I wouldn’t say I’m familiar with Kotaro Uchikoshi’s work since I’ve only played Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and only a little of Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, but after AI: The Somnium Files, I’m about to get very familiar. AI: The Somnium Files is a masterclass in murder mystery storytelling with excellent performances and characters that keep you on the end of your seat until the very end, even if it has a few – minor – stumbles along the way.
AI: The Somnium Files is an adventure game that is a weird combination of a grim murder mystery and a light-hearted buddy cop story. You play Kaname Date, a special agent from a secret organization called ABIS (Advanced Brain Investigation Squad) which uses its advanced technology to enter someone’s subconscious mind – or Somnium – to search for clues. Your partner in this buddy cop relationship is unlike most though since it’s - bizarrely - your eyeball that has an artificial intelligence in it, otherwise known as AI-Ball or Aiba. Aiba has many different functions: x-ray, thermal vision, zoom, she is also your phone, but most importantly she is your partner. Although she is an AI, Aiba acts and sounds mostly human but with more logical thinking, which makes this duo highly-entertaining throughout with some great back and forth about stuff that AI can’t comprehend.
As soon as AI: The Somnium Files begins, you can tell you are in for a wild, mysterious ride as the police discover a women’s body tied to a horse on a carousel with her left eye missing. As Date and a woman he refers to as Boss arrive on the scene, they begin to investigate the area and shortly discover a little girl inside the column of the carousel with a bloody ice pick in her hand. The story continues from there into this multi-layered, twisted journey with a new surprise around every corner that will have you at the edge of your seat the entire time. There is also an excellent cast of characters that you’ll meet along the way that are fantastically voice-acted. Whether you’re interrogating them or having a casual conversation they feel like real people, despite everything going on around them being absolutely bonkers.
The reason the story in AI: The Somnium Files is so excellently told is because of the multiple endings that you can get. Each ending and path you take continuously add more to the story bringing more details to what you already know and adding even more mystery to make you keep going. It isn’t until you finish all the endings that you’ll get the definitive end, and more likely than not, you’re going to want to see it through.
There are two core gameplay systems in AI: The Somnium Files: investigation and Somnium/Psyncing. Investigation is what you’ll be doing for the majority of the 25 hours it takes to go through the entire story, while Psyncing is the key to finding all the different endings. While investigating you’ll mostly be searching areas for clues and questioning people all around town with the various dialogue options provided. Not all are about the case, but if you like a character, this is a good way to get to know them and their stories. Date is stuck in one spot during the investigations, so you’ll mostly be panning the room with the right thumbstick looking for clues, which can get tedious in the beginning but once you know more about the case you start to realize what to look for. Aiba’s vision modes mentioned earlier are used in investigations as well and are a huge part of finding clues. These clues you find will help later when interrogating people as you have to provide evidence for the line of questioning.
Some parts of your investigation will end up with you performing a few quick-time events (QTE), but they mostly use QTE’s as a joke to show how much of a pervert Date is. Aiba realizes that his movement speed is increased when he is thinking about… porno magazines. So, with that knowledge, all the QTE’s become Aiba referencing something perverted and Date moving quickly to perform an action Aiba has planned out. It’s a fun interaction between Aiba and Date for the first couple QTE’s, but it becomes stale towards the latter half. Date being a pervert makes for some great interactions between Aiba and other characters when engaged in normal conversations though, so overall, it isn’t an issue.
The second gameplay system is Psyncing or Somnium which, as mentioned previously, is going into someone’s subconscious mind to find clues. When someone is unwilling to cooperate or is unable to, ABIS puts them into a Psync machine and enters their subconscious to discover what they are hiding. The location within their subconscious could be anywhere, but most of the time it is somewhere related to a crime they may or may not be a part of. When in Somnium, you take control of Aiba as she develops a humanoid body and you are no longer fixed in a single spot, as the action shifts to third-person. The goal is to unlock the mental lock’s the subject has in their mind by interacting with whatever you think will unlock them. Depending on how you approach a Somnium, mental locks can lead to different endings and can drastically change the story.
During the first Psync, you learn that you can only be in Somnium for six minutes, so you have to move quickly but also choose wisely. The more you move the more time goes down, but interacting with things will also cause the time to deplete. The interactions will tell you how much time it costs before you perform it, but you’ll realize that some cost much more than others and that’s where TIMIEs come in. TIMIEs are things you collect in Somnium that can lower the time it takes for any interaction you choose by either a set number or a fraction of the interactions number. There are negative TIMIEs as well that can multiply the time it takes to perform an action. You can hold three TIMIEs at once and when holding a negative TIMIE it is automatically applied, which can ruin the entire Somnium.
You have three retries depending on how many mental locks you’ve unlocked since you can only go back in time three mental locks worth throughout the entirety of someone’s Somnium, which also gives time back. If you unlocked three mental locks and have to retry from the first mental lock for more time then it will use two retries leaving you with one left, and if you get to three and mess up again you can only go back to the second mental lock because you have one left. It’s simpler than it sounds, but using them all up will require a full restart of the Somnium. Most of the Somnium’s were easy to figure out, but trying to find the second path for the alternate route is where you’ll run into problems. It seems most of them are guiding you towards one route, which might be intentional for storytelling purposes, but because of that it makes finding the other route more difficult.
Visually, AI: The Somnium Files is really nothing impressive. In all honesty, it looks like a game from last generation, particularly in its environments. The character models themselves look good enough, but most of the environments are empty and plain. There are quite a few places you go to for investigation, and since you’re just fast traveling from place to place in the map, this game could’ve definitely looked better than it does. Even with that though, the game still brought me into this world and kept me constantly engaged with the story and characters that it started to become less and less of an issue. As for the performance, it was great, fast travelling from place to place was basically instant so it felt like you never get a chance to sit on something big you just learned and that kept me playing for hours.
AI: The Somnium Files is a murder mystery that is masterfully told to keep your eyes on the screen until the very end. The two main characters, Kaname Date and his eyeball partner Aiba, are great together as a buddy cop combo and all the characters they meet along the way are excellently voiced and realized in this world. The visuals are lacking when it comes to the environments, but you quickly forget about them when you discover what plot twist is introduced next. Kotaro Uchikoshi just got a new fan and I’ll be keeping my AI-Ball on him for whatever he plans next.
AI: The Somnium Files (Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
A murder mystery that is masterfully told to keep your eyes on the screen until the very end. The visuals are lacking when it comes to the environments, but you quickly forget about them when you discover what plot twist is introduced next.