A decade or so ago, filmmakers and television producers were obsessed with the “Mystery Box” narrative, largely popularized by Lost, wherein a lot of mysteries are slowly introduced throughout the story, with the promise that eventually they will pay off. Their popularity grew in the internet age because it’s fun to theorize online as you watch or play. As time has gone, they’ve become less common because creators miss what makes those stories click: solid, respectful pacing, great characters to ground the narrative, and an ending that, while it might not tie up all the loose ends, is thematically and emotionally satisfying and doesn’t feel like a cheat.
Kotaro Uchikoshi, the director of the Zero Escape series, has built his reputation on strong Mystery Box narratives because he’s often clicked these boxes, notably in 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. While he faltered a bit with Zero Time Dilemma, AI: The Somnium Files was a return to form, introducing a new box for Uchikoshi to tease us with, unique gameplay, and delightful characters. So, of course, when the AI sequel nirvanA Initiative was announced, I was eager to spend more time with these characters.
Unfortunately, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative falls prey to many problems afflicting the modern Mystery Box narrative: sluggish pacing and an unsatisfying ending. But, because of its characters and new gameplay mechanics, it is still a solid entry.
While some later revelations let the narrative down, nirvanA Initiative gets off to a promising start. Picking up a little more than six years after the events of the original, Mizuki, now an 18-year-old junior investigator for ABIS, discovers a half-corpse severed vertically down the middle in the center of a stadium. Even more strangely, she’s seen the other half of this body before: six years ago, it was dropped in a quiz show she participated in, which kicked off the beginning of the Half Body (HB) killings. The case is still unresolved, so Mizuki chats with the original investigator for ABIS, Ryuki, who is clearly damaged from this case. From there, we flash back to Ryuki’s investigation and control Ryuki while also following Mizuki’s investigation.
As with the previous game, the narrative follows multiple pathways — time following Mizuki or Ryuki — and has multiple endings. Choices you make along the way influence which path you follow, and occasionally you need additional information from some routes to proceed down others. It’s all standard Uchikoshi on that front. Unfortunately, the level of control over which route you travel is significantly lower here than the previous game, or especially some of the Zero Escape games. There are reasons for it, but the joy of having multiple bombs dropped throughout the narrative and piecing those seemingly disparate revelations together is almost entirely lost here.
The story structure also leads to one of my biggest frustrations with this game: it constantly explains what is happening in the story, over and over again, until I can recite almost every detail verbatim. There’s no need to pay attention most of the time because the game will do all the work for you. This slows the pacing down to an almost glacial crawl. There are large stretches where I felt like nothing was happening so we could have our hands held through things the audience should understand. It feels like Uchikoshi didn’t trust us to put the narrative together, from either a structural or a pacing perspective, and plays it too safe as a result.
I could tolerate this if the narrative payoffs were worth it. But they’re not. It’s not a surprise to say that events near the end reframe much of what has happened before. That’s standard Uchikoshi. As usual, characters engage in discussion of high philosophical concepts, ranging from the Simulation Hypothesis to the Mandela Effect. In previous games, the high-minded philosophy and twists that play out reveal things about characters and give the struggles more emotional depth. Here, it feels like the narrative choices Uchikoshi makes, including the narrative structure and the late-game revelations, lack that same emotional resonance. Everything feels weirdly impersonal, and I didn’t find the conclusion satisfying or daring in the least.
I know it all seems like I’m being a bit negative, but these issues are particularly frustrating because so much of the game is pure, unadulterated, unhinged Uchikoshi. For me, that’s a good thing, but I know it might grate on some. The sense of humor from the previous AI remains largely intact, particularly the very sexual jokes. Occasionally he goes over the line even for me, but the presentation usually made me chuckle. There are at least half a dozen ridiculously over-the-top J-Pop dance routines. There are even a few references to other games which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. In so many ways, you can feel the developers having a blast, which makes the narrative shortcomings such a disappointment.
