That Psyncing feeling
Though AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is a mouthful of a name, visual novel fans are likely familiar with the writer behind it. Kotaro Uchikoshi is back for this follow-up to 2019’s AI: The Somnium Files with a new case, new investigators, and a story so good that it, at times, eclipses its predecessor.
Getting a mystery story right is tough. A good detective thriller has to carefully thread a needle, leading the player along without tugging too hard or leaving too much slack. Nirvana Initiative does so quite well, composing the kind of bending, twisting story you’d expect from the writer behind Ever17 and the Zero Escape series.
The story gets both comedy and drama just right, while also presenting some very well-crafted puzzles and pseudo-escape rooms. AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative takes a foundation, cleans up its rough edges, and then builds something spectacular on top.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One, Switch)
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Released: June 24, 2022
It doesn’t take long for AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative to get going. The story takes place in two parts, past and present. At two points in time, two halves of the same body appear in different locations. six years apart. The player takes on the role of two investigators, Mizuki and Ryuki, in order to discover the how and why, as well as put a stop to any more killings.
Across the timeline, the player plays both characters in their respective threads to uncover greater truths. Both are investigators at ABIS, a police division that utilizes high-tech AI companions called AI-balls (that are, yes, placed in the eye) and a machine that lets their detectives explore subjects’ dreams to uncover secrets.
The first AI: The Somnium Files was an enjoyable story, though I felt it fell a bit short compared to other detective games. It made for a fun thriller, but it rarely made me feel like a detective; more often, a spectator. That, coupled with some frustrating puzzle designs and a protagonist whose inner thoughts wore on me over time, made for a just-okay adventure game.
I bring this up because AI: The Sominum Files – nirvanA Initiative improves on every single one of those points. To start, its protagonists are an extremely charismatic and relatable duo. Ryuki, the newcomer, is essentially the protégé of Date, the first game’s lead. He’s an up-and-coming investigator for ABIS, but clearly has something to prove and great expectations to live up to. Mizuki, a returning character from the first game, gets a lot of room to shine and some very welcome character development in the sequel. It was great to see her move from cast member to player-controlled protagonist, and it really adds to the second half of the story.
These two, alongside their respective AI companions Tama and Aiba, form a solid basis for the investigation crew. Both new and returning characters fill out the cast, which ranges from an internet idol and mask-wearing chef to Mama, everyone’s favorite bartender. There’s a lot of charm in how these characters’ stories intersect with the mystery at-hand, and how they grow and help each other over the course of the game.
Life is a mystery
When it comes to solving the mystery, though, nirvanA Initiative really takes a few steps up. One great addition is the virtual reality segments, where you can explore a crime scene and discover hidden clues to piece together lingering inquiries. These are easy to handle and mostly involve just walking back through clues, occasionally using X-Ray or Thermo filters to discover new information. But these segments ultimately ask you to piece things together, both reinforcing the information and making the player feel involved in pushing the story forward.
In fact, I was surprised by the number of times I was presented with something like a text entry field. Several times, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative asks the player to prove they’ve deduced something, rather than select the right option from a list. It’s little touches like these that make the experience feel more involved, and often had me breaking out a notepad and pen.
Where the emphasis on investigation shines again is in the Somniums, the dream worlds that Ryuki and Mizuki often have to explore to discover information. These surreal puzzles have a six-minute time limit, with mechanics based around how long certain actions take; pushing a box might take six seconds, for example, while lifting it could take 20 but have different results.
In the first game, Somniums felt like a pain point for players, myself included. They were a novel idea that often felt like they came down to trial-and-error. It fit the dreamy concept, but didn’t feel very fun to play, especially when it meant repeating steps over-and-over in retries.
I’m happy to tell you, reader, that AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative has much, much better Somniums. In a way, they feel like a return to escape room puzzle design, the kind I’ve enjoyed in games like Zero Escape. They ask you to decode and decipher, and reason out answers using logic and deduction. For one solution, I had to search for classical music on the internet.
I can’t elaborate too much, both because of embargos and because I’d rather not spoil some of the better “ah-ha” moments in nirvanA Initiative. I’ll say that by game’s end, I was not far from pen and paper at any moment, and I was constantly scribbling out notes and strings to remember. A few in particular, near the end of the game, are huge standouts that really feel like they found the perfect middle between escape room and surreal dream worlds. The time mechanics might still be a bother for some, and the new flying-swimming controls are a bit unwieldy, but there were thankfully no truly dreadful dreams this time around.
Between the mysteries and puzzles, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative keeps an even pace of lighthearted comedy and drama. Some jokes still don’t quite land. The cast is a very eccentric bunch, and some moments might go awry if you’re not into gags about someone gaining superpowers after reading a dirty magazine.
There’s also the return of musical numbers, which I’ll admit, grew on me over time. They’re pretty jarring, but endearingly earnest. In general, I felt the pacing could sometimes be a little rough. While it gets justified by the story, some segments felt a bit tedious to play at times, especially moments where the game asks you to visit a ton of locations and exhaust all dialogue options to move forward.
Wake me up
Where AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative succeeded for me, where its predecessor fell, was in how well everything tied together. It’s not just a well-told detective mystery, and it’s not just a game with branching paths that sometimes requires you to change a choice or jump across paths to open up new avenues of investigation.
NirvanA Initiative ties everything together in a way that feels elegant, with little touches that I’m still reeling over. Seeds of ideas can be planted in the first few hours, and not bloom until the final moments. When they do circle back around, they never feel like a sudden pull, but like you’ve discovered the one missing link you needed to solve a greater mystery. And again, at several points, the narrative directly asks you to solve some of its greater questions yourself.
AI: The Sominum Files – nirvanA Initiative is a great mystery adventure, and worth playing, even if you’ve never played the first. Spike Chunsoft actually goes out of its way to emphasize that you do not need to have played the first, and characters will explain certain connections, relationships, or events as needed if you didn’t.
If you’re looking for a compelling detective adventure with heart and smarts, it’s easy to recommend AI: The Sominum Files – nirvanA Initiative. It feels like the realization of what this world can be, and a promising step forward from its predecessor. It might still have a few wrinkles, but by the final credits roll, it’ll likely win over any investigator’s heart.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]