A few years ago I came across a series of games that blew my mind, a series that took branching stories and multiple timelines to a whole new level, the Zero Escape games. Kotaro Uchikoshi had created some of the best mystery puzzle games I’d ever played, presenting you with lots of meaningful choices, time-based puzzles and an incredible story and atmosphere. Now, with the help of Spike Chunsoft, Uchikoshi is back with a game which, in my opinion, blows all of his previous games out of the water, AI: The Somnium Files.
Unlike his previous work, AI: The Somnium Files is much more focused on exploration, investigation, questioning and time management, gameplay which requires the player to think about everything they’re doing and how it’ll affect the timeline your in and ultimately impact the final conclusion. After approximately fifty hours and a lot of scrutinous investigations, I managed to achieve the platinum with no guides or help (bar one piece of advice from my friends over at https://knoef.info) – an achievement I’m incredibly proud of and can’t wait to add to my virtual trophy cabinet.
So, why is (spoiler) AI: The Somnium Files my new Game of the Year, overtaking my last favourite, Judgment? Let’s dive into my mind and find out…
This goes without saying but, this review will be spoiler-free but will give out a few bits of information based on the first few days within the game. Everything I’m about to talk about is in the descriptions of the game and the trailers which are out there – if you wish to only know about the mechanics and what the game is like in general, skip until you’re past the next image.
One rainy night in the cold of November, a female body has been spotted at an abandoned fairground straddled upon the merry-go-round horse. However, this is unlike anything our protagonist, Kaname Date, has ever seen as the victim (someone quite close to Date) hasn’t only been stolen of life, she’s also had her left eye gouged out and taken away. As a key member of ABIS (Advanced Brain Investigations Squad), it’s up to you to not only investigate the physical world for clues and meaning behind this sick and horrific crime but also dive into the minds of witnesses and suspects in order to rebuild their memories and discover the truth.
Although our protagonist is an absolute badass, he can’t compete with this killer alone, especially when the bodies start piling up each day they fail to capture the one responsible. As such, Aiba, your artificial intelligent partner (who just so happens to be your left eyeball) is literally along for the ride as well as a cast of other helpful and crazy personalities such as your Boss, a young stalker and most important of all, Iris Sagan, an internet Idol who actually has a real-life YouTube channel!
Every choice you make in order to come to your deductions will affect the outcome of the narrative, pushing you in one direction or another as you try and figure out what’s actually going on. The question is, which path is the right one, who should you believe, why is there a pair of boobs sat behind a desk, and why do you think a hi-fi system looks like a penis? So many questions, so little time to find out the truth
AI: The Somnium Files consists of two main gameplay components which then branch off into their own little segments, which is quite ironic based on the format of the game. These are:
Exploration and investigation mode
You’ll jump between various locations in a linear fashion, with very little chance to deviate from the path, in a first-person viewpoint for the majority of the game. Moving between locations allows you to examine and comment on almost anything you see lying around – there’s even a trophy for looking at everything in the Boss’ office (which is a lot of items). There’s a massive narrative to follow, all fully voiced in either English or Japanese (which can be swapped whenever you wish), as you discover more about what’s going on in between the ‘puzzle’ segments by questioning witnesses and suspects and generally having a good old nosey!
For me, the star of these segments was the incredibly funny dialogue and observations Date makes as you interact with people and objects. I usually just talk to the people I have to then move on in games like this but AI: The Somnium Files made me want to click on everything like it was a ‘Humongous Entertainment’ Putt-Putt game! However, those who are easily offended by adult smutty innuendo humour may not get on well with the type of writing on offer as the game is crammed full of it. From the aforementioned secretary sat behind the desk who’s description changes every time you look from “a woman behind the counter with large breasts” to simply “Large breasts sat behind a counter”, to the sexual tension and almost harassment received from Boss, your female superior.
The gameplay also changes by allowing you to interrogate people, offering up clues to deduce what actually happened in the real world with factual evidence and statements. These play out like a forgiving Ace Attorney as there’s no punishment for getting them wrong but you do get a trophy if you get all the evidence right without making a mistake – you can always rewind time and present the correct answers after a bit of trial and error.
