Muv-Luv photonflowers* Review

From dazzling highs to piteous lows, the flowers shall both wither and grow.

Muv-Luv photonflowers* Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed) and PS3
Developer: Âge
Publisher: Anchor

Across the staggered series of reviews I released over the years, I think I’ve made it clear how much I love the Muv-Luv series.  The humble beginnings of Extra, which sought to be the best gosh-darn zany slice of life anime visual novel it could possibly be— and succeeded spectacularly.  The transitory Unlimited, which bridges the series from one extreme to another, seeing the protagonist learn to accept the harsh realities of war.  And the dark and foreboding world-crossing sci-fi war epic that was Muv-Luv Alternative, whose grandiose story and visual spectacle still make it one of the all-time greats.  

It was a considerable success for its developers, and like with most major Japanese series of a similar caliber, success led to adaptation and expansion beyond the main titles.  Though few examples are quite as prolific as Muv-Luv.  There have been so many additional side-stories, expansions, adaptations, prequels, interquels, and sequels, that it is hard to keep track of everything, especially due to how things have been repackaged and redistributed over the years.

Muv-Luv photonflowers* is one of these repackaged compilations of short companion stories, and the first one to be released in English, boasting 7 tales from the happy-go-lucky world of Extra and 5 from the dour and doomed world of Alternative.  While I initially thought about simply offering a general review of the compilation as a whole, the sheer diversity of the collection on display really necessitates that I treat this like a Student Transfer Scenario review, and give each story its own mini-review.  

Before the Cherry Blossoms Bloom:
Positioned as an extended epilogue to the Sumika route from Extra, Before the Cherry Blossoms Bloom follows Takeru and Sumika as they adjust from being long-standing childhood friends to significant others, and the struggles that come with this transition.  From simply letting people know they’re an item, changing how they interact with one another, to how they spend their free time together.  All of which leads to mostly typical rom-com genre fare with a Muv-Luv flair, with misunderstandings, secrets,  jealousy, and meddling from the rest of the cast all influencing the proceedings as Takeru and Sumika grow from just being buddy buds to something a bit more romantic.

It’s all a sweet energetic little anecdote that sees these characters advancing beyond the point they were at the end of Extra, all rendered and executed with the same level of pomp and production values that made the original game so endearing.  This carries on until the halfway point, where troubles emerge in their relationship, forcing Takeru to undergo a character arc to understand for himself how he is failing in this relationship with Sumika, and why she is holding a persistent grudge against him.  Contextually, it is a nice change of place, showing the darker side of relationships and establishing a prolonged conflict between these two lovey-dovey goofballs.  It expands the characters beyond what was shown in the base game while staying true to their personalities, which is really all I can ask for from supplemental works like this.

However, I have… issues with how this conflict is established and maintained through petty squabbles, misunderstandings, and poor communication.  I get what the writers are trying to do here.  They want to put Takeru along an introspective journey where he learns to shed away his laidback demeanor and emerges through the proceedings, which tie in with the end of his senior year of high school for additional thematic oomph.  But the structure of this entire storyline could be undermined and expedited if Takeru and Sumika just… talked.  You know, the one thing that every successful relationship is founded on, and something that people as close as Takeru and Sumika should be exceptionally good at.

It is one sour note in what is an otherwise excellent expansion on the base game, taking the cast further along in their development, giving them all one last chance to shine in their original zany Extra renditions, and allowing the characters to conclude their high school journey, along with everything it represents.  In doing so, they packed in a plethora of unnecessary yet appreciated bouts of visual flair, between unique ending CGs for every character, new outfits for Marimo and Yuuko, and even a secondary send off for Meiya.  I’d consider it to be an excellent way to wrap up Extra and everything it represented… but they just had to build this display on a foundation that perpetually smells of rotten eggs and Worcestershire sauce.

Best Friends Forever!, Never Judge a Book, 
The Case of the Missing Tail, and The Yakisoba Festival:
I’m lumping all of these stories together as they’re all very brief (30 minutes or less) companion stories that are the visual novel equivalent of a filler episode or chapter from an anime or manga.  Not bad filler, just fairly ignorable filler that does not lead to much of anything substantial, and instead serves more as a showcase for an established character as they get involved in a zany yet mundane scramble of sorts that involves Takeru to some extent.

