Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse review
The Total Eclipse anime was actually my first experience with the entire Muv-Luv universe – which I imagine was the case for a lot of current anime-watching Muv-Luv fans. I actually don't remember anything about it other than the first two episodes (which are not even covered in the VN). And while it has been eleven years since the anime premiered, having a forgettable story is not exactly a good sign for the VN. Then again, this meant that I came to the visual novel version of Total Eclipse with pretty fresh eyes.
The visual novel story is entirely kinetic and feels a bit meandering, with the focus switching between political intrigue, life or death action, or high school romantic comedy, with a good chunk of the female cast competing who can have the most obnoxious teenage crush on the protagonist. Political intrigue across the major powers of the Alternative timeline does take the driver's seat for most of the story though. Even the action scenes are drenched in geopolitics.
Ostensibly the main objective of the story is bringing the XFJ Program to completion but it doesn't really feel like it. Rather, it feels like the story is about whatever is the current crisis that is currently unfolding and which may or may not relate to the XFJ program. I'm also not sold on the ending as it felt like the villain had better motives than the protagonist. Of course, the ending converges to work out somehow at the end because the writers didn't want to write a story where the protagonist does dumb things and meets a dumb end.
There's also some questions raised during the story that were not really ever answered. Perhaps the idea was to leave room to further explore some of the factions in the future. But since Total Eclipse as a franchise is already over 15 years old, I doubt we'll ever get some kind of a satisfactory explanation to some stuff. At the moment it just feels like they're introducing unknown characters of unknown factions with unknown motives and you just have to deal with it.
In general though, I felt at least engaged with the story overall and even actually captivated during certain parts of the story. And despite the ending involving some questionable developments, it does thankfully hit some good emotional tones and is ultimately something I felt somewhat satisfied with.
To anyone interested in Total Eclipse, I'd say that the requirement for actually enjoying the experience is a general interest in the Muv-Luv Alternative universe – the story takes place just before the events of Muv-Luv Alternative and only expands on a tiny part of the Alternative story. Standing on its own two feet, it's not really a strong story, making the decision of making Total Eclipse the first animated Muv-Luv story questionable. But as an additional story in the Muv-Luv Alternative universe for Muv-Luv fans, it's decent enough to recommend.
I did notice that the character arc for a lot of the characters followed the same pattern. They introduce a character as supremely unlikeable, throw them into the ringer for a bit and then have them calm down and become somewhere between tolerable and likeable. I noticed that they did it for the protagonist, Takamura, Cryska, the Chinese girl, and the other Japanese-American test pilot. Thankfully the protagonist and Takamura calm down relatively fast, otherwise the experience might've been quite a slog. I think they might've even tried doing it with Tarisa but she's far too adorable to be unlikeable. But despite the repeating character development pattern, the characters of Total Eclipse are ultimately likeable and interesting.
Presentation in Total Eclipse is the best that Muv-Luv has yet to offer. I did initially feel a bit weirded out by the colour palette, as it's very muted in comparison to many other entries in the series. However, after getting used to it, I can say that the art is very good. Both the sprites and CGs are high quality, and there's a good amount of CGs to boot with 195 entries in the album. Only very occasionally I saw something that looked weird or low quality.
They're also utilising a good amount of animation for the sprites in order to wring out a bit more life out of static images. And for the first time ever, Total Eclipse also utilises a decent amount of actual 3D animated cutscenes during the story. While they managed to give a good kinetic feeling to the mech action in Alternative, it's completely different to see TSF manoeuvre when it's given a fully animated short cutscene. The only downside of the 3D cutscenes is that there's not that many of them and it feels like they mostly happen during the first half. Hopefully the level of animation shown in Total Eclipse is the new standard for new Muv-Luv stories, as I am quite a fan of it.
On the sound side, there's not that much innovation. Yuuya is kind of a weird protagonist in that he's mostly not voiced but still is given a voice from time to time. At first I thought they only voiced him during flashbacks and when the story is not from his point-of-view, but later in the story, his lines are sometimes voiced and sometimes not. Not really sure the rationale for this, as THE DAY AFTER had Hibiki fully voiced. At least it's not super distracting. Otherwise the cast and voices are solid even if I can't really find anything special to say about it. What I did particularly enjoy however was the usage of insert songs during some bigger action events. I'm a huge sucker for insert songs for action scenes.
No issues with general ergonomics and display. A much better reading experience than with the old rUGP titles. I read through Total Eclipse exclusively on my Steam Deck and the performance was what I've come to expect from titles using the Ages Mark 2 engine, which was mostly solid. Like with the other games, my Steam Deck exhibited the same kind of audio crackling after resuming the game from sleep. And even though this is a Steam Deck verified game, there's still no official controller layout.
I finally however decide to test the Pause Games plugin and it seemed to make the whole Steam Deck audio experience a lot more solid. After installing the plugin and enabling the "pause before suspend" feature, it felt like I could resume Total Eclipse from sleep a lot better than previously without having massive and continuous audio crackling. Highly recommend this tweak to anyone experiencing audio crackling in Ages Mark 2 games. Wish I'd tried it back when I read through THE DAY AFTER series.
All in all, Total Eclipse is a decent 25-hour delve into the geopolitical and weapon development politics of the Muv-Luv Alternative world, with occasional hot-blooded action to balance things out. Just don't make the same mistake âge did and try to make it your introduction to the Muv-Luv world.