AI: The Somnium Files is a 2019 release from Spike Chunsoft. It joined Xbox Game Pass back in September of 2021. I recently got offered the chance to review the next game in the series, Nirvana Initiative, so I figured I’d take a look at the original first to get my bearings. I came in with no clue what the game was about, and no expectations, and I was completely blown away by one of the best mystery stories I’ve ever played through. Visual novels are definitely not my genre, but after how much I enjoyed this one maybe it should be. Let’s go over why I think this game is worth checking out.
“It feels strange…”
Like always, I’ll try to use as few specifics as possible so as to not spoil anything. This game is mostly a follow the plot, lightly interactive novel. You are Kaname Dante, a detective for a special police unit. You’re a Psyncer, which I’ll explain in a bit. Kaname is a handsome, brooding, porno mag obsessed loner who has a 13-year-old girl as a roommate and an AI living in his left eye socket named AIBA (AI Ball). The game is typically weird, full-on anime, and somehow avoids many of the major pitfalls I end up having with anime and its treatment of women. That’s because this game’s writing is not only legitimately hilarious most of the time, but it’s incredibly smart. So much of the major, goofy, horny moments feel like a direct send-up of the typical anime tropes. That writing though.
The English translation is phenomenal, the music is damned near perfect at matching each scene, and the English dub to support it is one of the best I can remember. Every character excels, with deep issues and massive growth. A lot of this comes through the game’s use of branching timelines. You will encounter wildly different versions of your characters as you can go back and change your choices to branch things off in set ways at specific parts of the story. The story starts off and ends on a set path at its ending but getting there is an incredible mystery with an epic and satisfying conclusion. I’m getting ahead of myself though!
The game starts with the murder of a local woman, someone Date knows. Her left eye is missing, and things quickly become more and more complicated from there. The majority of the title is a fixed position 3D rendered point and click adventure. During your “Psync” sessions, where you enter into a subject’s mind to find out their secrets, the game does go into a very basic 3rd person behind-the-back camera mode. You’re moving around freely, though with a(n at times incredibly strict) timer and choosing actions to do. A few times rather easy minigames tied to aiming pop-up as well, but the majority of this game is about being told a story as you find the correct things to click on.
“Yeah, I found a porno mag in Golden Yokocho, I carry it everywhere.”
AI: The Somnium Files is all about the tone and the story. It is a masterwork of mixing the serious and the absurd. Multiple times throughout the game Date’s love of porno mags is used to give him near super-human powers, as AIBA notes his reflexes increase 3.6 times when he sees one after all. This is the type of over-the-top, dumb humor that normally pushes me away from a story. Something about the earnest delivery of the voice acting, the excellent comedic timing of when it is or isn’t used, and just how hard the more serious moments hit. I can’t really put it into words, but outside of some crass words regarding women’s breasts, I found myself with a smile on my face for the majority of the game. The times I didn’t was when the shocking gore came up. Either in the current times or in flashbacks, this game goes to some incredibly dark places.
Halfway through my 15 or so hour playthrough, I wasn’t sure the game would earn the right for the shocking displays of truly awful violence, but it did. As loose threads began to tie up I saw just how core a pillar of the entire plot that violence was. It was not there for simple shock value. It IS the driver behind the game’s themes, and without it the emotional beats would not have hit nearly as hard for me. As stated before the game uses a multiple timeline mechanic that generally branches off in a few possible ways at certain Psync sessions. You can access the menu at any time and jump to any point of a story beat, and to see the true ending of the game you will have to go through all of the possible outcomes. You’ll see the credits roll 4 or 5 hours in depending on how well you can deal with the only truly bad part of the game, its puzzles.
“Fears!” “Upset, regret, A-set!”
Those 3D Psync sessions start out fine. You are looking to clear “mental locks” inside your subject’s head and you have 6 in-game minutes to do so. Thankfully time only moves either when you move or you make a decision. Objects will have names in the environment and through trial and error, you’ll either luckily guess or slowly stumble your way to the correct answers. You’ll get a checkpoint at each cleared mental lock from which you can restart with the amount of time you have left.
As the game has now been out for three years, do not do what I did. Find guides and use them to get through these puzzles at the first signs of frustration. Some of them are insanely tight timing-wise. Each action can possibly give you items to use which lower the amount of time used by an action by say 1/3 or 1/6, and eventually the timing becomes so ridiculous that a single mistake means you have to completely restart. A few times I got to the last area but I had made a mistake or two in previous mental locks and I had to fully restart the entire thing. One endgame Psync session took me over an hour, whereas if you know the answers it’s roughly 5 minutes long.
Trial and error simply is not fun, though occasionally some of the puzzles did make a tiny bit of logical sense. If you aren’t struggling with them it can be a fun mechanic, but the moment you start to feel agitated like I did be smarter than I and just find a guide online. The story is too good to give up because of the poor puzzles, and the fact that nearly every achievement for the game is under 10% completion percentage makes me fear that many started and stopped once they grew too frustrated.
AI: The Somnium Files is a fantastic game. Visual novels normally aren’t my thing, but I quickly found myself engrossed in the mystery. It has one of the best scripts I can remember in a game, and truly stellar voice acting. While this one is on Game Pass if it sounds at all interesting to you then I implore that you check it out. “Shadows!” “Threat, silhouette, A-set!”
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PS4/5, PC|
|Release Date||July 25th, 2019|
|Developed By||Akira Okada & Spike Chunsoft|
|Published By||Spike Chunsoft|
|Rated||M for Mature|