These include: Sumika’s efforts to seduce Takeru by helping him pick out a swimsuit for her and taking him to a water park to strut her stuff, only for the two to indulge in their usual antics.  Chizuru finding and repairing a hand puppet in order to, not so subtly, impress Takeru with her cute and feminine side, only for things to go south.  Tama losing her tail after a volleyball injury, and needing to get it back in order to restore her body’s equilibrium, because she is a catgirl after all.  And Kei finding a baby bird at the yakisoba summer festival, which she nurses to maturity, as despite her curt and enigmatic persona, she is a big old softie on the inside.

They’re nothing too spectacular conceptually and feel like the most supplemental and forgettable part of this package, but they get major points for their presentation.  When not introducing the occasional new sprite or outfit as if money was no object, these stories feature chibi interludes that position the characters on popsicle sticks where they are waved over 2D backgrounds while switching between alternate poses and waddling about, like the world’s most energetic kamishibai.  It is adorable, lavish, and it is one of the many things that make Muv-Luv what it is.

Learning to Love and Learning to Lead:
These two stories follow Meiya as she makes her way back to Japan to address the familial matters that eventually lead to her pursuit of Takeru in Muv-Luv Extra.  But in typical Muv-Luv fashion, even the act of walking to a train station needs to be peppered with tomfoolery, which begins as Meiya decided to read a strategy guide on romance, discussing the tribulations of the romantic comedy genre, directly referencing the characters from Extra in a cheeky little deconstruction that feels like getting a glimpse at the game’s design doc and an explanation of how the character tropes were chosen.  

At the very least, it distracts Meiya enough for her to wander into a bank as a robbery is ongoing, which naturally leads to its own breed of shenanigans that are founded on several exaggerations of Meiya’s cultural ignorance.  The girl apparently does not know what a bank is, what a gun is, what a hostage is, and cannot identify a dangerous situation if her life depended on it.  It is a very strange reading of this character that makes her seem less like a part of modern-day royalty and more like somebody whose only knowledge of the world comes from textbooks.  However, this awkward misstep does lead to a series of entertaining actions, a heartfelt aside against the maliciously wealthy, and a spontaneous hyperbolic action scene that go to round out Learning to Love as a nice little microcosm of the endearing absurdity that made Muv-Luv Extra so dang special.  

Leading to Lead meanwhile is a look back to Meiya’s intensive physical training where she learned the way of the blade and developed the clean deliberate mind of a world leader.  Most of which is split between her interacting with a buff yet kinda stupid looking material arts sensei who also happens to be a massive pervert who gets constant nosebleeds and shouts at anyone who brings them up.  It’s a blend of zany humor, frantic visual novel action scenes, and some introspections into Meiya’s character amount to a well-rounded affair, though I cannot help but wonder if somebody wanted to make this scenario just to put Meiya in a wet shirt, a sexualized lady samurai attire, and have her clothes be beaten off of her by laser beams.  And you know what?  There are way worse reasons to write a story.

Atonement:
Positioned as a prequel story following Alternative’s rendition of instructor/teacher Marimo, Atonement has a lot of potential ground for it to cover, from her history, developing the resolve to fight, and climbing up in the ranks through a 9-year military tenure.  Which, in and of itself, has enough potential content to flesh out a companion piece in and of itself, and room to show events that were only lightly referenced in Alternative.  However, with a reading time under two hours, Atonement instead aims for a more budget retelling of Marimo’s story, one predominantly led by narration from its protagonist as she looks back on her life, how she got here, and all she achieved in the process.

To get around this, the writers decided to instead only focus on three highlights early in her career.  A random day during her time at boot camp, the climax of her combat training during the CCS exam, and her first encounter with the BETA.  All of these are fine points to focus on, as they are important points in her military career and give the opportunity to show a younger Marimo with more pronounced personality flaws.  In that sense, the story is a nice introspective look into the arduous life of a TSF pilot in this dreary world of death and agony and adds to Marimo by showing how she was young, impulsive, and prone to emotional fits like the main cast of Alternative.

However, in order to expand her character, they also decided to shoehorn a man into Marimo’s life, a sexist dill-hole by the name of Arai who Marimo forms a rivalry with.  It begins nicely, with the two holding content for each other that gives way to tolerance, and eventually culminates in a sense of comradery as they are forced to work together.  It all works… until the 90% mark, where Marimo claims she loves this prick, attributes her success to how much she wanted to surpass him, and goes hog wild on some BETA when she sees Arai perish.  

