"AI: The Somnium Files' story is dark, with a lot of horrific and upsetting moments to be found, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of humor and, dare I say it, heart present in the plot too."
There's been a gruesome murder put on display at an abandoned amusement park, and it is up to Detective Kaname Date and his partner Aiba to figure out who the culprit is as the dangerous mystery unfolds. Of course, Date is no ordinary detective: he's part of a special police program called Advanced Brain Investigation Section (ABIS for short), and Aiba is an Artificial Intelligence that usually resides in his left eye socket. Their investigations not only involve gathering clues at crime scenes but also delving into the mindscapes of people of interest to reveal hidden truths that may lead a killer to justice. Given that description, perhaps it is no surprise to learn that this tale was penned and directed by Kotaro Uchikoshi, of the critically acclaimed Zero Escape series, as AI: The Somnium Files certainly shares several key sci-fi and psychological elements with Zero Escape.
Thankfully, AI: The Somnium Files is a graphic adventure/visual novel hybrid that definitely fits into Kotaro Uchikoshi's wheelhouse, and that is most assuredly a good thing. Every scene and moment uncovered in AI: The Somnium Files made me want to experience more. I'd find myself playing the game for hours on end before finally managing to put down my controller. Simply put, AI: The Somnium Files is an utterly engrossing and addicting video game experience.
The gameplay itself is very much what you would expect from a mashup of the graphic adventure and visual novel genres. Players get to explore various locales, pointing and clicking at things to investigate them further. Those interactions are often accompanied with plenty of colorful observational dialogue from Date, Aiba, or someone else in the cast. Sometimes you can use the cybernetic abilities, such as thermal or X-Ray vision modes, that Aiba provides to see things just a "little further." You can also talk with characters who show up on screen, choosing various dialogue options before a VN-style dialogue starts up.
There are various gameplay mechanics to be found at certain points in the story, such as when a person of interest or a potential suspect is brought in for questioning. These segments are easy enough to figure out during conversations between Date and the person under suspicion, providing an opportunity to present evidence to further make Date's points stick. The game is fortunately very forgiving in these segments if you do end up choosing the wrong piece of evidence, allowing players to progress without feeling pressured or overwhelmed.
AI: The Somnium Files is also very forgiving in regards to the quick time events that occasionally take place to break up the lengthy story and conversation exposition. I know not everyone appreciates this type of gameplay, but I found it to be well utilized in AI: The Somnium Files: just enough to keep things from getting stale, but never to the point of overstaying its welcome. You can retry these segments if you happen to get them wrong with no penalty, which helps cut down on potential frustrations they may have caused otherwise. I personally found myself repeating a few of the shooting ones in particular over before picking up the knack for them.
The biggest gameplay frustration comes from when Date and Aiba perform a "Psync" with someone. They use a machine to delve into the subject's subconscious dreams, known as Somnium, uncovering clues to break the subject's mental locks and discover their hidden truths. The main issue with these investigation segments is largely due to an imposed six-minute time limit. To be fair, the plot gives a well-fleshed out reasoning behind the time limit. I can also admit that, should you fail to clear out all the mental locks in time, the time limit can keep frustration down because you don't have to restart a lengthy game segment. Still, it is a double-edged sword.
Because Psyncs delve into someone's mindscape, what exactly one needs to do to surmount the puzzles isn't incredibly clear; there is a lot of trial and error involved. Each action you take, however, will cost you time, so unless you're fortunate enough to make the correct puzzle choice on the first go, you could lose potential exploration time. Fortunately, there are ways to lessen the time penalty, which can greatly help. Plus, you're given the option to restart the Psync at various unlocked checkpoints up to three times should you need to do so, and after those three times you'll restart the entire Psync. More often than not, the time limit can add a level of stress instead of urgency to a Psync.
Players take on the role of guiding Aiba through these Psyncs, changing the gameplay perspective to the third person action genre. For the most part, the controls are great, though I found some of the camera angles in the Psyncs not to be the greatest. I'd often spend some time readjusting the camera before moving. This naturally causes you to lose some precious seconds of your exploration time limit. I don't wish to be too harsh on the Psyncing aspect of the game because the psychological elements it brings up are quite clever, very creative, and utterly fascinating once you know more about the characters themselves, but there are a few imperfections in how it is presented. I found any frustration with the Psyncs to be more of a mild nuisance than anything absolutely detrimental to the game itself.
