When it comes to the world of video games there are a number of people that have almost perfected their genre and are the names many think of when talking about that specific genre. For stealth-action it’s Hideo Kojima, for large open world RPGs it’s Todd Howard, for character driven platformers it’s Shigeru Miyamoto. When it comes to murder mystery visual novels, the name many think of is Kotaro Uchikoshi, known for his critically acclaimed Zero Escape series of games. Now he’s returned to the genre with his latest title AI: The Somnium Files to take us on another gripping and twist filled adventure.
The story of AI: The Somnium Files takes place in a futuristic, technology driven depiction of Tokyo. You play as Kaname Date, a special agent working within the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department in a team known as ABIS, the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad. After being called to a murder scene where the victim was tied to a Merry-Go-Round with her left eye gouged, Date is tasked with collecting clues, interrogating suspects, solving the murder case, and ultimately trying to work out if the recent murders are tied to a similar string of murders from 6 years ago.
And ‘6 years ago’ is an important theme in this game, as it is revealed that 6 years ago Date lost all of his memories, along with his right eye, which has since been replaced by an autonomous AI called Aiba who is able to communicate information directly to Date and acts as his partner when investigating crimes.
The narrative setup happens fairly quickly in the story and does a great job at getting you invested, not just because you want to find out ‘who did it’ but because the characters and the world setup is done in a way that makes you want to spend more time there with them. I’m a fan of murder mysteries whether they be in films, TV series’ or games and AI: The Somnium Files nails many of the things that make them really engaging. Primarily it’s ability to introduce a number of red herrings, who upon being cleared from the crime had me addicted and wanting to progress further just to try and get closer to solving the case.
I’ve played quite a few visual novels over the years and I’ve found there are 3 key things that make or break a visual novel game. Interesting story, story pacing and interesting and likeable characters. If the core premise or world isn’t interesting, players simply won’t play the game. But even if the setup gets people in, if the story isn’t adequately delivered or paced well enough, it makes it a chore to get through and many could stop playing completely. And the same is true if players can’t attach emotionally to the characters in the story.
Thankfully AI: The Somnium Files nails the 3 things that I consider a requirement for a successful visual novel. It’s story gets it’s hooks in you, keeping you intrigued and addicted, it’s delivery does have some minor points where the pacing slows down, but never enough that you’ll lose interest and it’s characters have each been well written, with interesting back stories you’ll come to learn as you work through the game’s numerous paths and are really well voiced, with the game featuring some of the top anime and games voice talent.
The core gameplay of AI: The Somnium Files is broken up into 2 key segments. There’s the typical visual novel style portion where a lot of the story and exposition is told via dialogue between the characters. This is where Date will also be able to investigate his surroundings in a first person view and discover clues that may help with questioning people of interest.
And then there’s the part that makes AI: The Somnium Files quite unique. When questioning people of interest, Date is able to use a machine known as the Psync Machine to enter their minds and access their subconscious dreams using what the game calls a Somnium connection. During these portions the game turns into a third person action style game where the player travels through the suspect’s dreams as a human rendition of Aiba. It’s here where Aiba needs to solve puzzles and make the correct choices to successfully break down the barriers within the mind that are withholding the secrets. Although Date only has a limited amount of time while Psyncing. 6 minutes of in game time, with each action that Aiba takes along the way eating through various amounts of that time causing you to have to choose your options carefully. If your time runs out you will need to start the segment over completely or from a collected checkpoint.
Your choices during these moments can also have a really big impact on how the game’s story plays out too. AI: The Somnium Files features a branching storyline with multiple different endings. Each time a major decision is made, the game can branch off in a different direction, following different characters from that point on and leading to one of the many outcomes. To see the game’s true ending you will need to witness the stories told throughout all of the other possible paths, but thankfully you won’t need to completely play the game over again each time. AI: The Somnium Files features a flowchart system that allows you to visually see the points in which the story branched off and allows you to go back to that point and play onward from there making different choices. This was a much appreciated feature, as the core story is quite long and by giving the players the ability to skip the things they’ve already seen, it allows them to view just what’s important to them and values their time.
One thing that surprised me with the game was that it featured a fully voiced English track. This isn’t something often seen in these kinds of games even for titles that are massively popular out here in the west like Steins;Gate. The voice acting is performed really well with props going to Greg Chun and Erica Harlacher who voice Date and Aiba. The English voices helped sell the writing and the game’s quirky and occasionally lewd humour was a nice break from the more serious and gory tone of the murder case sections.
I did notice however that there were a number of times where the English dialogue spoken didn’t match up to the mouth movements of the characters, and a couple of times where the voices seemed to glitch and be played slightly before or after they were meant to. The latter didn’t occur too frequently, but both issues were noticeable when they did, though they didn’t hinder the overall gameplay experience or enjoyment of the title.
I played the Nintendo Switch version of the game for review and it looked great visually whether you chose to play it in handheld mode or docked. The character designs look sharp and crisp on screen and the advanced rendition of Tokyo is certainly very nice to look at. I did notice some instances of performance slowdown while playing in handheld mode during some of the cutscenes with a lot of detail and moving particle effects. These mostly took place within the Somnium sections but as with the voice issues, they resolved themselves quickly enough and didn’t make the game unplayable or less enjoyable.
I know people have been a little concerned with some of Kotaro Uchikoshi’s writing projects outside of the Zero Escape not living up to their expectations. But I can say without a doubt that Uchikoshi is back in top form here in AI: The Somnium Files. It’s a fantastic murder mystery title that will have you addicted from start to finish, and then diving back in to play the other routes. It certainly has me excited to see what he’s got in store for us in the upcoming Death March Club and the other future titles he’s involved in at Too Kyo games.
A Nintendo Switch review code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
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