Developer/Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Genre: Visual Novel, Adventure
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Also Available For: Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
What’s wild about AI: The Somnium Files is that it doesn’t feel like a game that needed or even particularly expected to have a sequel. It is perfectly self-contained and resolves itself well, leaving the player satisfied with where everything ends up… and yet, the surprise announcement of a sequel – subtitled nirvanA Initiative – roughly a year ago was still cause for excitement. Having now played nirvanA Initiative, I’m pleased to report that it does not at all feel unnecessary as a sequel and is a wonderful addition to writer Kotaro Uchikoshi’s body of work.
The Basics: AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is a murder mystery visual novel with a central conceit of entering characters’ dreams – or somniums – to gather information and piece together whodunnit. The game follows two character duos, each consisting of a human investigator and their synthetic left eyeball/AI companion: Mizuki and Aiba, and Ryuki and Tama. Both pairs are working to solve the Half Body serial murders, in which the killer tears the bodies of their victims perfectly in half and never leaves a whole body in one place. Saying any more than that would very quickly veer into spoiler territory, and while I’m not a big proponent of “spoilers ruin one’s ability to enjoy things forever” in this case you definitely would be missing out by not going in blind.
Fans of Uchikoshi’s previous works will be familiar with his somewhat convoluted but ultimately not too difficult to understand style of storytelling, but for those who aren’t I’ll say this: as with the previous AITSF game and the Zero Escape series, nirvanA Initiative has some of the most brilliant, utterly batshit twists and turns you will ever see. Many of those twists and/or turns are done in such a way that could only work in a video game, which makes the payoff for them that much sweeter. Moreover, despite their batshittery none of the twists feel completely out of left field, and even the ones you don’t end up guessing before the reveal itself (which will be quite a few, I assure you) will still make you go “oh, that other thing was foreshadowing this!”. This respect for the audience’s time and intelligence is, in my opinion, one of the most important marks of good mystery fiction. I will admit, the construction of nirvanA Initiative isn’t quite as tight as its predecessor, with a few things that don’t add up or fit together perfectly, but even when not at the top of his game Uchikoshi is still a class act.
Though the majority of the game is presented as a visual novel on the higher end of the genre’s interactivity spectrum, this is occasionally broken up by the aforementioned somniums, puzzle segments set within dreams. The somnium sections in the first game were one of the most interesting parts because they forced the player to think outside the box and adapt to a certain level of dream logic while not being so abstract as to be super difficult. Unfortunately, the somnium segments in AINI feel very simplified, both in their difficulty and their comparative straightforwardness. This is particularly a problem in the first half of the game, during which some of the somniums feel more like cutscenes than puzzle sections. In addition to dream puzzles, simple action sequences with quick-time events return from the first game, and an entirely new sort of puzzle is added involving piecing together a chain of events in a VR recreation of a crime scene. Though interesting in concept, the VR investigation sections are even more underwhelming than the somniums while also having a few puzzles which are a bit infuriating to figure out. That said, these moments of frustration can’t even begin to outweigh the strength of the game’s narrative.
It should be said that you can technically play this game without having played the first Somnium Files. The game opens with a scene that asks if the player has played the first game or not, and answering no will make it so that the game avoids any direct references to spoilers form the first game. Even if this is not enabled, nothing in the plot of nirvanA Initiative requires intimate knowledge of the first game. However, I would not recommend playing this game without having played the first, as you will miss out on a lot by doing so, both in terms of serious plot aspects that are informed by the first game and running gags that carry over between the two. On that note, fellow fans will be delighted to hear that this sequel is if anything even raunchier than its predecessor, still in that particular Uchikoshi way that doesn’t feel like it crosses the line.
It’s difficult to say too much about AINI because of how much of it is predicated on trying to figure out the mystery as you learn new information, and I wouldn’t deprive anyone of that intentionally. Even so, learning a few details – even major ones – won’t ruin the experience, and I can say that with certainty because I desperately want to go through again and try to pick up on things I missed and get a clearer idea of events now that I’ve finished it once. If I wasn’t so busy, I’d probably be halfway through a new playthrough right now. Either way, this is a hell of a good game – if you’ve played the first and enjoyed it, play this one; if you haven’t, go play the first, then play this one. You won’t regret it.
KOTARO UCHIKOSHI GOT ME AGAIN