Title: AI: The Somnium Files - Nirvana Initiative
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Mystery games make up some of my favorite titles, but for them to stand out, they need more than a raw mystery to work. You can have a great action movie with just great action, fantasy stories become cult classics when they show up with buckets of lore, and historical films just inject dramatization into things to win Oscars. But in a mystery story, you need characters to start it, emotional investment to stay into it, and a potent climax, so the narrative hits its stride when the cards begin to be revealed for maximum impact.
AI: The Somnium Files was my favorite game from 2019, and I’m a huge fan of mystery games, especially the works written by Kotaro Uchikoshi, but they aren’t known for doing well saleswise, no matter their quality. So when a sequel was announced, with Akira Okada, the assistant director, now in the director’s chair, and Kotaro Uchikoshi back to the writer, I was all in from the get-go.
AI: The Somnium Files – Nirvana Initiative, hereafter referred to as Nirvana Initiative because otherwise, we’d be here all day, is a murder mystery adventure game with a dual protagonist split in the vein of classic Uchikoshi visual novels. It stars Mizuki, the foster daughter of the previous game’s protagonist, who has super strength (don’t worry about it), and the new kid on the block Ryuki Kuroto. These kids are special investigators for ABIS, the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad.
They use a highly specialized piece of technology called the Psync Machine to peer into people’s dreams to solve crimes. Y’know, to obtain information from a suspect or witness that they’re unable, or unwilling, to offer up. (And if you didn’t know, Nirvana Initiative has a spoiler toggle, allowing you to just jump into this game without spoiling the previous game. Although you probably should play the first entry because it’s terrific.)
The case these two are investigating is the Half Body serial killings, which are as brutal as they sound. The killer, who quickly picks up the moniker of ‘the tearer,’ slices people clean in half and leaves half their corpse behind. Uncaught for six years after a seemingly failed investigation from Ryuki, Mizuki finds the other half of an early victim in a baseball field, with a time of death just nine hours prior. So Mizuki gets herself on the case to solve a mystery that left her missing an eye and her foster father, Date Kaname. And the first port of call is Ryuki to find out precisely what happened six years ago.
How on earth does half a body show up, and how do you slice someone and store them perfectly for six years? What happened to Date? And what mental gymnastics will I need to perform if I want to figure out the true culprit before our protagonists do? You’re not getting me off Uchikoshi’s wild ride until there’s no game left.
To assist us in this challenging endeavor are the other members of ABIS, reappearing co-workers from the last game, Boss and Pewter, and most importantly, our AI eyeball companions. Aiba (pronounced like Aibou, the Japanese word for a partner because it’s another pun) from the last game for Mizuki, and the new AI-ball, Tama for Ryuki. These two will give us fancy eye-based superpowers like x-ray vision, heat vision, and a zoom function, which will be integral to solving this case.
The main perk of this is a natural in-universe way to display pop-ups and additional visuals like characters, memories, and items. It maps in a visual novel style without derailing the current visual, allowing for clever pacing and presentation. This is a linear adventure game though, so you’ll only need them when the game deems it necessary. Like in the new gameplay sections, virtual reality, in which you can explore a removed crime scene that Tama or Aiba saved to memory, using the aforementioned abilities to recreate the events that led up to them, in classic howdunnit fashion.
Nirvana Initiative’s presentation is only an improvement on the original AI, which was already exemplary for an adventure game. For example, certain menus and bonuses fall squarely under ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ retaining the case files for character profiles (now split between timelines), trivia, case notes, and’ request form’ for options. In addition, this game benefited from the extra fine-tuning of skills learned in the development of the first one, as animations have been improved across the board, areas hold more characters, and dramatic events or scripted sequences can have more weight and impact.
The Somnium sections from the first game return with some significant improvements. As always, you’ve got six minutes to wander around and solve these puzzles inside people’s heads for new information. While the zany dream logic is still there, it feels a bit more defined this time. And there are additional difficulty modes and features for those who want to skim over them entirely, as well as an unlimited time mode for replays where you can just go nuts.
They’re more linear, which means progression makes more sense, and their contributions to the case, as you clear them, are more tangible.
What’s most important about them, though, is how they serve to further explore a subject’s character and life while minimizing the amount of text in an infodump. It allows both the leads, and you, infer things with less explicit confirmation—an extremely valuable piece of story progression for a mystery game.
Our protagonists aren’t as off the wall and absurd (or as horny) as Date is in the first game, but what they are is incredibly good. The AI balls are one of the best design choices, allowing for fantastic internal back and forth between each character. They get to play off of the returning cast reasonably well, and the voice acting is just as stellar as the original game, which is high praise. But where they truly shine is with the incredibly endearing new cast members.
Sure this might be a murder mystery involving a serial killer who is slicing people in half, but there’s so much fun to be had talking to some characters who are far more relatable than they initially seem. When Uchikoshi said he likes to inject the human element into his stories, he was not kidding.
This narrative is fine-tuned and carefully crafted, evoking a cacophony of emotions, from sheer joy to emptiness and despair. I cried over this game, and I thought that I’d finally be able to see through Uchikoshi’s deceptions and signature plot twist reuse this time. I called one fairly early on and was very proud of myself, only for the big reveal to hit me like a steel chair, leaving me to exclaim in disbelief, ‘No way, how did I not see that coming!’
I think some fans may find Nirvana Initiative initially contentious. Still, I think it was exceptionally bold to treat a direct sequel in this way, and I applaud the audacity of it. Think of it as a thematic follow-up to both one of the Infinity games and Zero Time Dilemma (except so, so much better).
AI: The Somnium Files – Nirvana Initiative is an easy game of the year contender. The game features an improved presentation of animations, music, fantastic characters, and writing that left me in half reeling and desperate for more. The pacing throughout the mystery was stellar, and the build-up to the conclusion will keep you on your toes. If you’re into mystery, adventure games, or visual novels, this is the game to get.
Just limit your hype, lest you be rendered in two minds.
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