Somnium – a.k.a. The Psync Machine
If you loved Zero Escape, you’re going to absolutely adore these segments as they will challenge you in many ways whilst also presenting you with a few polarising choices at times. The Psync machine is a futuristic device that can take two individuals and create a bond between them via the nerves within their eyes, allowing a ‘passenger’ to enter the subconscious of another individual and explore their memories of recent events. However, things aren’t always as they seem as the human mind may be trying to trick you or lead you down a different path towards an alternative outcome, one which doesn’t provide the closure you are looking for. As such, these fantastical and advanced mind visits tend to branch off and dramatically alter the story based upon which truths you choose to believe within the unit.
So, how do they work? Once you’ve created a connection with your subject – either friend or foe – Aiba presents herself as a controllable A.I., one which Date (you) can move around the virtual space and interact with various objects and memories. The catch is, you only have six minutes, 360 seconds, to get in and out – any longer and something catastrophic will occur. This wouldn’t be so bad if it was simply a ticking clock, but it isn’t. Time only moves at full speed as Aiba moves around, but every action you take eats up precious time. For example, opening a door may take 10 seconds off the clock immediately or putting a pot of soup on your head (she has to do as she’s told, even if she doesn’t like it), will take 60 seconds off the clock.
This is where the puzzle aspect comes in. A lot of the actions you can perform, from the mundane and silly to the essential to progress, will reward you with a ‘Timie’. These are positive or negative boosts that you can use in your next interactions. For example, although it takes 60 seconds to put the pot on your head, it may only be 5 seconds to look at the pot. Looking at it first may give you a 1/6 Timie. Then, if you use that boost before you put the pot on your head, it’ll only take off 10 seconds of the time – thus overall saving you 45 seconds. The mechanic is really interesting and works really well, it gets you to experiment and retry the Psync over and over until you figure out what order to interact with things in.
As I said previously, The Somnium segments are where the story deviates from the linear path, often offering you multiple outcomes which in turn have their own branches and endings. I can’t express how brilliant the writing within AI: The Somnium Files really is. Once you’ve taken your first branch by either putting together a picture or blowing up a balloon (followed by some quirky comments about the size of the balloon in comparison to Aiba’s breasts), the story doesn’t just subtly change, the whole dynamic with the characters and the overall narrative shifts rather dramatically. I’ve recently reviewed The Walking Dead Definitive Series, with one of my complaints about that being the choices don’t really matter, this is the polar opposite.
The Psync sessions themselves are almost like escape rooms, which makes sense considering Uchikoshi’s previous games. However, as these are set within a dream-like state, things are very abstract and surreal to the point of leaving you saying “WTF” pretty much every time you enter someone’s mind. For example, there’s one Somnium which has you creating a portal to shrink the victim so they can get away from their murderer, only to then jump into another one to make yourself massive and make the evil-doer go ‘blasting off agaiiiiiiin’ with a swift kick to the face.
However, the choices you make within these psychedelic segments is completely up to you. Do you trust the person’s mind which is guiding you? Can you actually believe what’s being shown? Should you go one way and dance yourself to freedom, or does your future lie with breaking the rules and /Give Aiba 46 64? It’s all about trial and error, going with your gut, or planning out the perfect run by utilising your ability to return to previous mid-Psync checkpoints. Also, you can have a lot of fun just messing around as there’s a lot of crazy ‘pointless’ things such as succumbing to an evil bunny, wearing a number of things on your head, and forcing Aiba to touch the girls and tell you how ‘hard’ they are in comparison to you…
I know I’ve touched on this above but I absolutely love the writing within AI: The Somnium Files. Every single scene had me laughing out loud to myself, despite the game featuring some rather horrific scenes of death and torture. These were usually preceded and followed by some really well-written comedy moments. For example, in the opening Somnium, the tutorial one, you see a skeleton with a bleeding left eye socket, sat all grim on a sofa with a bottle of wine in front of it. You can have Aiba abuse it by shouting “Your mother is a stupid boney girl! Boney, boney, boney!” – it’s pointless, but it makes me laugh every time.
