Review for AI: The Somnium Files
Being a big fan of Spike Chunsoft’s previous visual novel puzzle games, I was on board their latest adventure pretty much sight unseen. With the Nonary Games series, the acclaimed Japanese developer – and particularly writer/director Kotaro Uchikoshi – set an impressive high-water mark for eclectic characters and extraordinary water-cooler moments, all in the context of engaging and often graphic thrillers. AI: The Somnium Files does not disappoint in this regard, and it’s a safe bet that anyone who enjoyed the over-the-top narratives and time-travel shenanigans of its predecessors will find plenty to like about the sci-fi murder mystery plot here. However, the new game is very much its own beast and goes a very different route when it comes to its puzzle solving, and the trial-and-error nature of this one significant change may not go down well with everyone.
Players don the badge and stylish trench coat of special agent Kaname Date. Date is a member of ABIS (the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad), an elite unit of near-future Tokyo’s metropolitan police department. As a Psyncer, it is his job to project his consciousness into the minds of criminals and suspects unwilling or unable to undergo interrogation in order to uncover vital evidence to solve some of the city’s most heinous crimes. This process takes place in the subject’s titular somnium – their subconscious dream-state mind.
Although the game deftly weaves plenty of lighthearted writing and humorous wordplay into its script, the overall tone is a rather dark one. As the story opens, a corpse has been discovered tied to a derelict carousel at an abandoned park, one of its eyes brutally gouged out. Responding to the crime scene, Date soon discovers that the victim is Shoko Nadami, an acquaintance of his and mother to his teenage ward Mizuki. Mere minutes later, Mizuki herself is found on the scene, her ability to speak seemingly lost due to the shock of discovering her mother’s savaged corpse. As the investigation ramps up, more bodies begin to pile up and it becomes clear that a deranged serial killer with a penchant for removing his victim’s eyes is stalking the streets of Tokyo.
Most of the game plays out like a traditional point-and-click adventure, with locations examined from Date’s static first-person viewpoint. On the PlayStation 4, using the DualShock controller, I was able to move the cursor around the screen and click on any hotspots, which are conveniently labeled when hovered over. The ensuing descriptions and comments take the form of full-fledged conversations between Date and the AI built into his artificial eyeball, named AI-Ball (or Aiba, for short). The number of interactive points of interest is large, and revisiting locations over the course of the game’s substantial playtime frequently provides fresh, unique bits of optional flavor text for completionists to enjoy.
While the main focus of gameplay is on the grim hunt for a deadly serial killer, the moment-to-moment exchanges between Date, Aiba and other members of the well-realized cast are often quite humorous. The script is smartly localized and really delights in its abundance of clever phrasing, innuendo and colorful insights. If one were to adhere to a strict critical path, the game’s runtime would be quite a bit shorter, but so much charming playfulness would be missed.
Giving players lots of reasons to scour the environments for snatches of fun dialog is one way The Somnium Files adds interest to its otherwise generally mundane setting. Most locations, from shabby storehouses to posh politicians’ pads, look nice enough and are generally realistic and down-to-earth. By contrast, ABIS’s headquarters is comparably sci-fi, highlighting the advanced technology and resources at their disposal.
Characters benefit from the developer’s penchant for interesting designs, and are depicted in colorful, anime-inspired visuals that give them a vaguely cel-shaded appearance. While most of them look like normal people from various walks of life, the occasional oddball shows up as well. For example, a mysterious person wearing a polar bear costume is odd enough, but when said polar bear straps another character to an ice-cutting machine and begins to lower the deadly spinning sawblade, it’s an image sure to sear itself to your memory for a long time to come.
Much like the visuals, the musical score is adequate if not particularly memorable, though the English voice work is absolutely outstanding. From Date’s commanding officer (literally named “Boss”) to teen idol sensation Iris (more eye-based wordplay), there’s not a weak link to be found, with notable voice actors like Greg Chun, Erika Harlacher and Sean Chiplock appearing in main roles. The aforementioned silly nature of a lot of the humor means anything can happen at any time, whether it's a deep discussion about the love life of the cross-dressing bartender named Mama or an impromptu song-and-dance number coming out of nowhere, the talented cast leaves it all on the table here.
Aiba proves to be much more to Date than a conversation partner during the investigation. The little AI sometimes assumes the form of a tiny mascot teddy bear when not sitting in Date’s eye socket, and she enhances his capabilities with various visual functions like zoom, x-ray and night vision, as well as wireless communication and electronic hacking features. She’s also an invaluable strategic asset, as she frequently pulls Date’s buns out of sticky situations with on-the-fly thinking and lightning-quick reaction time.
