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Review Thread AI The Somnium Files
Well I’m done playing it, and I wanted to share my review to inform if its a good fit for you to buy, or to start conversation among those who have already played.
I want to start by saying that the only reason I bought this game at all was because 999 (0 escape) series director and writer Kotaro Uchikoshi, this was reportedly his new game that came out in 2019. The review that I read had only positive things to say, and claimed that the visual/cinematic story telling had been largely improved. And that is just true.
I went to check out the adventure gamers site review, but the page won’t load. Am I the only one that has that problem on every game’s review page? It’s like that code doesn’t know what to show.
But perusing other sites, I notice that this game has a near perfect score. And I really hate to say this, but I cannot see why. However, I tend to be a little more negative on this site, than positive, so I’m going to my best to really emphasize the positive, but it looks like there’s already loads of praise out there, so I also need to sober that up a little bit.
First I want to point out that in the art book included in the special edition, Mr. Uchikoshi mentions like three times that this is an original game and original IP. I think he knew that this game might upset some long time fans because he really emphasizes that this is not really going to compare to other games. This is a bit of a problem, because this game does not exist in a vacuum, and I would argue, is so free with it’s references and inspirations to other media, especially anime and video games, that its really hard NOT to compare it with it’s inspirations.
STORY and CHARACTERS
Okay, so the main character (DATE) is an amnesiac and police detective sort of. He has a fake AI eyeball, called an AI-ball (named Aiba). This AI ball is basically your game interface. That you use to point and click and examine your environment and interact with somnium. As you may have expected from my preview comments, this is a murder mystery game. And the murders are pretty gruesome. The graphics are not cutting edge, but look good on the switch. I am purposefully trying to omit spoilers, but I will let you know that the story holds up through out. This is not the game’s problem at all. Actually its far easier to dream up your own theories as you play to explain strange events when compared to something like Phoenix Wright because you get quite a bit of conflicting information, and it all has an explanation. Trying to figure out what is and is not relevant to the case is pretty tough, but I had some early theories that were very satisfying and seemed to answer all the questions. I point this out, not because I was upset by being thrown off the trail (I figured out most of this story the second they give you the final piece you need), but because guessing what happened in this game is much more rewarding and cohesive than something like Phoenix Wright, or even watching Murder She Wrote or Perry Mason. So you gather clues and investigate the crime scene. And let me tell you this works. For good reason, it’s basically borrowed from other established games like Phoenix Wright and 999. Much like those games, not only are there things you must find in the environment to progress your investigation, but also the protagonist or the AI will have something to say about everything. Often these are puns, jokes, perverted comments, or he just says what the thing is (which I’m not sure why they bothered programming that in.) The player will go to great lengths to protect the cute cast of characters introduced. Most of them are pretty believable or are direct references to well-understood characters. The moment you meet boss in her office, you will recognize references to female side kicks, companions, or bosses in the Phoenix Wright games like Wrights original boss Maya’s sister (I forgot her name… Mia? Maybe). There are eccentric nerd characters, Japanese idol girls, ninja girls (I don’t know what else to call them, uhm surprisingly powerful like ninja girls… IDK think like the stuff they do in Naruto and Bleach stuff). Like there’s a girl that can do that stuff. And it’s not explained. She just is a badass for the sake of it I guess. Which is weird because she often gets beat in like one hit… IDK. This game’s side story and different threads will make you cry for real. The story telling is quite top notch here.
One character has like 3 or 4 names. That’s not confusing or anything.
My last comment on the story telling and characters it that this game is hilarious! Some of the dialog had me laughing for full on minutes. And I would say this game flirts with the idea of comedy as a genre, although this is in stark contrast to mangled murdered corpses of your friends, so also there’s a lot of tonal whiplash. It works well here for the most part. And now that I look back on my experience playing, I’m really impressed at how emotionally moved I was in different ways throughout. I think that’s probably the strongest compliment I have about this game. It can make me laugh AND cry? That’s special my friends.
