Two eyes, two AIs, half a body.
As I detailed in my 2020 review, AI: The Somnium Files (AITSF) is one of my favorite games of all time. Its story, characters, performances, twists, and mystery all left me impressed from start to finish. But I think what impressed me the most was how the title so neatly and concisely concluded its story. To the point where I never thought there would be, or be need for, a sequel.
However, after nearly 3 years, a direct sequel, AI: The Somnium Files – NirvanA Initiative (AINI) was released and while I was plenty excited for the title, I was also concerned. Concerned if the title could appropriately build upon the foundation of the original, let alone live up to its immaculate pedigree. Does it? Well, the answer is a bit more complicated, so let’s cut the pretense and begin this review.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative Review
Platform: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer/Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Much like its predecessor, AINI centers around a series of bizarre murders investigated by special agents from the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad (ABIS) of the Tokyo police force. Except instead of following the continued exploits of Kaname Date, the mantle of protagonist is shared between two characters. Mizuki, a crafty young woman with superhuman strength, and a primary character from AITSF. Along with the new character Ryuki, a top-marks officer with mental health issues that become increasingly pronounced as the story goes on.
Together and through parallel stories, these two must investigate a series of bizarre serial murders. And as agents of ABIS, they are further aided with their AI-Ball partners, Aiba and Tama, who offer them valuable insights and abilities in addition to emotional support throughout their journeys.
If this all sounds like a conceptual repeat of the first game, that’s because… it kind of is from a broad level. While the protagonist role is shared and the story is split up between two time periods, both stories are centered around a grand murder mystery conspiracy. The setting is the same, many familiar characters appear, assets are blatantly recycled, and the story overall feels… not iterative, but like it is content with being another episode in this world. More than a sequel, that is what AINI feels like to me.
And as another episode, AINI wants to be different, bigger, and grander. But as it bends things to reach its lauded ambitions, it winds up losing sight of the one thing I respected the most about AITSF. Its resourcefulness. Whereas its predecessor felt tight, contained, and like a smooth and organized story from start to finish, AINI is… messier.
Instead of being a murder mystery with one major sci-fi twist, AINI is a murder mystery that eagerly indulges in sci-fi concepts so far, that, at some point, it loses its grounded nature and just gets absurd. Which has its own appeal, don’t get me wrong, but in this new pursuit, the game loses something. AITSF had an emotional climax where both the player and protagonist are given ample desire to stop a criminal, no matter the cost. While AINI caps things off with a QTE action movie sequence against faceless goons, punctuated with some cliche twists, and little narrative tension.
For nearly everything AINI does, it seems to have a parallel in AITSF. And while there is more than enough new and unique in this title, I couldn’t help but make constant comparisons between the two games. From the similar ebb and flow in the same darn locations with a cast partially composed of the same darn people. To its big reveal which, in AITSF, elevated the game to a new level for me. Meanwhile, the AINI equivalent was so out of left field that I had to pause my playthrough for an hour, retrace my steps through the story from start to finish. I needed to do this to understand what it meant and, even after completing the game, I am only 80% confident that it actually works.
I guess what I am trying to say is that, on a macro-level, there is ample room for a deep dive breakdown of what worked in AITSF and what AINI does to try and replicate its success. Comparing it to how the Zero Escape games (AI’s sister series) shaped things up to avoid this issue. Analyzing how characters are used and incorporated. And deliberating whether it is a ‘good twist’ when the writer deliberately misdirects information to the player.
This, bizarrely, probably makes AINI a better game if the player goes in with no knowledge of what happened in the first game— which you definitely can do without fear of major spoilers. Because the story is layered, has a lot of cool concepts introduced and expanded upon, and tells a compelling murder mystery story with a lot of highs of both intrigue and spectacle throughout its 30-35 hour duration. It is still an overall good story, albeit with a handful of kinda dumb coincidences, untapped potential, and a wavering focus. Yet I am inclined to forgive and brush aside a lot of the macro-level criticisms because the micro-level— the moment-to-moment events— of the story are just wonderful.
The writing routinely impressed me with its ability to balance so much without ever feeling inappropriate. The dumb and corny jokes. The puns that were probably a pain in the rear to localize for an English audience. The bouts of serious intrigue and investigation. And the more somber emotional moments. The characters are a bunch of quirky weirdos who are always a treat to talk to, making the encounters with them feel like impromptu ‘hang out sessions.’ The English voice acting is excellent all around, with the voice actors doing a tremendous job to bring these characters to life with every line uttered. When in the moment— when going through the paces and flow of the story— the game is a goldarn treat!
This applies to the more dedicated story segments, and also the prolonged puzzle sections, the Psychs. Psychs have the protagonists dive into the dream state, or rather somnium, of a particularly suspicious individual in order to obtain vital clues, information, and confessions by sifting through their subconscious. These take the form of a third-person time-limited interact-em-up where the player needs to interact with the correct objects in order to progress. Which runs the gamut between telling jokes to fridges, flipping books to rearrange lasers, eating giant cookies, participating in a hyperbolic cook-off, and tearing off air ducts to save teddy bears from a mad scientist.
