AI: The Somnium Files was created by Kotaro Uchikoshi, the writer and director of the Zero Escape Trilogy. If you haven’t played those games, stop reading this and go play them. Quit your job if you have to. Do it .I happen to be an enormous fan of that series, and have been known for incessantly badgering everyone in a 100 foot radius into picking up the games.
I was excited that Uchikoshi was taking another crack at his signature visual novel/3D puzzle-style games within a new IP, this time as a detective story instead of horror. While I wasn’t quite in the mood to play it when it launched in September 2019, I pre-ordered it to show my support for one of my favorite game makers and finally got into it a few days ago. I was part of Operation Bluebird, the online campaign that raised support for Zero Time Dilemma to be funded, and (humblebrag) I’m even Facebook friends with Uchikoshi. As one of the biggest fans of Zero Escape in the world, AI: The Somnium Files did not disappoint.
Following in the footsteps of Zero Escape, AI is a twisting, branching story that leads to several different endings that are all simultaneously canon. Much like the second Zero Escape game, Virtue’s Last Reward, a flowchart can be accessed at any time to jump between timelines, scenes, events and dialogue. While many games offer the branching paths leading to different endings, very few demand that all endings be accessed before the player can even understand where to look for the true ending. As I said, all the branches are canon, and I can’t really tell you how without spoiling it.
Our story begins when Shoko Nadami, a former friend of protagonist detective Kaname Date, is found dead on a Merry-Go-Round with her eye gouged out. Things only become more complicated; Shoko is the birth mother of Date’s adopted daughter, the feisty and determined Mizuki. Date’s partner in this near-future sci-fi investigation is Aiba, an AI that lives in Date’s artificial eyeball. She is merged with his consciousness and serves as a faithful companion throughout the story, and her back-and-forth with Date leads to some pretty solid comedy. The game opens up with a visual novel section (fully voiced in English with great voice acting) and then turns us to our first puzzle.
I’ll be the first to admit, the puzzles are the weakest part of AI. The setup is rather complex, but essentially each puzzle sends Aiba into another person’s mind (their “somnium”) via the PSYNC machine, a secret project by the Japanese government housed in Date’s department, ABIS. Aiba physically manifests into a human girl, and the player controls her as she tackles the multilayered and multi-ending puzzles in dream-like 3D space. Entering the PSYNC machine has a catch though; it can only work for 6 minutes, or 360 seconds before deactivating. You only have that long to deactivate all “mental locks” to enter the subject’s dream.
When Aiba approaches an object, she’s given a choice to do three or four things, with a “time consumed” marker next to each one and what’s called a TIMIE. TIMIEs are bonuses that can be stored to decrease time consumed for later tasks; for example if you kicked a bucket and it consumed 10 seconds but awarded a 1/3 TIMIE, you could use that to fill the bucket up with water and decrease the consumed time from 60 seconds to 20. It actually makes for a pretty interesting mind game, choosing where to use your three stored TIMIEs and where to take the hit on time, but the puzzles kind of falter in making it clear what to actually do.
There are often five or more interact-able objects at once, each with several options on how to interact, so AI kind of encourages players to trial-and-error the puzzles. Every time you choose the wrong interaction, you lose precious time. You’re allowed three charges to restart at any of the checkpoints during the puzzles, but the farther back you go the more charges consumed. If you don’t make it out in time, you’ll start the whole puzzle over.
On the first few puzzles that were a bit easier, I had fun trying things out and seeing what happened. However, as time went on, I was less enthused about brute forcing the puzzles and started using a guide. Many puzzles actually have two solutions, leading to branching story paths, so it’ll definitely take a while to beat this game if you do it all organically. I think simply giving the player an infinite number of restart charges for checkpoints would have actually made the whole thing more fun; I understand the concept of introducing the fear element of running out of time, but I just got frustrated every time I couldn’t crack a puzzle on the first one or two tries.
The story ended up being pretty fascinating, and if you’re ready to give it the same suspension of disbelief you would to other near-future Sci-fi like Star Trek, Deus Ex, or Prey, you’ll find it’s a pretty tightly crafted script. Working with multiple timelines that must all remain distinct yet feed into each other is complex, and the fact that Uchikoshi managed to nail it again is certainly encouraging that more games of this type may appear one day.
I was a bit put off by some of the characters, such as Iris and Ota, near the beginning, but by the end of finishing my first timeline (of six) I was heavily invested in them. I suggest giving the characters a few hours to grow on you; Aiba and Mizuki are especially wonderfully written and very engaging right from the start.
The dialogue is wonderfully quippy almost all the time; but it does slow down to let the serious moments land. As I mentioned before, the voice acting is much better than I expected in English, so I suggest using that language option. While the mystery unfolds you’ll meet all kinds of people, from congressman to the Yakuza to a Minecraft streamer to a fabulous drag queen.
Also, interesting note, AI has found a lot of traction within the LGBT+ community; it features a few sexual minority characters and several conversations even take place about LGBT+ rights and public view. It was refreshing and totally unexpected in a Japanese visual novel, so kudos to Uchikoshi for being a little more progressive, I suppose.
I will also advise caution on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, as some pretty serious compromises were made to get it to run. Docked, it runs at 720p 30 FPS, and drops to even lower resolution in handheld. The FPS also isn’t stable in either method, and regularly drops to 20 or so. This isn’t really the dealbreaker it would be for most games, as it’s a visual novel for the most part, so I powered through. Being able to play handheld in bed was nice! But looking back I wish I had purchased it on Steam or PS4. The loading times were pretty egregious on Switch as well.
AI: The Somnium Files is a weird game in a weird transitional space, and clearly shows Uchikoshi’s willingness to branch off from what was successful in the past. Even though it doesn’t all work, I greatly admire what the team at Spike Chunsoft put together and am extremely impressed at how well they handled such an overly complex story. I had those moments of epiphany seconds before the reveal like you want in any good detective story, as well as the satisfaction of some of my theories being correct well in advance. Other theories I had were… not so correct, but that’s the fun of it. While the puzzles fell short for me, especially in comparison to those from Zero Escape, I had a great time after getting sucked in and couldn’t put it down all weekend. I legitimately can’t believe a sequel is coming next spring, and is still being directed by Uchikoshi even after his departure from Spike Chunsoft; the next game has the potential to be a mind-bender for the ages. I recommend AI to anyone who’s enjoyed Zero Escape or its partner series Danganronpa, or to anyone looking for a crazy mystery that will test the limits of their imagination.