AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative review – eye of the beholder

GameCentral catches up on the sequel to 2019’s AI: The Somnium Files and finds an intriguingly offbeat murder mystery.

While he’s not as famous as the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto or Hideo Kojima, Kotaro Uchikoshi is one of those directors/writers whose association with a new release will guarantee his fans check it out, no matter what. Although he’d already been working in games for about a decade, in 2009 Uchikoshi found recognition with his directorial debut on the Zero Escape series at Spike Chunsoft, a trilogy of games full of puzzling escape rooms, complex storylines and themes, and characters who love to recite whole Wikipedia articles at you.

Despite the series being relatively successful overseas, Zero Escape was a commercial flop in Japan. So much so that the third and final game, Zero Time Dilemma, only happened thanks to a very passionate fan movement. This trend looked like it was set to continue with 2019’s AI: The Somnium Files, a brand new IP independent of Zero Escape.

Much like the Zero Escape games, it did well critically but failed commercially in Japan and didn’t seem to do much better in the West. So, we don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that its sequel – the even more bizarrely titled AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative – is lucky to exist.

An adventure puzzle game, Nirvana Initiative begins with exactly half of a dead man’s body found in the middle of a sports stadium. What’s stranger is that it matches the other half that was found six years prior and yet there are no signs of decay. You switch control between rookie investigators Mizuki Date and Kuruto Ryuki who, with the assistance of their respective AI partners – who take the form of prosthetic eyeballs – set out to solve the murder and a strange conspiracy called the Nirvana Initiative (trust us, the name makes sense in context).

Things are a bit more complex than that but accurately summarising any Uchikoshi game would take up half of the review. Admittedly, he’s not in the director’s chair this time, but he’s still the writer and fans will immediately recognise all his hallmarks: a tone that flips back and forth between grippingly dark and comedically bright, strange non-sequiturs that feel like he’s just info dumping something he found interesting, and plenty of sexual innuendo. Actually, we take that last one back. Innuendo implies there’s any ambiguity about what’s being said, when there is none.

Gameplay is split into two parts. First, you have the investigation sections, which are fairly basic as they’re presented like a visual novel. Similar to Capcom’s Ace Attorney, you’re fixed to a single spot and use a cursor to locate potential evidence and gather information from witnesses. Occasionally, you’ll get to freely move around certain areas but only for specific puzzles that require you to deduce what happened at a crime scene.

It’s easy to lose time to these sections, not because they’re difficult (you can’t even leave an area until you’ve obtained all the relevant intel), but because there is a lot of incidental dialogue and easy to miss gags that a dedicated player can scour for, should they enjoy the various characters’ quirks enough to want to hear their commentary.

Second is the Somnium sections, which are the real meat and potatoes of the game. Using a special machine, Mizuki and Ryuki can dive into a person’s Somnium – a dreamscape made from the subject’s memories – to obtain key evidence that the witness can’t/refuses to share. Don’t bother questioning the moral and ethical implications; the game doesn’t.

Fundamentally, these sequences are not too dissimilar to the escape rooms from Zero Escape. You take control of the AI partners – Aiba or Tama – and move around a 3D space to interact with various objects in order to bypass the mental locks. You are given a time limit of six minutes, but this isn’t wholly accurate since time only moves when you move or when you interact with an object. Time thankfully freezes once you select an object, with each of the different interactions telling you how many seconds they eat off the clock.

You can’t just haphazardly mess around with every object you come across; you need to pinpoint which ones are worth approaching and how best to use them. The game does provide a map highlighting interactive objects, as well as hints about what sort of information you’re looking for and how each Somnium works, but they can sometimes be just as abstract as the puzzles. A far more simple hint system, akin to something like the Professor Layton games, would probably have worked better.

Due to their dreamlike nature, you can’t always abide by real-world logic when it comes to solving the Somniums. One early example is when you need to put out a brazier. Instead of blowing on it to put out the fire, you need to breathe it in. Sometimes, your limited options means deducing what needs to be done can be pretty simple, but the solutions can seem a bit too surreal and it’s easy to find yourself resulting to trial and error. This isn’t ideal considering wasted actions risk running out the time limit, but you’ll sometimes be rewarded with items that can shave off valuable seconds from your next action, so it’s almost worth messing around and experimenting.