With AITSF, I criticized the prevalence of ‘dream logic’ of these sequences, necessitating that players reload and try sequences multiple times in order to avoid time-based penalties. In AINI, this issue has been addressed by making the somniums more… direct and easier to follow. The point of progression is more clearly presented to the player, and it is generally easier to finish a somnium. Similarly, there are also new lower difficulty modes that reduce the time-cost of actions, and increase the number of retries available to the player.
This overall makes these sections easier and, despite having played the game on the standard difficulty, I would actually recommend the easier modes, as AINI can be a bit cheeky when it comes to the whole time management thing. Every interaction eats seconds off the clock, traversal takes time, and while the player gets ‘timies’ to reduce the cost of an action, they’re not always the solution. I repeatedly found myself go past the allotted time thanks to the last few choices I made in a somnium, because the game decided to inflate the interaction costs.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the third to last somnium. A somnium that requires some out of the box thinking and problem solving skills beyond anything else asked of the player throughout the rest of the game. They are good bust-out-a-notebook puzzles, but when combined with the time limit and the floating balls of death that chase the player, I found it hard to focus on the puzzles. It really felt like the designers wanted to make a Zero Escape puzzle, but forgot why Zero Escape puzzles generally lacked any time limits or action elements.
When not ‘Psyncing it up,’ there are a handful of newly introduced VR sections. Segments where the protagonists venture through a digitized version of a crime scene, use their normal, X-ray, and thermo vision, and uncover the clues needed to piece together what happened at a scene of interest. They are mostly just a different flavor of somnium sifting, punctuated with scenes where the player pieces together what they know in order to determine what happened, a la the closing statements from Danganronpa. Except simpler, and with a comedic recreation, instead of a comic recreation. …There’s probably a joke there, but I couldn’t find it.
Beyond that, there are occasional situational puzzles that run the gamut between genuine head scratchers and fairly intuitive, but it’s mostly standard adventure game fare. Traveling across a familiar batch of areas, looking at or otherwise interacting with anything that makes the cursor change, and making the world feel like something you control— making it feel like your home. A process where the player is rewarded via an ample amount of flavor text, trivia, and minor insights.
These sections are a great way to get to know the cast of characters, but despite attempts to give every major character something to overcome, it never felt quite as cohesive as I would have liked. It overall feels like the characters don’t progress as much or have as complex problems to solve.
Rarely do characters need to cope with feelings of loss, when that was something AITSF captured so well. Neither of the protagonists do not learn much about themselves through this adventure, with Ryuki strangely feeling like a minor character by the end of things. Despite a lot of characters having stated connections to a common element, this never really brings them together (nor does this element really get discussed on a more ethical level). It has the components necessary to make a tight story, but things were not fully connected or tightened enough to achieve this desired result.
I think I might be more forgiving of this balancing act if the game was attempting to do something a bit more with its presentation. Because I think AINI might have some of the most blatant asset recycling I’ve ever seen… outside of a Neptunia game. Environments, models, animations, along with various audiovisual media, are all carried over from the first game, and with few, if any, alterations. There are some improvements, such as how Aiba’s eye-form now has a full 3D model instead of a 2D illustration, and I’m sure some subtle animations were tweaked. However, the game looks very similar to its predecessor, and the newer assets are about the same lower-end fidelity as the old ones.
Instead of feeling frugal, like AITSF, this gives me the impression that AINI lacked time or money, or choosing to instead invest its budget into something else. …Possibly the cutscenes, since there are probably at least 30 minutes worth of action cutscenes in this game. This would not necessarily be a problem, though, I have two major gripes with these cutscenes. The competency and power of the characters varies wildly for no discernable reason, and the environments often lack a sense of place. Especially the final battle.
Now, divorced from AITSF, do I think the game looks good? Yes, absolutely. I love these PS-Vita-looking-ass showbox environments that I get to explore. The character models are highly detailed and capable of displaying a wide array of personality. And the somniums are painted in a vivid rainbow of colors that make them feel like they are other worlds, filled with oddities and eccentricities to unearth.
…Also, I hate to date this review, but the PC version of AINI launched without anti-aliasing options— despite being present in AITSF. I tried to get it working using Nvidia Inspector, but I couldn’t, and apparently forced anti-aliasing doesn’t always work with Unity games. Oh well. At least I didn’t have any alt-tab issues this time…
Compared to AI: The Somnium Files, it’s hard for me to not consider nirvanA Initiative a slight disappointment. Not necessarily due to any single misgiving or mistake, but a general lack of tightness and cohesiveness and a new ambition that leads to mixed results. On its own, however, AINI is a rousing adventure game whose delightful characters, enticing mystery, and compelling conceptual background make this an easy recommendation.