GRAPHICS and UI: I already briefly touched on this. It’s passable. I think you can use both the controller, and also the touch screen on switch, which is nice if you are used to DS adventure games. I think if I had bought it brand new as a PS4 game then I would be pretty disappointed honestly. The UI works how it’s intended, and I actually want to praise the UI for including the eye ball stuff amazingly well. So basically Aiba can superimpose stuff on your vision, and talk to you directly. These are things that other characters cannot sense, but the ability to cross reference things I’d previously seen in video/audio form is just absolutely genius and works really well. Any time a character is explaining a theory connected with the murder case, you never get lost in the explanation because every proper noun is shown with an image or sound. This is very similar to the case file in Phoenix Wright, except that this just happens in real time as you are talking or exploring, or theorizing or whatever. My god I hope more adventure games include this. Often proper nouns can be confusing, especially if you’ve taken a break from the game for a while. Additionally Aiba can help out by overlaying a thermal scan or xray vision into your field of view so that you can collect clues. The UI for point and clicking is largely like Phoenix wright also, except you have a 999-style time jump screen as well, and you have no inventory really. It’s not that kind of game for the most part. The ability to bring up a dialog log at any time, or even review the case files is nice and easy.
SOUND DESIGN: possibly the best thing about this game. Voice acting is top notch. The music is great and tense. There are a few sound effects that feel like they just crammed in whatever stock sound effect they had laying around but 99% of them are the highlight of the game. And that includes music. I don’t always enjoy the soundtracks I get in collector’s editions of games but holy cow this one is great! I mean some of it is great because it’s inspired directly (read stolen) from other games like Metal Gear Solid. I’m not mad because it’s good, but a lot of these inspirations will be apparent to any anime or video game fan.
The challenge in this game is all over the place, but never matches the way you would expect. You will game over in some of the somnium parts, but not for any good reason other than you couldn’t predict how a dream will play out (great). But then in the real world when you are presenting clues a la PW AA, you can pick all the wrong clues and the eyeball will just tell you that’s wrong, but there’s no penalty. Like what is even the point?! ARGH
No bugs that I could find, and well AI is a good balance of inspired and original. Sometimes it’s too original, and jumps every damn shark in the ocean. And then sometimes it’s too inspired and the story becomes transparent because I’ve already understood the reference to the other IP. It never ruins the game, but I just feel like there was a struggle to create a unique original thing. And that’s made clear in the intro to the art book I mentioned before, where Mr. Kotaro Uchikoshi flat out says “This is the first time that I relied on my team for so many creative parts of the game.” And it’s kind of clear that the director just took all the IP’s that he and his team loved, and just crammed them into a game. So that’s what we have is fruitcake the game, with too much nuts, and fruits, and candy jammed in, except you like the parts, so you can understand why you don’t like the whole….
GAMEPLAY: Yeah kid gloves off. Sorry. This is where it falls apart. Okay so you go to a crime scene, point and click at things, comment about them, interact with them blah blah. Basic stuff. Works well. You stand in one fixed point relative to the scene, and can pan the POV a little bit sometimes. All this works except there is no inventory. The game just repeats itself in “examine” dialog when you’ve run out of interactions with an item, but I wish the game was more clear about like adding it to the case file or whatever. It’s easy to forget some minor detail about a case or evidence unless Aiba brings it up or it presented in with a list of other evidence for questioning.
Also in the crime scene, you can scan with xray or thermal vision. And this is really important for finding things that are concealed, and thermal vision often can do the same, or can show you where heat recently was, or you can measure galvanic skin response if you suspect people are lying. The problem is you never get to choose to use these tools. These tools only ever play a role in the game if Aiba specifically prompts you to press the button for scanning heat/xray. I don’t understand why. If I could use the x ray and heat vision throughout, then then think how clever the player would feel when they discover a hidden clue! But instead Aiba outright says “Date scan this thing.” And then a prompt pops up on screen to tell you which button to press, and then you can press it. For story purposes that’s fine, but there’s no point in not allowing the player to use the tools all the time.
