AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative Review: Not So Minor Anymore
I was surprised when I heard that AI: The Somnium Files was getting a sequel. The first game was a solid enough mystery, one I enjoyed at the time, but it didn’t stick with me the way Director Kotaro Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape games did. Even just a few years later, I could only remember the barest details of its plot and felt the need to watch a recap before jumping into AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative. If I wasn’t reviewing it, there’s a genuine chance this sequel would have ended up as part of my never-ending list of games I’d like to check out someday, if only I ever found the time.
That would have been a colossal mistake. While not a perfect game, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is a hugely improved sequel in nearly every way. Keeping all the interesting parts of the original while jettisoning most of what didn’t work as well leaves a fascinating game that kept me hooked until the shocking final hours.
A Mystery In Two Parts
As a visual novel, so much of what matters in these games comes down to the story and characters. Thankfully, nirvanA Initiative gets it right, putting you in the capable shoes of a pair of different protagonists. Things get started just a few months after the first game ended with a new murder mystery called the half body killings. The name is pretty self-explanatory, people are being killed, and only half of their bodies are being found, split right down the middle.
Ryuki, a brand new character, leads the investigation in this earlier period. Like Date, the protagonist from the first title, he’s a Psyncer, a man with a special AI eyeball who is his partner and friend. Tama looks out for Ryuki as his investigation starts to take a toll on him, and it feels like he’s always a step behind.
Our second protagonist will be more familiar to those who played the original game. Mizuki, the adopted daughter of Date, is still a kid in the earlier period, which takes place only a few months after that first game. She’s involved in the story in this period, but only around the edges. You play as Ryuki.
Six years later, though, the case comes back around when somehow the remaining half of those bodies start to show up, with no evidence they were ever frozen or preserved. They seem like they were just killed, but how is that possible? After six years have passed, Mizuki is now a Psyncer herself, newly in her role but hopelessly tied to the case and unwilling to let someone else handle it. She partners with Aiba, the AI from the first game, which fans will undoubtedly be glad to see return. Ryuki still has a role to play, though the years have not been kind to him.
Psyncers are very special investigators, mind you. The biggest thing that stands apart is their ability to hook themselves and another person up to a machine that lets them see the person’s subconscious, known as a somnium. While not literal, these sequences are essential to unveil clues that their sources are hiding and are the biggest source of gameplay in the entire title. The surreal nature of these sequences leaves the game’s team free to exercise some real creativity and are far improved over the sequences in the first game.
Early somnium sequences feel a lot like the first game, though perhaps a bit better balanced. In these sequences, your subject will have multiple locks on their heart, which they use to hide information from you. You’ll need to explore the area and a variety of items within, using them in combination to push the subject towards healing and revelation. Some players may be confused by the logic behind these puzzles, but they make sense if you try to put yourself in the shoes of the character involved, many of whom have very different motivations.
Each action you take in a somnium takes time from your six-minute time limit. You can stand still and look around with the clock staying frozen, but any movement or interaction will start it draining away. The good news is that you get a variety of items that can lower the time cost of expensive actions, helping you get to the end of the sequence before time runs up.
Later somnium sequences get far more imaginative, with some of the later ones blowing away those of the first game. Mechanically they aren’t that different. There are a few new options, like the ability to float or swim in certain areas, in certain sequences, but these don’t move the needle much. What does is just far more variety in their design. Some sequences are designed so entirely differently from each other that you’ll have to really think about how to best apply things. I especially love one sequence, which is an homage to a beloved game series.
Somnium sequences aren’t the only time you’ll have to get your detective on either. New VR recreation sequences of crime scenes allow you and your AI partners to explore crime scenes in detail, putting events in order and figuring out what happened. You’ll also have repeated quick-time events pop up in more action-oriented sequences, and these are perhaps my least favorite aspect of the game. They’re generally not overly hard, but they also don’t feel necessary or interesting.
The mystery sequences though are and they do an excellent job of balancing options with challenge. I got stuck a few times, but never in a way that I felt I couldn’t work my way out of. The one option I didn’t like was that at several points in the game you’ll be asked to answer a question by fully typing out the answer. These are often used to lock you out of splitting paths until the game is ready to let you go down a specific path. While fine in concept, the answers to some of these are provided very briefly, sometimes partially long before you’ll use them, and with little fanfare. If you forget to look out for the answer you could miss it very easily. This lead me to needing to replay hours of the game looking for the answer I needed and unable to find it. There’s only a few of these but they were consistently my least favorite mystery to solve.
Mizuki and Aiba aren’t the only returning characters from AI: The Somnium Files. Favorites like Boss, Pewter, Iris, Moma, and more are all back. Some of them have reduced rolls from the original game, giving a brand new cast of characters a chance to shine, but these favorites have their moments as well.
Yes, Date is back too. Date could be a likable character in the first game, but he also contributed greatly to a tone that could feel gross and out of place. He’s an incredibly horny character, and while that hasn’t changed, taking him out of the protagonist’s seat changes the frequency and feel of the game a great deal. Don’t get me wrong, nirvanA Initiative is still a super horny game. Several characters can be problematic, but they’re characters having problems more than the game having them. I love that this is an incredibly diverse cast which the creators clearly respect, including a huge group of powerful women who are fully realized characters and not merely tropes. There was one other character pairing which gave me bad vibes early on, and which I still think is a bit cringe inducing, but which even I eventually came around on, even if I wish their pairing had been set up a bit differently.
All of these characters feature fantastic voice acting and a strong soundtrack makes the entire experience even more of a pleasure. By the time I was into the second half of the game I simply couldn’t put it down.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative isn’t a perfect game, but it offers one of the best mysteries I’ve ever seen in a game. Combine that with a wonderful cast and somnium sequences that blow away the original game, and you have a visual novel that is a must-play for anyone interested in the genre. AI: The Somnium Files was minor Uchikosi, but nirvanA Initiative stands among his best work.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch; Publisher: Spike Chunsoft; Developer: Spike Chunsoft; Players: 1; Released: June 24th, 2022; ESRB: M for Mature; $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.