AI: The Somnium Files Review

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A dead woman found propped, grotesquely, upon an abandoned merry-go-round. Her traumatized daughter, hiding just feet away, clutching the murder weapon and stricken mute. A series of disturbing and prophetic dreams that signal things that could come to pass, or, worse yet, are happening right now. And a sole police officer, using technology and techniques far beyond human understanding to try and unravel this dangerous, complex and highly compelling storyline. From Kotaro Uchikoshi, creator of the acclaimed Zero Escape series, comes a brand new, incredibly strange but utterly enthralling visual novel that defies expectations and ideas. This is AI: The Somnium Files.

You are Kaname Date, a police officer in the top secret Advanced Brain Investigation Section (ABIS) division of the Tokyo Metro Police. You normally don’t hit the beat for any sort of case, but when the mother of your roommate is found ritualistically slain and her corpse put on display in the restricted area of Tokyo, you decide to take notice. Oh, and your roommate, a 12 year old girl, is the primary suspect, which is also bizarre. ABIS specializes in being able to investigate the subconscious of people who are either witnesses or suspects and can find information and clues that the persons might be unwilling (or unable) to share. Naturally, Date can’t do this on his own: besides the futuristic PSYNC machine used to dive into a person’s brain, Date also relies on a special Artificial Intelligence unit, called Aiba, which literally replaces his left eye with a sentient computer that has full access to the internet and also Date’s own brain. Date lost his eye six years ago, along with all memories of things prior to six years ago, and I’m sure the two are not related nor important for the future of the game. Anyways, Date’s got his plate full from the word go, and, spoiler, things don’t get easier over this several-days long investigation with tons of twists, reveals and, oddly, multiple laugh-out-loud moments.

AI: The Somnium Files is a full on investigative experience, definitely sitting on the same level as the Phoenix Wright games and, more recently, the Jake Hunter titles. I mention Jake Hunter because half of The Somnium Files feels similar to the 360 explorative perspective, yet slightly different. For more than half of the time, Date is left in a first person perspective and must chance around the room, finding different items and persons to interact with and then building from there. More often than not, the most important things to “interact” with are the people directly in front of you, so the direction of where you should be going is certainly clearer than Jake Hunter. As you talk to people, you’ll need to sometimes revisit the same conversational options again and again to generate new information, presenting some evidence or clues that you’ve found, and, on occasion, merely looking at a person to get a better grip on the situation. When you’ve still got more to learn, the subjects (people and things) have green outlines to their titles, whereas, when they’ve gone gray, they’ve been plumbed clean of information.

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The viewpoint of AI: The Somnium Files isn’t full 360, so it’s certainly less disorienting, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult to pinpoint exactly what people are talking about. At one point early on, a character mentions flowers behind her, and you won’t be able to move on till you lock onto those flowers. In handheld mode, it was a little hard to see that she meant a potted plant near the window, so it took a few minutes of fruitless sweeping before I finally got it. Also, with zero touch controls and relying entirely on the Joycons, getting your cursor to land exactly on what you need to interact with can be a little frustrating at first, not to mention repetitive. If you hit the A button too fast at the end of an interaction, you may accidentally start the loop over again, making yourself relive the same banal information as before, and wasting everyone’s time. It wasn’t a serious enough issue to become disenchanted with the game, but for players coming in without a demo to reference, you should know the lay of the land regarding controls before you drop the full price on this game. Also, that’s my only real grievance with the title, so I figured I’d get it out of the way immediately.

In truth, these investigative moments were easily some of my favorites in AI: The Somnium Files. The character dialogues are natural, pleasant, and well voiced in English or in Japanese (I naturally lean towards Japanese, but the English dubs have their merits). These are opportunities to notice the quality nuance placed within the game, such as the animation of the characters speaking and how natural it appears. When you’re driving around with Iris (a young lady who might know something about the primary suspect), she rolls down the window to let her hand fly through the air, and it was such a relatable thing that I almost didn’t notice she casually mentioned she expected she’d die soon. Besides informational and offbeat dialogue, there are plenty of jokes, jabs and deadpan humor hurled in to catch you off guard. Date and Aiba have such a love/hate relationship that it’s a joy to watch them interact. When Aiba first pops out of your head to talk to you, I almost jumped out of my seat, and then, when I started talking to myself through Aiba’s perspective in a borderline insane moment, I started laughing. The humor helps to ease the tension of it all, and there are plenty of points where your inquisitive nature will reward you with pointless throwaway jokes, like how a set of speakers reminds Date of boobs, or how a locker is apparently full of homoerotic manga. These are the moments that made the game feel real.