Each Somnium is wholly unique in terms of visuals, each one perfectly representing the mind of the subject, with some delightfully surreal imagery and atmospheric music. Even though you’re effectively doing the same thing every time, the individual designs help keep things fresh and interesting. One highlight is a Somnium that’s essentially just Pokémon Go, where you collect other characters and use them in turn-based battles. Each Somnium is a treat, not only for the strange (sometimes disturbing) visuals but also for gaining some insight into a character’s psyche.

What determines one’s enjoyment of this game is the storytelling and characterisation. For as light-hearted and wacky as it can get, this is still a murder mystery. One that puts almost the entire cast through the emotional ringer. Even supporting characters get their own arcs that dive into what drives them and sees them struggle with their own emotional turmoil, assisted by solid vocal performances across the board. On top of that, you have a genuinely gripping mystery with an interesting hook and an ending that does actually resolve everything quite neatly.

However, Uchikoshi’s writing style isn’t going to be for everyone. After experiencing the Zero Escape games and the first Somnium Files, we’re fully on board with his eclectic approach to storytelling, where he tackles multiple, often seemingly unrelated, themes and subjects, veering wildly between goofy shenanigans and being nightmarishly grim. One scene will have characters discuss the simulation hypothesis and how the world they inhabit is but a digital construct, the next will feature a fully choreographed (and admittedly catchy) pop idol song and dance number.

Nirvana Initiative is perhaps Uchikoshi at his most unfiltered, for better and worse. If this is your introduction to his style of writing, you’ll likely find yourself being overwhelmed with how much information is thrown at you, that you need to remember for later. When characters get philosophical, you’ll either find the discussions engaging or feel like the game is just trying to sound smarter than it is.

The script is full of lewd humour too, which often feels particularly out of place. Whenever these jokes do happen, it comes across as Uchikoshi being, as the kids would say, horny on main (AI partner Tama is unsubtly dressed like a dominatrix and is one of the most common sources of innuendo). You may find these gags too ridiculous to even be frustrated with, such as one character effectively getting superpowers by looking at porn, or you’ll just groan and lose any sense of enjoyment whenever they happen.

Established fans of Uchikoshi’s work, however, will get a kick out of everything the game has to offer. The only real gripe for them, is how little Nirvana Initiative ties back to the first game, from a narrative perspective. Most of the returning characters are reduced to bit parts, to the point where they almost needn’t have come back. Plus, they sometimes act like they’ve regressed and forgotten all the development they underwent. The relationship between Mizuki and her adoptive father (who was the first game’s protagonist), for example, feels like it’s gone back to square one half the time.

This was obviously done so newcomers can jump in with no need to play the first game. In fact, the game even begins by asking you if you have played the original, quizzing you on details from its story. Returning players will then get to enjoy unique dialogue whilst newcomers can avoid any major spoilers in case they decide to check the first game out afterwards. It’s by no means a bad approach to storytelling, but these callbacks are ultimately inconsequential. The specifics are never really built upon or have any meaningful impact on the cast or story, so fans of the returning characters will feel a bit let down by how they’re portrayed.

If you’ve played Zero Escape and/or the first Somnium Files and you somehow haven’t picked up Nirvana Initiative yet, you should definitely do so. You’ll enjoy it just as much as those games. For anyone who’s new to Uchikoshi’s work, we still highly recommend it if you love bizarre, dark mysteries; larger than life characters; quirky humour; and complex puzzles. There really aren’t many games like it, that will leave you guessing right till the very end.

It might be best to play the first Somnium Files (which is easily available across most modern platforms) beforehand, since it boasts a slightly tighter, more personal narrative and, for as weird as it can get, feels a bit more grounded. Uchikoshi’s writing won’t be for everyone but if you give it a shot, you may discover a new favourite storyteller and then you can join the queue waiting for his next mystery.

AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative review summary

In short: Fans of gripping mysteries and intriguing puzzles will love the eclectic storytelling, but not necessarily the pervy humour, in Kotaro Uchikoshi’s most fascinating oddity.

Pros: Unique puzzles, with a constantly engaging core mystery that’s full of surprises. Fun character writing and strong voice work that can get genuinely emotional and heartfelt.

Cons: Plenty of puzzles require trial and error to solve. The dirty jokes can be more annoying than funny. Can be overwhelming with how much important information is thrown at you.

Score: 8/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Price: £53.99
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Release Date: 8th July 2022
Age Rating: 16

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