Okay so when you’ve gathered clues, and now you need to question and interrogate someone, you get a different game style. In this you ask questions of course. When someone says something that sounds bogus you can present evidence that supports or refutes a statement. Just like the heat vision thing before, you never get to decide when to use it. In Phoenix Wright, you can go through the entire testimony, and ask for more info on each line, and you can present evidence at any point through out their testimony to point out a contradiction. In AI however, you just ask questions linearly (I don’t even understand why I have to press specific buttons to ask questions here, like if it’s going to be hands off, then just let the dialog run without player input. JESUS). I don’t have a problem with the linear question, but you cannot press someone on a line of testimony, nor can you try to present evidence to contradict any line of testimony. Basically the game says “Wow date, I think that’s a lie. How can you prove it?” And then your clues pop up, and you have to pick the right one. While I would prefer to be able to make mistakes and press for info, and present evidence even mistakenly, when the clues pop up, you can mess up and pick the wrong clue. If you’ve ever played Phoenix Wright, you will know what I’m talking about where you sometimes you know who’s guilty, you know why, you know motive etc, you basically have everything figured out, but the game expects you to present evidence slightly differently than how you have worked it out, so you can’t make progress until you burn through all the options feeling like a total fool. But in this game, there is never a penalty or any pressure to get this part right. Aiba will always correct you if you pick the wrong things.
QTE; that’s right this game has quick time events. Which I would actually welcome to give this game more interactivity. So the problems here is first; far too intermittent. I almost forgot there are QTE’s in the game at all. I recently played games that are more QTE heavy like Man of Medan, Until Dawn, Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls etc. That kind of interaction would have improved this game a ton in my opinion. But instead what tends to happen is I turn on the auto dialog, and set the controller on the ground to like load a pipe or open a beer or something, and then I miss a QTE and get a game over. I mean it’s not that big of a deal. The game let’s you try again. But when I think of how integral and satisfying these QTE and button prompts have become in the adventure game genre, I don’t understand why they are so few and far between here. There are a ton of action scenes and sequences where all you do is watch things happen. No QTE’s at all. OR instead of Point and click to shoot like Man of Medan, the game will be like okay, actually hold the targeting reticule inside this circle for a few seconds while your… gun charges or something. I don’t know really. It’s not satisfying, and usually I miss because of the camera bobbing all over the damn place. He is cybernetically enhanced, shouldn’t his aim be more steady?!?! Which reminds me of the bullet changing thing. Okay so apparently Date’s gun has like different bullet styles that can have like string or nets to tangle stuff, or fire and explosions, or perfectly round. There’s all these ammo types, and Aiba specifically tells Date which one to pick, and then in a cutscene he picks that bullet, and uses it. But what I don’t’ understand is why is this not another puzzle or gameplay mechanic?
It would feel pretty cool if time would freeze in those spots, and you could inspect the surroundings and devise a plan using the unique bullets. So let’s say you have rounded, fire, net and regular bullets, or armor piercing or something. A high energy cutscene freezes, and you can inspect the different actions occurring all at once. When you are done inspecting the surroundings you should pick a bullet to use, and an item to shoot it at, and then a resulting cutscene could happen that shows you what happened depending on the kind of bullet you used, and what you shot at, and whether you succeed in solving the action scene or fail and have to try again.
But it’s just a cutscene you can’t interact with at all. I just don’t understand why it’s a part of the story at all. What does the Evolver gun and its varied bullets really matter to anything in this game?
Lastly is the somnium world. This is like a dream world where you can enter the minds of others, and it’s really the focal point of the whole game. In the somnium world, you interact with inventory and scenery to make events happen. The most important mechanic in the somnium world is the clock. You must finish everything in the somnium before the 6 minute time limit expires, and everything uses a certain amount of that time. You can collect time modifiers by inspecting, and failing activities, and then you can use those time modifiers to reduce time spent on something that you want to investigate, but that would be more time consuming. This I think is where I was most disappointed. It becomes fun enough I suppose after you understand the dream world sequences but it’s primarily trial and error. You don’t know if the right thing to do is knock on a door, open a door, kick a door, yell at a door, but they are all options. There’s usually no real indication or way to figure out what to do other than trial and error, and I just don’t understand why design a game like this. I know dreams don’t follow real world logic, but wouldn’t it make sense for a game to be more logical than dream-like? Sometimes you can use the context of the person, their immediate predicament, their temperament etc to figure out how to approach certain tasks in the somnium world, but the coherent ones are definitely a minority.