Given the nature of Uchikoshi’s previous projects, it’s no surprise that Date’s investigation into the Cyclops Killer case is anything but linear. Technically the process follows a straight through line leading from clue to clue, but there are certain points along the way at which the narrative can branch off and follow a unique path to its conclusion. This is represented visually as a narrative flowchart in the style of a police investigation board. Similar to the director’s earlier games like Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, the separate branches lead to wildly different outcomes without joining back together.
However, unlike those older titles, neither Somnium’s characters nor you as the player stand to gain any useful insights from seeing varying branches through to their end, as reaching one finale doesn’t provide a missing puzzle piece that will better contextualize another. Rather, the different branches are more alternate realities happening concurrently, with several major details completely altered between them. This – and the fact that some branches allow progress only to a certain point before being gated off until other timelines are completed – makes it somewhat difficult to keep up with each path’s narrative, as they all feature the same characters but in different situations and with differing events along the way.
These story splits occur during psyncing scenes, when Date delves into the somnium of an unconscious subject. Here the game abandons its traditional point-and-click approach for a third-person direct control scheme. You take on the role of Aiba in these sequences, or rather a human manifestation of her conjured by Date’s mind. Aiba is able to physically navigate and interact with the dreamscapes; the idea is that you, as Date, are the invisible overseer controlling Aiba’s actions even while communicating directly with her.
Each time Aiba interacts with an object, it runs down a certain number of seconds on a six-minute timer, after which Date can no longer safely remain in the foreign mind without losing his own (essentially game over, though you are given a limited number of rewind attempts). Simple actions, like turning the dial on a television or smelling a medicine bottle, usually only deduct a small amount of time, while more taxing actions like lifting a heavy cage come with a heftier cost. Even just moving Aiba around during these sections makes the timer count down, and later psyncs introduce time bonuses and penalties to the system.
Where the rest of the game functions a bit more like a visual novel, these somnium sections feature actual puzzles to solve. Breaking through a subject’s mental defenses requires overcoming a number of “memory locks,” essentially jogging certain bits of their past to access what they’re trying to hide. These mental blocks can require rediscovering a childhood stuffed animal or helping an attack victim unveil their shadowy assailant’s shrouded visage. Often this simply means navigating to the item in question and picking whichever action the game deems the correct one for the task at hand, although things in somniums are rarely as simple as they at first seem.
Because the psyncs take place in what are essentially dreams, reason and logic take a back seat. This is a detriment to the puzzle-solving, as succeeding before the timer hits zero requires a good bit of trial-and-error. Even after you’ve completed them once, somniums still need to be replayed, as finding and tackling a somnium’s alternate mental locks essentially opens a second exit from the scene; it’s here where the narrative paths branch off from each other and veer in very separate directions. For example, uncovering a vital clue in a somnium can send the investigation hurtling along, while completing the scene on a different track and missing this clue will affect the story moving forward. Progressing through all available timelines, required for properly finishing the game, requires multiple somnium playthroughs, making what is essentially a really interesting idea a bit of a chore instead.
It's these nagging issues – the guesswork needed to clear somniums, failing and having to replay them despite some lucky guesses because the timer ran out, being forced to shelve certain narrative paths and losing important context when returning to them later – that make the experience grow a bit long in the tooth towards the end of its twenty-five to thirty-hour runtime. However, the charm and silliness of the individual moments along the way left me smiling in between these shortcomings.
There are some hilariously over-the-top action sequences inserted into the game as well, which can require quick reflexes for timed button prompts, though these can be retried indefinitely. These include memorable moments like a shootout involving a minigun in the local yakuza family’s main office, and Date having to sacrifice his most prized nudie mag to distract gangs of thugs in the middle of a dockside firefight (Date is a lovable perv, so nudie mags are a prime source of motivation and figure into quite a few scenes). Those who push through to the game’s official ending are also rewarded with a gloriously cheesy and completely out-of-the-blue surprise that had me unabashedly grinning from ear to ear.
Fans of visual novel-style games, particularly those from Spike Chunsoft, are sure to find much to enjoy in AI: The Somnium Files. It bears Kotaro Uchikoshi’s trademark stamp of mystery thriller full of twists and turns, and the ability to psync with subjects to perform subconscious interrogations is intriguing. The dream-state’s lack of logic does impede the enjoyment derived from playing these segments, and the parallel timelines can be difficult to keep up with, despite the game providing case file dossiers for you to reread before delving back into an unfinished thread. Fortunately the strong characters, impeccable voice work, and outstanding writing help elevate the narrative throughout, and ultimately make it well worth experiencing.