Nayuta Studio's atmospheric CINERIS SOMNIA almost feels like a full-blown fever dream. The events and characters sprinkled throughout this thoroughly melancholy story seem to exist out of time, dwelling in a strange realm that adheres to its own set of esoteric rules. This often makes for wonderful storytelling, and the tale the developers have woven resonates long after the game wraps up. Unfortunately, dated mechanics and some frustrating design choices keep this journey from reaching new heights. Although the narrative kept me invested, there were moments when I had to step away out of sheer frustration. Working my way to one of the multiple endings available almost felt like a chore at times, despite the fact that I wanted to see how this story ended and what became of its characters.
The opening sequence skillfully sets the tone for what's to come. You play as a young girl who awakens on a beach to discover that her family has disappeared. You’ll wander through the area in desperate search of them, ultimately stumbling upon a lighthouse, where a strange, tall thin man dressed all in black dwells. After this brief encounter, the game allows you to experience a set of different stories (represented by different colors of butterflies), which you can complete in whatever order you choose.
These vignettes present unique experiences that tie into the overall premise, and each one features its own set of challenges and characters. Some are definitely more difficult than others (the black butterfly, being darker in nature, contains more dangerous elements), but they all tell a very interesting story. One is about a little girl dealing with the lack of attention she receives as her brother slowly succumbs to a strange illness, as well as the lengths her parents go to keep him happy. Another follows a different girl who spends her days locked away inside a depressing sanitorium. Although you start the game as one character, these stories will ultimately put you in the shoes of the enigmatic tall man as he slowly (repeat, slowly) begins to put these pieces together.
Over the course of CINERIS SOMNIA, you'll learn about the various characters and their tragic stories by engaging in brief conversations, collecting drawings, and reading notes. The number of key items you find during your journey through this eerie tale will ultimately determine what kind of ending you receive. Without giving too much away, there's a "true" ending and a "bad" ending, so it's important to scour the world for a certain kind of collectible if you want to see how the story is meant to end. It's easy to miss these things, so keep your eyes peeled for anything you can pick up.
Unfortunately, it won’t be long until you notice the first problem: the protagonists’ movement speed. At first I thought this would help build atmosphere and allow me to slowly explore without missing any important objects and events. I completed the opening sequence without even feeling tempted to run, which really isn't much of a feat since the map is relatively small. Sadly, this becomes more of an issue once you start wandering around the maze-like forest during the blue butterfly chapter. The characters you control plod along at an unacceptably slow walking speed, and even their slightly quicker jog seems unsatisfactory when you're forced to backtrack several times across an expansive landscape that doesn't offer much in the way of scenery. I don't mind games that force you to travel at a deliberate pace; in fact, I often find them quite relaxing. However, in the case of CINERIS SOMNIA, the languid movement hinders the experience and makes navigating back and forth a nuisance.
And you will spend a lot of time backtracking as you attempt to solve some of the frequently obtuse puzzles. Although you'll occasionally receive a nudge in the right direction, sometimes you'll find yourself wandering aimlessly without a clue as to what you should attempt next. For instance, trying to follow a bluebird became an exercise in absolute irritation simply because I missed an opportunity to chat with a character by not standing in the exact spot to trigger the option to talk to her. And since you can't move forward with the story until you've had this brief conversation, I found myself roaming around for about an hour, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. Nothing in the game suggested that I needed to talk to someone before progressing – the only objective I had was to follow the bluebird.
As far as the puzzles themselves go, they aren't the most mentally taxing you'll encounter. While figuring out where to go and what to do can take some time, things typically fall into place once you discover the steps needed to advance. (Paying attention to the drawings and notes you collect will help tremendously.) Don't expect anything too involved or complex; the majority of obstacles are of the "find the item that goes with this object" variety. Need to knock some planks off a doorway covered with boards? You'll have to find something to remove them. Locked door? Locate the key. It's all pretty simple, and it's obvious that the story takes precedence over any sort of real challenge. There's nothing here that's going to stump you for longer than five minutes – you'll probably spend longer lethargically traipsing to the object you need to acquire. While there is one section that finds you avoiding an entity that seeks to end your life, it tends to move even slower than you, so getting out of its way isn't always a problem. That said, it's wise to save your game often just in case.
CINERIS SOMNIA controls a lot like most third-person 3D adventure games of this sort, which means it utilizes the typical over-the-shoulder perspective by way of keyboard and mouse or a gamepad. However, it will occasionally slip into a fixed-camera perspective similar to Alone in the Dark, as well as a few first-person moments, but these are few and far between. Interactions with items, people, and the environment are mapped to one button/key, while another opens up a menu that displays your current objective, a static map of the area, and which of the game's collectibles you've discovered. The game seems to borrow heavily from the graphical interfaces found in the older Silent Hill and Resident Evil franchises; in other words, it often feels a little dated. Navigating menus and interacting with the world isn't a complicated affair, but the system used here often comes across as a little clunky. It's not broken, mind you, but it's certainly not pretty.
Similarly, the game sports somewhat antiquated graphics, which truthfully didn't detract from the experience for me. It felt like a design choice more than anything, and the simple, distinctly Japanese-styled character designs and environments lend a haunting air to the story, from the beautiful forest to the dreamy haze of a sunny summer beach. Although the animation at times feels a bit stiff and robotic, the scenes feel strangely alive, the way a fragmented dream world often does. There's a sense that, though largely empty, something sinister is lurking just beyond that abandoned house or below those creaky floorboards. Discovering a butler's quarters at the end of a long winding cavern, for example, feels otherworldly, but here you'd expect nothing less.
Perhaps the best part of CINERIS SOMNIA is its soundtrack. The music perfectly sets the mood for each chapter without overshadowing everything else. The forest, for instance, features some truly magical stripped-down piano-centric compositions that help ease you into the sad tale that's about to unfold. And when you're up against something dark and sinister that wants you dead, the soundtrack delves into deeper, more unsettling waters, building just the right amount of suspense as it goes. For some games, music seems like an afterthought; here it's almost integral, and I honestly can't imagine the story having the same impact if it didn't come equipped with this amazing music.
As you may have guessed, CINERIS SOMNIA is a very mixed bag. On one hand, the cast of sad, strange characters and their stories conveyed through notes, drawings, and fading memories come together to create a memorable experience that's hard to shake off when the game comes to an end. On the other hand, the dismal movement speed, stilted user interface, and constant backtracking seem to work against everything this title wants to accomplish. With such fundamental things working against the game, it's difficult to recommend it without reservation. That said, there's a very good narrative buried beneath the clumsy design choices, so if you're willing to forgive its shortcomings and devote eight or so hours to unraveling the mystery, there's a very good chance you'll love everything else CINERIS SOMNIA has to offer. Just make sure you have plenty of patience before you begin.