I think in one somnium, I actually had to kind of move around some reflective puzzle pieces to make a pentagram, and I was so happy to just have a f*kin coherent logical puzzle that I understood clearly. Finally I could look at the environment, determine the success state, the moving parts, and how to arrive at a solution. But this only happens like once in the whole game. And I think for a lot of people like myself that love these logic and deduction heavy games that this is clearly inspired by, like PWAA, danganronpa, and 999, there’s just so much disappointing moon/dream logic. OMG!
I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but you just never know in this game. Sometimes steam will melt ice covering a door that you need to open, but sometimes lying down on the ice melts it…. But I don’t understand why that’s the right answer. Do you see what I mean? Sometimes the solution is rooted in logic and the real world, but sometimes it just isn’t, and you never know which it will be until you’ve tried the wrong thing.
(PS) I completely forgot to talk about the timeline jumping mechanic. It’s back from the zero escape series, and while it’s kind of a mess because it presents it as a spider web instead of a linear chart. It’s less of a story element here, and it’s just there, and it’s just something you have to do to advance your investigation. There’s no real explanation why it can happen, or how Date knows things from other time lines. Often characters behave erratically different from their other timelines. I mean it’s okay, it was just crammed in here. This is integral to how the story is told to the character, and some of the intricacies do make more sense after you explore all the time lines.
This game borrows so heavily from Danganronpa, PWAA, 999, etc that I don’t understand how this happened?! So if you remember, I bought a collector’s edition (their site redirected me to amazon, which sold me a box with no game in it) and later had to repurchase the game. Both game boxes say “Day one edition” on the box. But WTF does that mean? Is there going to be DLC, more story, more investigations, more murders? Are they going to fix all the crap that needs to be addressed here. What is going on with that. And the thing is, they were so close to making my perfect adventure game. I think that’s why I’m so bent out of shape about the whole ordeal.
I would have fallen in love with this game, and would have also given it a perfect score in my review if they had just done a few things a bit differently:
1. Just increase the sheer amount of QTE’s. I think if you let the player practice with them early in the game, then later on when the action sequences show up, the player will be ready for them. Oh also, why are the buttons for the QTE’s randomized? That’s … WTF.Seriously?
2. Let the player use the x ray and heat vision all the time, instead of just when prompted. I would feel so smart finding clues this way on my own. But because Aiba won’t stop metaphorically holding the player’s hand, so instead, it’s just in the story completely sign posted with a press this button now prompt.
3. Let the player choose the ammo type for the action sequences and make short death/fail animations for those scenes. Why is this not a puzzle in the game?
4. Hearing testimony and presenting contradicting evidence needs to work just like Phoenix Wright. The heat vision could even make a come back here when looking for lies. First I would just like to see more of these in general. And then also I think you should be able to fail at these, or at least maybe be able to present them in the wrong way. Think of how Sherlock Holmes Crimes and Punishments allows the player to interpret clues differently to lead to varying conclusions. Think about how rad that would be in this anime game. Remember when I said I loved to theorize about the case? Since it’s the best part of the game, why is it not more a part of the gameplay?! Very handheld, very linear, no fear of failing.
5. I think most people will actually like the somnium world. Sadly, I don’t like it, and I wish these levels were a lot closer to the 0 escape series. I think escape room-logic puzzles would be fine here. Think of it this way, when you are escaping a room in 999, not everything makes sense. Why would someone lock their liquor cabinet with a hexadecimal puzzle in real life? Well they wouldn’t, but it would make good sense in a dream. The solution can be rooted in logic, but the setting and context can be fantastical. If the approach to somnium had been more like this, then I would forgive all the other things I dislike about this game, and just love it forever.
These short comings feel quite jarring to me because I rinsed this game all I could, and since the mechanics were borrowed from other games, I don’t understand why it doesn’t live up to its inspirations.
In closing, I want to say that the story telling is amazingly cinematic. On that front, this game is a wild success. Compared with Zero Time Dilemma, the cinematic story telling has graduated to a whole new class. I still prefer the story telling style of the first two, 999, and Virtue Last Reward. Also, if you like Japanese idols, then there is a dance mode at the end of the game that will teach you how to do A-set’s dance, and you can sing along. Not really my thing, because I don’t think her song is very good, but it’s true to life in the youtuber-musician kind of way.