I am thou. Thou art AI.
AI: The Somnium Files Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Switch
Developer/Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
AI: The Somnium Files is a graphic adventure/visual novel hybrid that follows Kaname Date, a special agent for the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad (ABIS) of the Tokyo police force, as he is called to investigate an extravagant murder of suspicious circumstances. A task that, as is typical of detective stories like this, quickly spirals out into a series of rampant murders with some greater ties to mostly forgotten incidents from years prior. But rather than approaching the investigation on his own, Date is aided by his partner Aiba, an artificial intelligence that also serves as Date’s left eye, cell phone, technology-related stuff-doer, emotional support, a cute bear mascot creature, and a hologram lady who regularly augments herself into Date’s vision.
Together these two are sent through a branching narrative that flows between various timelines as conveyed in a flowchart, with events influencing one another as questions accumulate, answers are dished out, and the very foundation that the game is built on comes into question. None of which should sound especially surprising considering how this game was written and directed by Kotaro Uchikoshi of Zero Escape acclaim and many of his familiar staples are reprised in AI.
The detailed cast of lovable major characters, tendency to indulge in sporadic diatribes that wind up being mostly relevant to the overarching storyline, and the steady series of reveals that kept me on my toes. But I think what struck me as the most notable about AI’s story is how it blends together the more dour tone of Zero Escape with the goofy antics and perversions of 2015’s Punch Line, which Uchikoshi was the lead writer of, while clearly trying to imitate the style and general vibe of Hideo Kojima’s 1994 adventure game, Policenauts.
Both are detective adventure games involving a man who was involved in an incident several years ago that left him displaced from the world, and who is brought in to investigate a billowing stream of murders. Both are set in technologically advanced near-future where many innovations occurred, but everything else is still clearly based on the contemporary culture it was created in. Both are filled with innocuous details that players can observe by clicking on darn near everything, feature a child from a displaced family who is unable to speak, at least temporarily, and are low-key perverted as all heck, with protagonists who will not hesitate to make dirty jokes or comments or gawk at large breasts. At first, I thought I was a bit crazy for gravitating towards such a comparison, but Uchikoshi himself claimed AI was inspired by Policenauts, so I guess I’m not totally bonkers.
It is through this mingling of inspiration and experience that AI manages to achieve a varied atmosphere and tone, shifting from more comedic observations to scenes that treat the dire content of the storyline with the gravity they demand. It wants to be, and is, this cool detective story about unfurling a greater mystery and understanding the mind and method of an eccentric killer. This sci-fi adventure that goes into detail about the mechanisms of artificial intelligence, the human mind, and what constitutes one’s self. This character-driven drama with a cast of interconnected individuals whose steadily revealed pasts create this beautiful microcosm flushed with familial affection and misfortune. And also a successor to Zero Escape that revisits concepts so flagrantly that it could easily pass as a canonical sequel, while also retaining the same underlying sensibilities.
One of these sensibilities is long stretches of narrative followed by a few prolonged puzzle sections, but in lieu of escape rooms or the like, AI instead features Psyncs. Psyncs have Date, and Aiba, delve into the dream state, or rather somnium, of a particularly suspicious individual in order to obtain vital clues, information, and confessions by sifting through an individual’s unconsciousness. These serve as engaging setpieces that require a very peculiar form of intuition in order to get through, as dream logic is in full effect in the somnium, tasking the player to talk to inanimate objects, punch skeletons, ride forklifts into the sea, dance to make aliens explode, do super sentai poses, and commit seppuku. Only some of which lead to progress.
This lack of readable flow and clear progression markers, combined with the fact that the player’s time within each somnium is limited, could have easily made these sections somewhat frustrating to get through. However, the flavor text associated with each and every interaction within a somnium combined with very light penalties for any sort of failure, instead made these sections fun diversions that encouraged me to chill out, mess around, and see what most interactable objects did before stumbling my way to progression. I mean, yes, it did kind of stink that I had to use the super-fast skip feature to get through chunks of a somnium again, but I did get to see Aiba put a bucket on her head and keep it on for the entire duration of the somnium, so I’d say it was well worth the effort.
When not diving into one’s unconsciousness, AI is aligned with what one would expect of a traditional adventure game, albeit one with a stronger emphasis on initiating dialogue, selecting responses, and poking at everything that makes the cursor greet to absorb the excessive amount of flavor-text the developers shoved into this game. These dumb jokes, innocuous references, potentially-butchered puns, and greater insights into the characters’ personalities are all some of my favorite moments of the entire game. It really does feel that Uchikoshi, his assistants, and the English translation team were having a blast coming up with each line, and it did a lot to help engross me into the world and its characters.