I do have to stress once more that the game is full of sexual innuendo and jokes about various body parts. If you’ve played games like Zanki Zero then you’ll most likely know what to expect. Some notable points were looking at a MerMaid girl with my X-Ray vision (thanks to Aiba), only to be disappointed that it only shows her skeleton and not simply allowing me to see under her clothes, the constant banter with Aiba over the size of her breasts (she’s an A.I. so it’s fine…), the head of a Yakuza clan asking me to see if a certain Idol will give him her unmentionables, and our young roommate constantly pointing out our perverted and slightly ‘pedo’ behaviour!
My only complaint, and it really isn’t a complaint, is the complexity of the seemingly simple story. As you start branching off in all directions, you’ll sometimes come to points where you can’t proceed until you’ve discovered more endings elsewhere. This leads to having to jump back through the timeline and alternating to the other paths. This is fine but it’s so easy to forget who’s alive and dead in the timeline you’re in and just how much our protagonist knowns at this point. I won’t lie though, a few of the endings I got had me in tears, some of them really touch the heartstrings and leaves you hoping that’s not the actual timeline where Date ends up. Thankfully, there is a true ending which you can find – that one is much more satisfying.
Combat and action scenes!
How could I forget about these?! There are a few moments within the game that I would class as pure comedy gold combined with action and combat. I would even go as far as to say I’ve not seen QTE segments like this since the infamous QTEs in the Yakuza series where you’re chasing panty thieves and other strange characters. There are a number of opportunities to go all in and frontal attack the enemies, however, Aiba helps create a perfect plan by organising the best course of action to take so that you emerge the victor. This usually involves you either looking at a Porno Magazine to increase your reaction speeds or using both the magazine and women’s underwear in order to distract the armed guards (just like we did with the zombies in School Girl/Zombie Hunter) so that you can take them all out whilst they’re perving away!
Each time one of these pops up, you’ll drop everything you’re doing, block out the real world around you, and become focused on nothing but the events on the screen as you really don’t want to miss the batshit crazy outcomes the developers have thought of. It also helps that Date has a gun like the one we saw in both Judge Dredd and Control, it has a number of various attack styles to suit every occasion. For those out there looking for the platinum, you must complete all of these without making a mistake, which can be tricky if you’re focusing on the comedy in the background, but it’s not too difficult as I managed it on my first try.
Outside of these moments, the game is more focused on the investigation and exploration side of being a detective, rather than having you walking around, guns blazing.
I personally loved the characters and character development within AI: The Somnium Files. Date grows over time as he learns more about his past, thanks to a loss of memory which means he can’t recall anything prior to six years ago. But it’s the development of the other characters which I was fascinated by. Depending on which pathways you end up branching down, different people become your main focus and you get to spend more time with various personalities as you bond with them. For example, one route has you mainly being with Ota Matsushita, Iris’ biggest fan, and getting to know him and his mother in a lot of depth. Yet another branch has you spending most of your time with Iris as she takes a fancy for you and won’t leave you alone.
Even watching those you don’t really interact much with, such as Pewter, the guy in charge of the Psync Machine, and Boss is interesting. You see them develop and become almost completely different people as you change your point of view on the whole situation and alternate which path you wish to follow proceeding entering someone’s Somnium.
A big shoutout has to go to Aiba as well. I briefly scanned over the fact that ‘she’ is your left eyeball and left it at that. Basically, upon joining the unit six years ago, when Boss found you wandering the streets with your memory gone, Pewter developed a new artificial intelligence that would hook into the nerves within your eyesocket and provide you with not only vision and special abilities such as X-ray and Zoom, but also act as your partner by suggesting helpful hints and coming up with plans on the spot. The amazing thing is, she can not only project a manipulative body within the Somnium, but she can also virtually appear in the real world as a figure only you can see and interact with (which isn’t awkward at all) and even pop herself out of your socket and walk around as a small Melbit-like creature!
However, the biggest prise and creative uniqueness has to go to our lovely Iris Sagan (A-Set). Spike Chunsoft has set up two YouTube channels for the character which has had the persona of A-Set post videos over the last seven months. You can find the English version HERE and the Japanese one HERE. The videos are quite meta as she’s a wanna-be famous internet star in the game and also on YouTube. There’s also a video of her performing her first single – which is a big part of the game depending on the timeline you follow – and more info on the game as she does let’s plays of both Zanki Zero and AI: The Somnium Files. Seriously, if you want more hype leading up to the release of the game, go and check out her videos via the links above.
