If you enjoy Zero Escape but always get lost in the web of alternate realities, AI: The Somnium Files will be right up your alley.
AI: The Somnium Files has you play as detective Date (pronounced dah-tay), an officer in the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad (ABIS). Date has a partner, Aiba, who lives in his eye socket as he is missing an eye and was gifted a special fake one from ABIS that has some very handy hacking skills. Aiba takes a few forms throughout the story from a simple fake eyeball to a chubby little translucent bear thing to a pretty lady with flowing hair (crafted in Date's image of the perfect woman according to Aiba herself). She is Date's cell phone, X-ray glasses, heat vision goggles, hacking device, and all-around internet-connected digital assistant. She can even project herself so Date can see her human form and strike up a conversation. I enjoyed the dynamic between the 2 characters, especially when one of them would say silly things or something that makes no sense so the other would scold them.
Besides the protagonist and his trusty sidekick, you'll meet a large cast of characters as you unravel the mystery of the New Cyclops Serial Killings. Super-strong preteen Mizuki lives with Date and watching the banter between them clearly shows that they enjoy each other's company but will outright refuse to admit that it's charming. Iris, the internet pop idol, and her doting fan Ota sound like they would be annoying characters but they both have their own story and a surprising amount of depth. On the funnier side, the drag queen who runs a bar frequented by the cast is a delight to be around and useful for getting information on shady rumours. Moma, the boss of the Kumakura Gang also has a hidden soft side that becomes contagious when revealed. The amount of work that went into fleshing out these characters is impressive, making me actually care about what happened to every single one of them.
If you've ever played Zero Time Dilemma, you'll see similarities in terms of story and gameplay here as you're given a branching timeline in a graph that can be accessed from the main menu with each picture providing a point that can be returned to at any time which allows you to unlock new nodes on the graph. In terms of the decisions that you make, you mostly influence the graph by choosing a different path in a few key areas. You'll know when there's an alternate way to accomplish a task because an onscreen indicator will show so there's no getting lost in timelines which can easily happen in the Zero Escape games.
Needless to say, I enjoyed the fact that I had a graph showing me where I could make choices and change timelines. Some gamers may prefer gameplay that requires you to critically think about how to change a timeline but for a game that does such a great job with all of its aspects and intricacies, I think keeping the branching timelines simple gives you more time to enjoy AI: The Somnium Files' highlights without being forced to aimlessly figure out what should happen next.
The story starts out with Date being asked to investigate a crime scene where a woman's body was found on a merry-go-round with one eye taken out. In the centre of the ride, he finds his 12 year old roommate crying and holding the murder weapon. Apparently, 6 years ago, there was a chain of serial killings named the Cyclops Killings where each victim had one eye removed. Date's memory was apparently wiped 6 years ago after the killings and the fact that he has one eye missing seems like too much of a coincidence for it not to be related, even if he can't remember. In the present, as police forces come across more bodies, the story starts to unravel and go in all different directions leaving some characters alive or dead depending on how well your investigation goes.
Key points in the investigation feature moments where Date uses ABIS's Psync Machine to dive into people's minds. He can do this for 6 minutes which counts down in real time and if he stays any longer, there can be devastating consequences. When you're Psyncing with another character, you play as Aiba in her human form while investigating the scenes in the subject's mind and trying to find clues that may help you figure out the perpetrator of the New Cyclops Killings. This is the only part of the campaign where you walk around a 3D environment with the rest of the gameplay being within simple 2D screens where you continue conversations and investigate scenes.
Interacting with something in 3D costs time from your 6 minute maximum and if you can find a timie, you can use it to decrease the time it costs to perform an action and in the later Psyncing episodes, these become mandatory. The difficulty feels just right, forcing you to think outside the box at times and occasionally requiring you to restart a sequence. Having said that, there were a couple of moments when I had no idea what to do next and ended up using all of my allotted time to investigate.
When you're not Psyncing, you'll travel around the city of Tokyo. Sometimes, the story will limit your decision of where to go and other times, you'll get a long list of locations to choose from. Such locations include ABIS Headquarters, Lemniscate talent agency, the maid bar Sunfish Pocket, and many others. There's decent variety with each location having a good level of detail in the scenery. Speaking of presentation, every single character shows their personality with their well-animated expressions and how they're voiced. That reminds me; AI: The Somnium Files includes English and Japanese voice options which is impressive considering there's a ton of dialogue.
Besides talking to characters at each location to uncover information, you'll occasionally have to make use of your X-ray or heat vision to find important clues. Aiba also has the ability to think through a problem and tell Date what to do in order to get out of a bad situation. For some reason, multiple situations involved using adult magazines, bras, and underwear but I'll give Spike Chunsoft a break because they managed to keep AI: The Somnium Files away from the overly sophomoric subject matter that their games usually involve. Finally, there are moments when you'll interview characters and present pieces of evidence to keep the conversation going. Overall, there's a nice variety in the gameplay so you can't just put it on auto-play and watch events unfold for long periods of time.
AI: The Somnium Files surpasses the best detective games out there and I will recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre. However, one big problem that I had with it was performance issues that seemed to occur later in the campaign. I was informed that these issues will likely be fixed in a day one patch but I'll describe the problem anyway. AI: The Somnium Files frequently stutters and when it wasn't stuttering, it started pausing in the middle of conversations about halfway through the campaign. It would take up to 30 seconds for a character to respond to a question while I stared at them sitting there scratching their face and looking around. Having researched this, I tried turning off the internet on the Switch and after booting it up again, it didn't seem to have the same problems. I'm not sure how the internet connection could have affected it but I would definitely recommend shutting it off while playing this game.
Finally, I touched on it a little earlier but I found it impressive how well Spike Chunsoft managed to tie humour into a game that has very dark subject matter. There are many silly moments to enjoy and with one of the main characters being a pop idol, watching the serious characters' attraction to her fun-loving persona is a joy. There's even a Psync sequence that was modelled after Minecraft which has you hit blocks with a pickaxe while watching bodyguards dance along with a blocky interpretation of Aiba. You're actually rewarded with a dance number at the end with the whole cast and a Dance Mode unlocks where you can control things like the backgrounds, featured character, speed, and lyrics. It's just the icing on the cake of such a well-crafted experience.
Overall, I'm gushing about how much I loved AI: The Somnium Files. The quality of characters and story mixed with the variety of gameplay and fun investigative segments make it a must-own for fans of Japanese detective games.
- + Thoroughly enjoyable cast with interesting stories and charming personalities
- + Branching storylines keep things engaging
- + Great use of lighthearted humour
- - Occasional moments make it tough to figure out what to do in order to progress