On a cold winter day in 2012, I found myself on a bus going from Kansas City to Chicago. The world was supposed to end that year, but luckily it didn’t. During my 10-hour journey, I was accompanied by my 3DS and a little game called Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. I bought it on a whim. All I knew was that it was kind of like a visual novel, which suited a road trip just fine.
By the time I got to Chicago, I was still playing the game. I literally couldn’t put it down. That remains my primary memory from the trip. The game felt so unique compared to everything else on the market. It was more than a visual novel. It was a mystery-horror-thriller adventure. It was an engaging puzzle game, too. It was a lot of things, but mostly it was highly entertaining.
I later learned it was a follow-up to a previous game titled Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which I subsequently played on the PS4 as part of the Nonary Games collection. Still, nothing could top the memories I made on that Chicago-bound Greyhound bus. Until now.
AI: The Somnium Files comes from the same director as the Zero Escape series, Kotaro Uchikoshi. Unlike the Zero Escape series, however, it was built for consoles from the ground up. The upgrade is obvious from the start as the visuals look amazing for this niche genre. The character animations are very expressive, which makes it even more immersive than top-notch visual novels like Steins;Gate.
I know it’s not an entirely fair comparison. AI: The Somnium Files is even less of a visual novel than Uchikoshi’s previous work. Still, it’s not your typical adventure game either. It has point-and-click elements that allow you to interact with the environment and more of an RPG feeling when it comes to dialogue exchanges. Plus, with the ability to scan objects via X-Ray and Night Vision features, and to zoom in on your surroundings in a 3D environment, there’s a strong illusion of control over the investigative proceedings. There are also other segments where you have more freedom to traverse your environment with a fully playable character.
You see, where Virtue’s Last Reward was split between Novel and Escape sections, AI: The Somnium Files is split between Investigation sections and Somnium sections. Both are very fun. Some games feel like a chore to explore, but the Investigation aspects here never get dull. I love entering a new scene and questioning the NPCs. It’s genuinely fun to leave no stone unturned. Some players might be reminded of their sleuthing days playing Phoenix Attorney: Ace Attorney. Or even of more recent games like Astral Chain.
The Somnium sections also help to shake things up if you ever start to feel things are getting stale. In these sections, you enter another character’s mind Inception-style and try to unlock memories before their dreamscape collapses. You only have six minutes to solve them, so things can get a little tense. Still, I never found the puzzles to be unreasonably difficult. You are free to roam around in each room of someone’s mind during these sections, and you can speed up some actions by strategically using an in-game item called TIMIES. You can only hold three at a time, but they’re rather useful.
You can also replay any of the memories if you’d like to unlock certain hidden paths or try a different approach to cracking someone’s psyche. It’s all easily accessible from a flowchart, which you will use a lot if you want to dig deep into every layer of storytelling the game has to offer. It truly is a deep exploration of the human mind and you will get as much or as little as you put into it.
Nonetheless, as rich and deep as the gameplay and is, the real stars of AI: The Somnium Files are the characters themselves and the overarching narrative they’re all caught up in.
Right away, AI: The Somnium Files starts out with a visually strong opening that commands your attention. A lot of great TV shows and anime have strong openings that immediately pull you in, like Laura Palmer’s body washing up on the shore in Twin Peaks (which inspired The Legend Zelda: Link’s Awakening believe it or not) to that scene we all know about from the first episode of Goblin Slayer.
AI: The Somnium Files is no exception. No matter what, the surreal and gruesome crime scene at an abandoned theme park from the first moments will forever be scorched into your memory. From there, the game introduces you to a slew of great characters that are complimented by a punchy script. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this cast based on the trailers, but any concerns I had immediately melted away as soon as I entered the futuristic Tokyo on display.
Your sidekick is an AI-Ball that resembles a human eyeball and fits snugly into one of the protagonist’s eye sockets. It’s cleverly given the nickname AiBa, and it takes on the shape of a human female when you enter into the Somnium parts of the game. The rest of the quirky cast includes an online idol (basically a YouTuber) named Iris Sagan, her adoring fan Ota Matsushita, the 12-year-old daughter of a murder victim, your boss, and your primary character Kaname Dante who works for the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad down at the Metro Police Department. He lost his memory six years ago, which plays a role in the story as well.
There’s an even larger cast of secondary characters, but the point is they’re all well-realized individuals. Despite the weird backdrop, the game balances everything with wonderful writing and perfectly timed humor.
I really appreciated the references to the real world sprinkled throughout the plot, too. A lot of entertainment just opts for lazy product placement these days. The era of Duff beer and Kwik-E-Mart in The Simpsons is almost non-existent. It’s nice to see some originality when it comes to creating a universe, even if it’s just small things like a social media platform called To-Witter in AI: The Somnium Files.
The real-world references don’t stop at brands though. If you know anything about conspiracies, the game is filled with esoteric symbology and references to the Illuminati and other secret societies. I’m always impressed when these underground rumors from the West spill into Japanese pop culture, like the time-traveling John Titor playing a role in the previously mentioned Steins; Gate. It’s just cool. If that’s your thing, you’ll feel right at home here. And even if it’s not your thing, it’s still interesting.
All of this is complimented nicely by a strong soundtrack from composer
Keisuke Ito. He’s worked on a large variety of series from Yakuza, to Bloodstained, to Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. He’s even arranged a few tracks for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, so this is a consummate professional we’re dealing with and it shows when you listen to the music.
At the end of the day, AI: The Somnium Files not only lives up to the lofty heights set by the Zero Escape series, but exceeds them. While the story takes a lot of dark and twisted turns, and the gameplay is anything but conventional, I think if you’re open-minded and mature enough to handle the content you’ll find a very rewarding experience here. Truth be told, this latest offering from Uchikoshi and his team over at Spike Chunsoft is one of the best games of the year. Don’t sleep on it.
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