Up till this moment, longtime fans of Zero Escape may be getting antsy. “Where is the time crunch??!” I hear you scream, and that’s understandable. In the real world, face to face, AI: The Somnium Files feels almost lazily paced in comparison, but that’s not the full game. When Date uses the PSYNC machine to dive into people’s subconscious, that’s when the real pressure rises. The trips into the dreams of everyone creates a bizarre reality in which Aiba is your main avatar and you change from standing around and observing to running around and interacting. The game takes a hard right turn into a 3rd person exploration with a SUPERHOT style mechanic. You only have six minutes to find the information you need before you’re absorbed, permanently, into the host’s mind, and that’s sort of a pressing issue. Time doesn’t pass as long as you’re not moving, though, so there’s a chance to stop and think before doing anything. Weirdly, “anything” is the best way to describe what you’ll be doing within the dreams. There are Mental Locks you need to undo in order to advance forward, and, while your choices are limited (wear the panda head, hit the panda head, kick the panda head), it’s not always clear what needs to be done, and you have the very real chance to waste too much time doing the wrong thing, with, again, a massive penalty hanging over you.

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When you’re in the dreamstate, it’s like the game sobers up and remembers what’s at stake. While there are still moments of puns and macabre humor, you aren’t scanning around and taking in everything: you have a mission and you need to do it. It’s a nice balance to the outside world of AI: The Somnium Files, and it’s something that fans will probably retain and remember as the best part of the game as the main takeaway. Through the save system and also the “rewind” system (allowing you to jump back to previous mental locks), a majority of the dreams will require you to make trial and error, not because you’re being stupid, but because everyone’s dreams are different. What makes sense to you doesn’t check out for the person you’re within. I thought destroying a balloon entirely would get rid of the bad memory that this young girl had (her mother scolding her for losing the balloon), but, in actuality, recreating the memory in a different form helped her cope and to move forward to finally unlocking a bit more about what she remembered and what she thinks might happen. If you are running out of time, be sure to scrub backwards to the last lock at your earliest convenience: you don’t want to start the whole thing over from your last save.

The oddball nature of AI: The Somnium Files works so fantastically well that, at least in my case, I didn’t realize I was playing a visual novel until I was several hours in, and it finally hit me. All the choices that I was presented with weren’t really versatile, and all the events and experiences only move in one direction: either I pass and move forward or I don’t. Much like World End Syndrome, I was really astounding when the game suddenly changed tempo a bit in, like going over the first drop on a roller coaster, but it didn’t throw me off. Rather, it helped affirm the importance of the case that Date was working on and dragged me deeper into it all. The art style of AI: The Somnium Files keeps you on board with everything they throw at you, suggesting a future that isn’t too far off, but is still removed enough to be true science fiction. Teenagers who dream of becoming streaming sensations and mothers in denial of their children’s obsessions balanced with high-tech weaponry straight out of Psycho-Pass and an AI eyeball who relates grim facts and truth with an attempt at humor. Old fashioned Japanese homes intermixed with sterile laboratories where human minds become crime scenes. It’s beautifully balanced, and keeps pace with your imagination as much as the directors. 

You’ll have a long playthrough ahead with AI: The Somnium Files, but not enough to wear out its welcome or make you bored. If you ever find yourself searching for more, you can jump back in the timeline of the whole game to any day to explore a bit more, find additional information about Date and the crimes (as well as more jokes baked in and references to other games and films), and try to hunt down some of the Easter egg data that’s strewn in certain areas. They unlock additional artwork, including some cool concept drawing from the game’s inception. When all is said and done, you’ll be satisfied with the conclusion, as it wraps up things nicely without being too saccharine or cliche, and also leaves wiggle room for a future without a definitive “there’ll be a sequel!” sensation (looking at you, Virtue’s Last Reward), so the overall effect is pleasant and conclusive. There are so many damn games out on the Switch now, but, as a longtime fan of the Zero Escape series, I urge you not to sleep on this one. Without being hyperbolic, I think this might be my favorite of Uchikoshi’s, even moreso than 999, and that alone should make you intrigued.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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AI: The Somnium Files Review
  • Gameplay - 9/10
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  • Graphics - 9/10
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  • Sound - 9/10
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  • Replay Value - 9/10
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Summary

Turn the real world upside down and tear into the subconscious of the innocent and guilty alike in this spellbinding investigation visual novel.


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