AI: The Somnium Files Review
Everything - including the kitchen psync
2019 has been a year with several games I’ve liked – even some I really, really liked – but none I loved. Games like Heart of the Woods, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Mortal Kombat 11, and a handful more have all been games which I could see vying for a #2 spot on my personal Game of the Year list; but I didn’t have enough fiery passion for any of them to take #1. Now, having finished AI: The Somnium Files, I feel a sense of cathartic relief knowing that I can confidently put a game in that slot.
AI:TSF snuck up on me. It wasn’t even on my radar until seeing it come up in discussion on its day of release. This was a bit surprising given that it’s the latest effort from developers Spike Chunsoft (Danganronpa series, et al.), and director Kotaro Uchikoshi (Zero Escape series) – two names which I hold in high regard. While Zero Time Dilemma wasn’t my favourite, the Nonary Games were remarkably creative, twisted, and fun to unravel. As I did with 999 ten years ago I went into AI:TSF completely blind, having encountered zero marketing nor story discussion prior to hitting the opening cutscene. (For what it’s worth, that’s probably the ideal way to experience this game)
So what is it?
As is the case with many Spike Chunsoft games, AI:TSF is a Visual Novel with impressively high production values, a lot of interactivity, and significant narrative branching. You play as special investigator Kaname Date as he unravels the mystery of The Cyclops Killer – a serial killer who leaves a particularly brutal, distinctive signature with every body. Date is not a normal detective, however. He is a “psyncer,” one who is able to use a psync machine to enter the unconscious mind of any individual also hooked into the machine. Bearing this conceit in mind is what leads to the two distinct portions of gameplay you will encounter.
Firstly, you have the investigation phase. This makes up the bulk of your time with AI:TSF, and it involves watching cutscenes of character interactions, exploring the environment, looking for clues, choosing dialogue options in conversations, et cetera. If you’ve played other Spike Chunsoft games, this part of the game will feel quite familiar to you. When the investigation escalates and requires Date to psync with another character, entering somnium is where AI:TSF feels unique.
Somnium is a dream world, one where the rules of the real world need not apply. Physics? Throw it out the door. Common sense? Get out of here. You guide your character through these surreal dreamscapes with direct control in the third person, interacting with a multitude of environmental elements to help interpret the subject’s unconscious memories, which ultimately furthers your understanding of both the investigation, and the world around you.
Both the investigation and somnium phases of the game have a distinct set of mechanics surrounding them, and to delve into the intricacies and nuances of all of them would take quite some time. Instead, I’ll boil it down by saying that, largely, they’re good.
The investigation phase has lots of optional, interstitial elements to interact with – I personally loved taking my time with each screen and finding everything which had writing attached to it. Your exploratory efforts are often rewarded with additional information about the world, jokes, and sometimes entire subplots. An impressive part of the investigation phase is just how much additional voice acting can be found by exploring all of these elements – not a small effort on behalf of both the writers and developers!
Somnium is one of the parts I enjoyed about the game, but wasn’t always enamoured with. While there is a ton of creativity in these dream sequences, sometimes the way in which you progress through them can feel nearly arbitrary. Puzzle solutions can feel like an old adventure game – trying different combinations of seemingly unrelated things until you happen upon some internal logic which wasn’t immediately apparent. This wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t a time limit associated with the section.
Somnium isn’t particularly difficult, and the time limit is generous enough that you can often make it to the end with plenty of headroom; but every action you take will cost a certain amount from the time limit. Due to these costs, experimenting and seeing all of the content offered in somnium doesn’t feel encouraged. If you want to pick up that rock and see what’s under it, that’ll cost you 20 seconds. Pulling that lever? 40 seconds. Reading that sign? 10 seconds. Time is a precious resource and all of these actions add up. Thankfully there are mechanics in place to cut down the time needed for individual interactions, or to retry at a previous checkpoint; but sometimes it felt necessary to simply restart the entire sequence, which really affects the all-so-important flow.
Go with the flow
The writing is the best part of AI:TSF. Every character matters, every scene matters, every relationship matters. The way one scene flows to the next always feels great, and keeps the momentum going throughout the experience. From the dialogue between characters and flavour text found while exploring, to the overall narrative and core plot, nothing feels wasted.
In my opinion, all of the above were also what set the Zero Escape games apart from most others; but one of its major shortcomings was how Uchikoshi treated his side characters. They often felt one-note, or underdeveloped. That is not the case here, and every character (even seemingly minor ones) get their own arc, development, and personality. By the end, there were no characters I disliked, and I loved every opportunity to interact with them. Also, it should be noted that the English voice cast does such a good job.
When it comes to the overall story, there could be a whole ‘nother article about that; but to sum it up, I loved it. While some parts may have been a bit predictable, their execution was nearly flawless. Also, for every one predictable plot point, there are several others which seem to come out of nowhere but get wholly justified by the end.
In the end, the story in AI:TSF is on a tier of its own, and when it hits, it hits. There were several points where I was left in tears, and I’m generally fairly stoic when playing games. Sensitive topics get handled with grace, character moments had real weight, and the ending… They stick the ending. However, while I loved 95% of the story, there were some parts which give me a bit of pause.
There end up being a handful of scenes (nearly) ruined by total suspension of disbelief, extremely dumb conceits, and unnecessarily crass humour. Don’t get me wrong, I will laugh at a well-timed “that’s what she said” as much as anyone; but when someone says “that’s what she said” every five minutes, “that’s what she said” starts to lose its humour. That feeling of laughing at a joke the first time, but then thinking “okay, yeah, I get it, carry on please” after being overexposed to it comes up a handful of times throughout. There are also a couple potentially intense action scenes wherein you’ll be left thinking “wait… what?” with regards to what propels them forward. While this concession never ruined anything for me, it was annoying enough to where I felt the need to bring it up.
While on the subject of flaws, there is one last thing to bring up – if you are intending to play this game, I may suggest not doing so on Switch (unless they release a performance patch). While having it on the go was a boon, I encountered many technical hiccups, a few crashes which required restarting the game, and the framerate regularly dipping down into the single digits.To my understanding, these issues do not exist with the PS4 and PC versions of the game.
Even with its flaws, AI: The Somnium Files is an exceptional game. As it became apparent that the final hours were drawing near, my biggest problem with the game was that I didn’t want it to end. It is a unique experience which you’ll remember for years to come, and its story highs are – as of yet – unrivaled by any other release this year. Standing on the shoulders of the fantastic Zero Escape series, Uchikoshi has released his most satisfying, complete game to date. You’ll certainly be hearing this game come up again when the time comes for us to talk about Game of the Year!
- Exceptional, creative story
- Characters you will genuinely care about
- Some moments which need to be experienced
- Wonderful voice acting
- Humour which misses the mark
- Occasionally obtuse/frustrating mechanics
- Poor performance on Switch