It retroactively frames the entire story to be about Marimo’s relationship with the man she loved, and how her time with him made up some of the most defining moments of her adult life. It is a very sexist trope that cheapens Marimo’s character in its attempt to add pathos, and while the attempt does not truly ruin her character or anything as hyperbolic, it still comes off as a misguided attempt due to how common this type of relationship is in stories involving women in the military and the lack of nuance in the writer’s implementation here.  

Rain Dancers: 
Rain Dancers follows a group of European TSF pilots as they sail across the Mediterranian, handling requests from the United Nations whenever called upon in order to prevent the BETA from using the already conquered European mainland as a means of getting to a largely untouched Africa.  It’s an alternate angle set halfway around the world that has the potential to warrant a full side-story in and of itself, but instead what is offered here is most certainly more of an hour-long minisode.  One that establishes two central characters, their personalities, backgrounds, and the geopolitical situation they are dealing with, frames this around a frantic giant robot versus alien battle in the woods and then concludes without much of substance actually happening, and little being accomplished or achieved.  

It does an excellent job characterizing the two given the short amount of time we spend with them by having them dole out their backgrounds through banter, play their personalities off each other, indulge in some good-spirited ribbing, and engage in the one activity that brings all Europeans together: dunking on Americans.  It provides a level of visual dynamism and dramatism that somehow supersedes Muv-Luv Alternative with minor hand and head gestures along a lot of incidental art assets.  But it lacks the time and dedicated storyline needed to make for a truly remarkable storyline, and instead what’s there feels like a polished prologue chapter for what should be an excellent short story that is cut off right before anything of substance can be accomplished.

Confessions: 
While much of the conceit and appeal of Muv-Luv as a trilogy is seeing characters transition between a prosperous and tranquil world to a war-torn future where humanity is constantly fending off a seemingly unstoppable force of mass destruction, it does not exist in a vacuum, as characters from other Âge visual novels were carried over to Muv-Luv Alternative.  One of these characters was Michiru Isumi from 1999’s Kimi ga Ita Kisetsu, a Japanese-exclusive title that was later given the remake treatment in 2011, where this side-story was originally released.  

Confessions follows Michiru Isumi of Muv-Luv Alternative as she reminisces over her time as a military cadet and her original squadmates.  Thus taking the player back in time to see a less dignified, mature, and well-rounded Michiru as she tries to adapt to the leadership thrust upon her, the brutal training of instructor Marimo, and the three newly introduced characters she was paired with.  What ensues from there is meant to be an introspective look into the harsh requirements for one to become a soldier in the world of Alternative, Michiru’s character, and a playground to explore the personalities of these three characters, having them clash, come together, and vicariously express more details about the world by doing so.

I say “meant to be” as I honestly could not really follow this story.  It throws the player into the frying pan in media res and asks them to grasp at these new characters and new situations, without a sense of familiarity to build off of, and what is familiar is presented differently, which just makes everything all the more confusing.  This can best be seen with our protagonist, Michiru, who goes from this confident and level-headed commander to a character who is constantly caught somewhere in between reveling in her inferiority complex, chiding herself for not picking up on social details, and admiring her elder sister.  A character who almost certainly would make more sense if you played Kimi ga Ita Kisetsu, but that title has yet to be released in English and has not so much as received a fan translation.

The other source of familiarity that would be seen in instructor Marimo, a caring and steadfast commander who demands and nurtures excellence, but here she is rewritten into an instructor who puts constant pressure on her students, subjects them to brutal training regimes, and calls them retarded for good measure.  The story attempts to justify all of this as Marimo’s means of weeding out the best soldiers, but her methods are meatheaded, flawed, and put so much strain on her that it begs the question of why she prefers to make her students run for 8 hours a day instead of talking to them about their flaws.

Given her experience, Marimo should be teaching them beyond the book, imparting lessons on them, giving passionate lectures, and offering reports on the perceived personality defects that will impede her cadets’ ability to become quality TSF pilots.  Her defining moment in Alternative was her being a kind and comforting person, identifying the weakness of those beneath her, and attempting to set them along the right path.  So seeing her here, pushing away her students through verbal and physical abuse until they learn their lesson ‘the good and hard way’ comes across as perplexing at best and contrarian at worst.