The joy of the narrative is best revealed through its characters. There are a ton of familiar faces here, ranging from the internet sensation Tesa to her adoring fans Ota and Moma. Mama obviously returns still as delightful as ever. Even Date is back. It’s the new characters who really shine in nirvanA Initiative, though. They’re each built believably with emotional depth and humor. I was particularly taken with Lien, a lovable doofus who suddenly shows up to profess his love for another character, all while cheering you along the way. As usual, Uchikoshi knows how to engage in character tropes but move beyond them, creating believable, fully formed characters: quirks, flaws, and all. The outstanding voice work bolsters this effect. There are both English and Japanese options, but I stuck with the English throughout because there isn’t a false note there.
Unfortunately, both Ryuki and Mizuki fall a little short of Date from the first AI as protagonists. Mizuki is precisely as amazing as you remembered her: tough-as-nails, loyal, and unwilling to bend. This worked beautifully in the original because of her interplay with Date, who rarely took things seriously and added some needed humor to the game’s first themes. This time she has Aiba in tow, and their interplay falls short. I was actually a little more taken with Ryuki as a protagonist, whose mental state we see slowly deteriorate over the course of the game, and his AI-ball, Tama, is hilarious, bringing some levity to the proceedings as Date did in AI. Don’t get me wrong, I think the developers did a nice job with both protagonists, but I missed Date’s consistent charm (or lack thereof).
Similarly to the first game, one of the ways you get to know the characters and reveal their secrets is by diving into their “Somniums” — a dream world where you investigate them further. On the whole, the Somniums here follow the previous game’s format. You have a timer of six minutes. In those six minutes, you move around to different objects, taking up a certain amount of time. As you interact with each, further “mental locks” are uncovered for you to dive deeper into the person’s psyche, hopefully unlocking a clue that furthers the investigation.
One improvement nirvanA Initiative has over the first game is how it uses Somniums. First of all, they all play fair. While I failed a few, I was generally able to learn from my mistakes and go in the right direction the next time through. None of them are terribly challenging either (certainly not close to some of the more difficult Zero Escape puzzles). Most importantly, they are often emotionally resonant, creative, and made me feel close to the characters. A new mechanic where you gather hints and tips about the characters’ psyches also helped with this. There’s also much more variety in how they play out. Sometimes you’re in a cooking competition, engaging in a quiz show, or even one with puzzles reminiscent of earlier Uchikoshi titles. I was particularly taken with a Somnium that takes direct inspiration from another popular game franchise. I’ll admit, some of the new ideas aren’t entirely successful, like when they add stealth and swimming mechanics, but they’re still generally a highlight of the game.
Otherwise, gameplay is largely unchanged from the first AI, though there are a few new twists. Sometimes you still have to engage in QTE during battle sequences — a welcome break from reading text for me. You still explore various locations and go through different conversation trees with characters as well. One new feature, though, is the ability to go through “virtual re-enactments” of crime scenes, where you interact with different elements of the area and put the pieces together in a virtual environment. Other new additions are the ability to dress up your AI-Balls in costumes using currency you earn during Somniums, and you can even raise your own Tamagotchi. All in all, the new additions to the gameplay aren’t significant, but they’re a nice change of pace in this dialogue-heavy adventure game.
Another thing that is largely unchanged from the original AI is the look and the sound. Sure, models are a little clearer and colors pop a bit more, but the game looks remarkably similar to the first. The soundtrack is also largely unchanged. I’m listening to it as I write this, and I can recognize almost every track from nirvanA Initiative. Personally, I don’t mind at all. Games like this rise and fall mainly on their story. Plus, I really like (most) of the character models from the first game, and that same style continues here, even if I could do with a little less skin in some cases. Similarly, the soundtrack is still a mix of dark synthetic sounds reminiscent of a noir film with some science fiction tossed in. It all works for me and enhances the game nicely, even if none of it is remarkable.
Mystery Box narratives are dangerous. As people engage with them, they create their own theories, latch onto certain clues, and writers need to do a lot to live up to the expectations. Even with all the right ingredients, it can be hard to stick the landing. Those expectations are even higher when it comes to someone as lauded as Kotori Uchikoshi. So, it’s hard for me to be mad at AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative for falling narratively short in so many ways .
Nonetheless, Uchikoshi has done better. This time, it felt like he was trying to be clever for its own sake rather than focusing on the narrative momentum and a satisfying ending. But none of that really matters. If you’re an Uchikoshi fan, you’re going to play this. And you probably should. Just don’t expect the heights he’s reached in the past.