Characters who are especially well-realized, with every major player in this story housing a storied history filled with both misfortune and assorted bonds to other members of this expansive yet close-knit cast, and a discernible character arc, with most major characters receiving an ending to call their own. The time Date and the player get to spend with them, both the idle conversation and plotline progressing discussions, allowed me to care and sympathize with each and every one of them, and their circumstances. While much of this can be attributed to both the writing and localization, at least part of this fondness is attributable to the exceptional quality of the English dub, with every actor clearly giving it their all to bring every character, even relatively minor ones, a voice that carries their character to heights that just can’t be reached through text, models, and animation.
As a whole, I really have nothing but love to offer this game on just about every story-related front, but I do recognize that there are a few areas that would not be to everyone’s liking. Such as the prevalence of wordplay throughout the game, especially when it comes to eyes, I, and AI. To demonstrate, Aiba is an AI and is also known as an AI-Ball. She serves as Date’s left eye, serving as his eyeball. Because she is so close to Date, and can mentally communicate with him, she is part of him, making her a part of his identity, his I.
And that is only the tip of a wordplay-based iceberg that, while a bit obtuse at some points, I cannot help but both adore and admire its tenacity and thoroughness. I genuinely thought that the peak would be the realization that every day is denoted using a Japanese word containing ‘ai’ while every somnium is named after an English word containing ‘ai.’ But nope! The game goes deeper, deeper, and even deeper, and manages to break new ground in its pursuit of puns.
Similarly, AI is also something of a perverted little title, with Date being some NTR-watching shoe-sniffing weirdo who likes to talk about how big his balls are, thinks skeletons are hot, and loves porn magazines more than anything. It is not especially surprising considering the perverted overtones of Punch Line, an anime/game about panty shots bringing forth the literal end of the world, or the aforementioned influences from Policenauts, which represented Kojima at his horniest (which is saying something), and while clearly played for laughs, it will not be to everyone’s liking for obvious reasons. But I personally found it to be endearing, grounding Date a great deal, and adding much to the game’s lighter moments.
And then there are the sporadically inserted action scenes that are ideally meant to be this action-packed cinematic set-pieces wherein Date and Aiba work together to do something stylish and cool with the aid of Date’s multi-purpose sci-fi Japanese cop gun. In execution, they are these fairly slow and limp QTE-driven cutscenes with this stop-and-go pacing that make these sparsely dolled out sections some of the few low-points in the entire game. It feels like the original design document wanted these sections to be more mechanically involved, but they needed to be gimped in order for the game to remain within its set budget.
Speaking of which, it is clear that AI: The Somnium Files is a AA affair, but whereas Uchikoshi’s prior title, Zero Time Dilemma, aimed to be this more elaborate cutscene-driven affair with detailed 3D models and animations, which likely attributed to some of the game’s more… lacking elements, AI is far more conservative in its aspirations. The game only features about 30 or so unique character models, less than 20 unique locations aside from the remixed reality of the somniums, and instead of boasting an entire game’s worth of cutscenes, the bulk of interactions throughout the game are first-person conversations that recycle animations regularly and use automated lip flaps.
However, for all of its supposed frugality, AI still shines out when the time calls for it, knowing the right moment to sport an elaborate cutscene, introduce new assets, and how many outfits or variants a character’s model needs to remain believable. And what assets it does recycle with regularity look great. The character animations, the small environmental details to each locale, and the thoughtful designs that the models bring to life all create a very pleasant image that rarely ever feels as if it meaningfully compromised.
The PC port, however… that could really use a substantial patch or two. While the PC version of AI is completely playable, I found myself irked by three things while playing the game. Despite being an adventure title that would ideally work well with a keyboard and mouse setup, the default keybindings are far from intuitive, and there is no option to rebind them. Five times throughout my playthrough I encountered a visual glitch where a character’s face would become dislocated from the rest of their body, either appearing as a bodiless face in dialogue sequences or as a static body with a moving face while viewing an environment. Which, while cool and creepy, is clearly not meant to happen.
Though the biggest gripe, and most attention deserving issues, is the fact that this game really does not like alt-tabbing. Whether it be a borderless window or good old full screen, the game constantly crashed on me when I repeatedly flipped between the game itself and my notes, and not just the executable, my PC itself crashed and rebooted itself. This is the sort of thing I can forgive if I play a game at launch, and if it is coming from a smaller studio, but nearly 5 months after launch the game still lacks any remedy to these significant issues. So, um, maybe consider picking up the Switch or PS4 versions instead.
In conclusion, AI: The Somnium Files is… easily one of my favorite games of all time. The winding branching and looping narrative, the charismatic and expansive cast of interconnected characters, a tone that veers near effortlessly between comedically-hued anime-style shenanigans and dire drama, and myriad innocuous details that just so happen to align to my personal sensibilities and preferences in a way that few pieces of art have ever managed. I love damn near everything about this game, and while I can highlight some minor misgivings and shortcomings, most of them technical, they pale in comparison to the glorious highs this game reaches and retains from start to finish.