What version to buy?
AI: The Somnium Files is launching on three dates and in a variety of ways on multiple platforms.
• On the 17th of September, you can pick it up digitally in NA territories on both the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch. It also launches on STEAM Worldwide on this day.
• On the 20th of September, you can pick it up both digitally and physically in EU territories on both the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch.
• On the 24th of September, you can pick it up physically in NA territories on both the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch. This was slightly delayed by a week.
If you’re picking it up physically, you have two options, either the Standard Edition or the Special Agent Edition (which is the version I really wish I had!)
• The Standard ‘Day-One’ physical edition contains the game and two vinyl stickers. You also get a Spike Chunsoft pin badge if you pick it up from Geek Store here: NSW/PS4.
• The Special Agent Edition contains an Artbook, a Soundtrack (which I really want), some A-Set vinyl stickers, and a 6″ A-Set Acrylic stand display. As with the Standard edition, you also get a Spike Chunsoft pin badge if you order it from Geek Store Here: NSW/PS4 (Sold Out)
I can’t fault anything within AI: The Somnium Files – the whole experience was simply amazing from beginning to end. Visually, the game has a very Japanese 3D Visual Novel look to it (during investigation segments). Being locked in position yet able to look around the 3D space at the simple yet detailed textures and designs around you whilst reading and commenting on everything you see. Once you flip over to the Psync machine, the 3D movements felt very solid and without flaw as I felt fully in control at all times.
The overall art design throughout the various Somniums and the character designs both in and out of the mind-invasions were brilliant. There’s one Somnium, which I won’t mention but you’ll know it when you see it, which was a perfect parody of a real-life ‘thing’ yet ever so slightly different to make it unique. The contrast between investigating a crime scene and then seeing the recreation of it via a witness or suspects mind is so surreal and fascinating – although everyone sees the same thing, people interpret things differently.
Sound-wise – magnifico! The music builds the atmosphere, enhances the thriller and showcases the comedy perfectly and without fault. I’ve even become quite fond of A-Sets single (as you get to hear it plenty of times throughout the game). I tried the game in both English and Japanese and both sets of voice actors did a brilliant job. I found that the Japanese voices sync to the mouths a lot better than the English ones do, but both sets were pleasing to listen to and I feel the correct people were cast for the roles they played – nobody sounded out of place or strange.
If I was able to award a game more than a perfect score, AI: The Somnium Files would be one of the few which would easily break the barrier. Everything from the brilliantly scripted narrative adventure, to the frustratingly fun time-management Somnium segments, are beyond what I was expecting. I couldn’t stop playing until I had the platinum trophy on my account, which I achieved at around fifty hours, very few games grasp me like that yet the humour and narrative direction drew me in and had me hooked instantly. I don’t think I’ve played a game this generation (bar the Zero Escape remasters) that changes the storyline, interactions and outcomes quite as much as I experienced within AI: The Somnium Files – this game is a masterpiece and needs to be played by all fans of Spike Chunsoft and Kotaro Uchikoshi.
Despite looking like a horrific and brutal game from the outside, AI: The Somnium Files is full of comedy gold via innuendos, puns, dark comedy and slapstick moments, as well as brutal murders involving people having their eyes gouged out and bodies being left to rot out in the open for you to find. It’s a perfect balance of insane events, perverted and funny moments, and serious action. This has happily taken my spot as my Game of the Year 2019 so far.
AI: The Somnium Files£49.99
- - Brilliant story with many branching timelines based on your experience and choices within the Somnium
- - Great voice acting in both English and Japanese
- - Mesmerising and haunting soundtrack which perfectly fits the mood - I love A-Sets song as well!
- - Lots of 'random' conversations and observations to make, each one as funny as the last
- - The Somnium puzzles are all unique and offer multiple ways of solving them - as well as hidden objects to find
- - The game had to end
- - Sometimes you forget who's alive and who is dead as you jump between pathways (not a negative, it just gets a little confusing at times)