Title: AI: The Somnium Files
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Release Date: September 17, 2019
Reviewed On: PS4
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Genre: Point and Click Adventure
Kotaro Uchikoshi penned some of my favorite games of all time, known for games like Remember11, Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors, Ever17. So when I heard about AI: The Somnium Files, announced as codenamed “Project Psync,” you can bet I was eager to play it. There was some pre-release hype, including an ARG (alternate reality game) featuring video content from an in-game idol who had her own Twitter account. Trailers during this time were especially exciting, as they teased a murder mystery without any hint of an ontological mystery. It’s been my most hotly anticipated game all year, which begs the question, does AI: The Somnium Files live up to the hype I’ve had for it?
You better believe it does.
AI: The Somnium Files is a point and click adventure game starring the detective Date Kaname, a member of the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad or A.B.I.S for short. A.B.I.S is a branch of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department that uses a highly specialized piece of technology, called the Psync Machine (pronounced sync) to help solve crimes. This machine allows the user to peer into the dreams of suspects so proper law enforcement can find relevant information that a suspect is unable, or unwilling, to offer up. Date’s boss assigned him to a bizarre murder of a woman named Shoko Nadami, who is the ex-wife of Renju Okiura. She’s also the mother of Mizuki Okiura, a 6th grader who lives with Date…it’s complicated. Date and his boss arrive to find a victim’s body at an abandoned amusement park, tied to a carousel horse, with her left eye gouged out. Assisting Date, in this case aside from his boss are, a genius engineer, and a snarky A.I named Aiba who acts as his fake left eye and partner in crime — well, solving the crime, that is. She also gives him superpowers like x-ray vision, thermal vision, and a zoom function.
Gameplay in AI is split up into two types of segments. During “Investigation” segments, you explore your surroundings in a simple point and click style. On a controller, this involves using one analog stick to move the cursor on the screen, with the other being used to control the camera/Date’s head. Selecting various objects will lead to quips from Date and Aiba about them. As expected from a Uchikoshi game, the text includes all sorts of fantastically bad jokes and references. I particularly liked how Uchikoshi’s writing was indeed the spotlight of the entire game. Mostly because of how AI lets you interact with a character by presenting the player with several unique dialogue options from which to choose.
On a vastly different note, Aiba acts as Date’s left eye but can also pop out of his eye socket now and then. Whenever this occurs, anything Aiba can see is also displayed and can be examined, such as even Date himself. Once you’ve seen everything you need to, you’ll be able to move on to the next location. None of these particular choices will impact the story, but it gives the player agency, something for which I am always happy about in adventure stories. I also liked the game’s quick-time events, which are needlessly fancy. Date will also be able to interrogate suspects, and you’ll have to present the right evidence to try and make them crack. If it doesn’t work, however, Date has another trick up his sleeve.
The other kind of segments are known as Somnium. A somnium is essentially a dreamscape, and as part of A.B.I.S, Date, and Aiba will psync with suspects and witnesses to collect information trapped within their dreams. In a subject’s Somnium you will have six minutes to uncover whatever you can. However, standing in your way are mental locks, small puzzles, you will need to solve to access said trapped information. You’ll guide Aiba’s avatar around the dream, interacting with various objects in surreal variations of existing areas. The game certainly takes the zany dream sequence approach most of the time, and it toes the line of fun without breaking tension. Puzzles are tricky enough to be a challenge, but not too difficult to get stuck; if you fail, you can start again. At this point in the game, choices in the game show up, as many somnia hide different threads of information within. Date’s only got 6 minutes; he can’t unearth everything within that time.
During Somnium, You’ll need to activate the correct stimuli to break down the mental locks to find out the information you need. These choices won’t be hidden or too difficult to acquire since the timing for decisions is noted down on the progress bar. If you don’t get your desired ending, you can always use the handy dandy flowchart to come back to it later. The flowchart resembles a corkboard like a fancy murder mystery, and you can jump to more specific sections by opening up the particular case records.
The somnia are interesting as they contribute directly to the current plot while functioning as a way to explore the subject’s character and explore them. Characters like Ota, a dorky nerd with a severe case of hero-worship towards the idol, Iris aren’t just those tropes. The cast contains all sorts of fun and fantastic characters that are a real joy to watch and get to know throughout the adventure. Even though the story involves hunting down a brutal murderer and revealing traumatized psyches, there’s a lot of lighthearted moments that prevent it from being too heavy. The story is a brilliant journey to behold, and Uchikoshi held me in his way from start to finish. AI has multiple endings that each add some juicy details to help with your theorizing and ultimately lead you to discover the truth behind the murders. Don’t worry about it being too complex though as you can always access the case files for a refresher. And if you stop playing for a bit, the game will recap you on the last things you did upon loading a file.
AI: The Somnium Files also handles things such as terminal illness with a surprising amount of care. Previous Uchikoshi works used fictional diseases as plot points such as “Radical-6” and “Reverie syndrome,” but this game uses things like dementia, which is a horrifying and sad culmination of symptoms that include limitations upon the person’s capability to remember to the point that it drastically inhibits social skills and becomes difficult for the person to function in day to day life. It’s rare for something like that to be handled so tactfully in a video game. The way the game evokes serious feelings of poignancy which require breather moments. Luckily, however, these are in no short supply. AI: The Somnium Files knows how to capture nearly every emotion with every character. Then the story bundles it all up into this beautiful package where there’s practically no one you can’t love, empathize with or relate to in some fashion.
Presentation in the game is immaculate, and chapters present themselves in a minimalistic yet mysterious manner. The menu screens look great and integrate themselves into the setting, such as the options menu is a “request form.” You can access a collection of case files that show character profiles, word definitions, and unlocked concept art by clearing conditions in the various somnia. The animations are sometimes a little janky, but they’re overall outstanding and used well during scenes. Each character has an animation that is tied to specific scenes as well as being fully voiced, giving the title a great cinematic feel. The voice actors are at the top of their game and bring the game to an even higher quality. The soundtrack, performed by Keisuke Ito is an utter masterpiece. The approximately 40 piece soundtrack filled with standouts that perfectly match each emotional beat, adding the right amount of tension and happiness to respective scenes. The atmospheric tracks for the various somnia help sell the twisted dreamscapes.
AI: The Somnium Files is the standout game for me this year, and it was ultimately everything I wanted and more. I was afraid I was setting my expectations too high. However, this game took my expectations, loaded them into the cylinder of a gun, and shot them away into the heavens. The music, the visuals, characters, acting, and narrative; they all blend into this godsend of an adventure game that is an absolute must-play. It could be my favorite Uchikoshi game outright. I’ll have to come back to you with a firm answer on that when my hype dies down.
On an extra note, I recommend checking out that ARG if you are interested, the videos on the Lemniscate English youtube channel can really enhance the player’s experience.
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