mess of an introduction.
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