To wrap up my thoughts before divulging any more details, the newly introduced characters are novel and boast distinct personalities that clash together well.  The deluge of new visual assets and the routine application of subtle character movements once again show off Âge’s visual prowess, which I will continue to highlight until it stops impressing me.  And if I did know what was going on, and I went in with both a greater working knowledge and a fabricated headcanon justification for why Marimo is being a festering pus-riddled anus of a human being, I think this side story could be pretty nifty.  But I didn’t do either of those things, so this one gets a hard thumbs down from me.  

Chicken Divers: 
In a world as dire as Muv-Luv Alternative, one where human lives are lost as a calculated necessity and where the average lifespan of a soldier is frequently cited as lasting a resounding 8 minutes, it’s easy to wonder about what it’s life for the people outside of the main characters.  It begs the question of what is going through the head of the average infantry who are deployed and are doing this as a necessity or an obligation to their existence, going through a reduced lifetime all in the vain hope of extending humanity’s time on the metaphorical clock before all life is rid from this Earth.  Everybody has a story, every death is a tragedy, and those who do survive, who do make it past several battles, are not always adept heroes.  Sometimes they’re cowards, sometimes they’re just lucky, and sometimes it does not matter how hard they fight and try, if they do everything immaculately, as forces beyond their control can bring forth their untimely death.

That is what I wanted Chicken Divers to delve into, and what the side story does an amazing job of setting up, casting a random orbital drop soldier from the 21st Operation into the role of the protagonist, and going into appreciated detail about his mental state, the fragility of this situation, his low odds of survival, and the strain of being dropped from space into the middle of the BETA horde.  Then, right as things are getting good right as the protagonist and his unit land and begin entering the Hive in order to try and valiantly fight a losing battle that we know will end in disaster, the side story cuts to credits, and a seconds-long epilogue plays that is, somehow, less satisfying and fulfilling than a black screen with white text reading “and then they all died”.  

It’s such a waste to see all of these high-quality production values, unique visual assets, voicework, and worldbuilding all be brushed aside like this instead of built on, likely under the pretense that we can infer what happened there.  And yes, we could, but I want to see them fend off BETA.  I want to listen to the soldiers panicking as they become outnumbered.  I want to watch as they get vaporized while either clinging to a last remnant of hope or pray for a swift death as they are assaulted by metal munching monsters.  But Chicken Divers didn’t give me that and as such I’m left asking what the point of this story even was.

Inheritance: 
Serving as yet another story to expand the 21st Operation, Inheritance follows Akira Isumi, the youngest sister of Michiru Isumi, as she survives the conflict and is able to reconvene with her family as they pine over the events, airing out their hefty emotions, and learning the true magnitude of what was lost.  It is good drama, but nothing especially deep, nuanced, or elaborate, focusing on the broad immediate emotional reactions to conflict, familiar musings about the way the greater governments are handling these conflicts through the power of classified information and lies.

Not unlike Confessions, something about this story is lost who have not played the unlocalized  Kimi ga Ita Kisetsu, and are left to read this story without a good idea of who these characters are.  And with that limited knowledge, Inheritance tells a typical, yet well-executed, familial tragedy and a reminder that every TSF pilot who has survived beyond their first encounter probably has some form of mental trauma.  All of which is wrapped in a presentation that boasts bizarrely low-resolution character sprites for Akira and her sister Yayoi, along with poses and expressions that do not do a great job of conveying the emotions the scenario is based on.  Still, I must give the story at least some props for shining a light on yet another facet of the world, and for showing the player a brief glimpse into where humanity is at following the end of Alternative through a brief epilogue.

In Summation:
This collection is… just okay.  It certainly has good ideas, good moments, and good intentions, but what is there is either limited by brevity or extends its drama through the use of conflicts that could be circumvented through the magical art of communication.  Its contributions to the world of Muv-Luv are generally positive and appreciated, but other attempts to complicate the mythos of certain characters, namely Marimo, go to muddle its contributions as a whole and amount to a notably mixed compilation.  A status that is, in my experience, indicative of the not-so-great track record of the supplemental additions made to expansive Japanese multimedia franchises.  It, not unlike Steins;Gate 0, is a compilation of good, if not great, story concepts that are either underdeveloped, developed around unfulfilling or baffling plot beats, and generally lack the same cohesiveness and specialness held by the original work.  

Here’s hoping that the next compilation, Muv-Luv: photonmelodies♮ fares better, and considering it will focus on three stories instead of 12, it should, at the very least, be a vastly more focused endeavor.

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