The level of detail in AI: The Somnium Files is amazing and well worth noting. There are readily available appendixes for players full of helpful terms and descriptions (including Kotaro Uchikoshi's insights, which I thought was a nice touch) along with detailed character bios. It is very obvious that this title was the result of a lot of forethought and effort.
Graphics-wise, while the game isn't going to be breaking any systems, the character models and backgrounds are nicely done and visually appealing. I particularly loved the way the characters' mouths moved and how expressive their character facial portraits were during dialogue moments. However, there is a noticeable lag and slowness with loading certain dialogues and scenes on the Switch version of the game at least, though I was often so engrossed by the plot that I didn't notice it nearly as much as I might have otherwise. Lip syncing in the English version of the game could also be hit or miss at times.
AI: The Somnium Files involves some pretty graphic depictions of death and violence given the murder mystery aspect of it, so there are some scenes that can be difficult to watch and/or read the descriptions of. This isn't a game for the faint of heart, and there were times when I had to look away for just a few seconds as a result. Fortunately, there are skip options readily available should someone need to use them for those more violent depictions. If nothing else, the graphics and visuals are certainly adept at reminding the player that you're playing a detective on the hunt for a dangerous, psychotic killer.
I went with the English language version and, beyond that odd lip-syncing quirk I mentioned, I had no complaints. The voice actors did an excellent job with their voice work, especially since for certain characters there were story beats that meant they had to pull out all the stops. The music was done by Keisuke Ito and set the tone quite nicely for the game's atmosphere. I especially loved the jaunty tune that would so often play during the QTE events, as it fit what was happening in them perfectly, especially with the special "incentives" Aiba gives to Date during those segments. Sound effects were also nicely implemented and very realistic for the game's story. For example, there were certain "squishy" sound effects that had me wincing involuntarily given what was happening in game at the time.
Of course, the main reasons to play AI: The Somnium Files are its engaging story and characters. I'm not a huge fan of gore and horror myself, but the plots that Kotaro Uchikoshi comes up with are absolutely fascinating. AI: The Somnium Files is a stellar example of what he's capable of as a writer, and I was hooked into finding out the truth of what was going on by the game's opening scenes.
The murder mystery itself spans several different routes, with your approach to solving puzzles in certain Psyncs opening up different branching points. Fortunately, you can keep track of all the different routes and endings you unlock by using the game's handy Flowchart, and there is even an option to skip dialogue and event scenes you've already seen to help you progress faster. The routes are, in true Kotaro Uchikoshi fashion, all connected in a way that will become obvious the further you advance. Completing all of them is the only way to see the game's True Ending, with certain routes becoming locked until you progress enough in other routes to reveal them.
It is utterly fascinating to see things mentioned or revealed in one route end up becoming an important plot or insight point in another, and I loved how the Psyncs all helped reveal psychological aspects of the characters that become more prevalent the further in the story you advance. The only downside to the story that I can think of is the game's tendency towards summarizing or repeating the "story so far," which happened a bit more than needed, especially towards the end of routes. However, the routes and endings themselves range from the heartwarming to the bittersweet to the utterly devastating. I freely admit to tearing up during some of them, but all the routes reveal something poignant and new that will eventually appear in later scenes. Again, the level of detail in the story and world-building is quite immense and impressive.
The characters themselves are all likable and realistic. The cast all have their own personality quirks and flaws, and I loved learning more about them and seeing their individual character developments as the story progressed. From Date and Aiba to the twelve-year-old Mizuki; Internet idol Iris; the "reformed" Yakuza leader Moma; the scientist Pewter; information broker Mama; all the way to the indomitable Boss, the cast is filled with memorable characters. It was great getting to see them evolve in the various routes, even if some routes were less kind to them than others. I also loved how diverse and inclusive the cast was, and how none of the characters really fit into what others might assume their character tropes were based off of their designs.
AI: The Somnium Files' story is dark, with a lot of horrific and upsetting moments to be found, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of humor and, dare I say it, heart present in the plot too. There were quite a few moments when I genuinely laughed out loud while playing, and I grew to care quite a bit about certain characters and their developing relationships with one another. It was a pleasant surprise considering the plot's grisly and intense subject material, and I felt that there was a successful balance between the darker points of the story and the sillier ones. Personally, I loved the little moments where you saw just how much the characters grew or cared about one another.
AI: The Somnium Files is an amazing graphic adventure/visual novel hybrid that I'm glad I was able to get a chance to play. The story and characters definitely leave lasting impressions, and the gameplay is enjoyable without many frustrations. It is a clever title that I'd recommend.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.