Platform: Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4
Developer: Spike Chunsoft, Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, Limited Run Games
Release date: 20-Sep-2019
There are games that you play because your friends have told you about them. There are games that you play because they’ve been advertised absolutely everywhere known to mankind and you feel like you can’t escape them until you play. There are games that you play because you went searching through lists of highly rated reviews.
And then there are the games that you happen across and have to play because they sound so damn weird that you can’t imagine how it could possibly play out. In case you haven’t guessed by this sentence’s placement at the end of this list, this type of game is my favourite.
That was what drove my choice to play AI: The Somnium Files (I’ll call it AI from here on out). No matter what way I read the blurb, read other reviews, I could not understand what type of game this was.
Point and click adventure? Oh sometimes, except when you’re figuring out puzzles in which case you have to run around examining things on a 6 minute time limit.
Puzzle? Sure, but in an abstract sense. All the puzzles are in the dream world so true ‘logic’ doesn’t really apply.
In the end what this game is advertised as is an ‘Adventure’ game. But this does not encapsulate a lot of the genres found here and a lot of typical ‘Adventure’ fans may be disappointed, or surprised at the very least.
*** Warning, Graphic Picture and Descriptions Below***
The game opens on a morbid note. It is pelting rain in the dead of night as eerie music plays in the background. The camera is showing an aerial view of a park, and as it pans closer it reveals a merry-go-round. The camera shifts again and you see someone is sitting on one of the wooden horses. As the camera moves it becomes clear that this is a corpse, not a living person, with its left eye gouged out and blood visible on the torso.
I had not been expecting so much gore this early on, and was genuinely creeped out by this point.
It is this scene that the main character, a detective named Kaname Date (pronounced Dah-tay), is called to investigate. You are also accompanied by a woman you call ‘Boss’ and a strange disembodied voice. It is during this investigation that you (the player, not the character) learn that this is Date’s ‘partner’. An artificial intelligence that had been implanted in Date’s prosthetic eyeball six years prior. Her name? AI-ball. Aiba for short. So the game starts off with a sassy AI living in your eye socket that assists in investigations. Sometimes she decides to jump out of your eye socket as a strange little eyeball ghost or project what she thinks her image would be into your brain. So far, so normal.
Using Aiba is key to solving many of the clues later on (she can zoom, has x-ray vision, and heat vision) and this is how you discover a person hiding in the carousel's middle column. Your first person of interest, who has been Date's charge for the past few years, is twelve year old Mizuki. Who is now mute due to trauma.
Date works for a branch of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department called the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad, or ABIS. ABIS is made up largely of Psyncers, who use a Psync machine to dive into an unconscious person's subconscious to find the truth in the dreams of the subject. Mizuki is your first Psync candidate in this game.
The immediate pathway followed is an investigation into this murder, and those following, that become known as 'The New Cyclops Serial Killings' after a similar set of murders committed some years ago.
While the game always starts the same way, the paths you can play branch frequently. Usually this branching is directed by your choices in a Psync.
For example in your first Psync with Mizuki there are two outcomes. Branch A is that you heal Mizuki's mind through your choices in the Psynch, uncovering a little hidden information in her subconscious. This uncovers the red route above. Branch B is that Mizuki remains traumatised, but you uncover slightly more information during your Psynch. This leads you down the purple route.
Each different colour path denotes the path focus - usually which character will be the main focus for that route.
Some routes finish before others, but a factor I like about this game is the chapter navigation. You can go back to any chapter at any time and replay to open the opposite route. You never have to completely replay any chapter that doesn’t contain a branching of paths, unless you want a refresher of course.
The Real World
No observant player will encounter any difficulty as far as the in-person investigation goes. It plays out in visual-novel style, and you point and click on various things in your environment to examine them.
Sometimes you use Aiba to use heat vision, x-ray, or zoom to see beyond/behind something, but the option will always present itself and doesn't require much figuring out.
While it doesn’t sound like it, this was actually a ridiculously fun portion of the game for me. You often get dialogue options based on what you choose to examine, and on which day you choose to examine it. I have the Boss’ slightly insane office above as an example.
Everything in this office, from the police mannequin to the bust under the Christmas tree, is accompanied by a small snippet of conversation or comment when you select it. If you don’t investigate everything, you will miss out on moments of character development or hidden gags that run throughout the game. Date’s English voice actor has surprisingly good comedic timing, and the character’s thoughts on a topic can be hilarious at times.
My personal favourite moment was coming across a pile of gay novels in one character’s locker.
So even if you know that you are supposed to be investigating a very obvious pool of blood, or a knife that you spotted the second you walked on the scene, don’t discount investigating as much as you can.
The most interactive part of this game is Psynching.
When you enter another person's subconscious you enter an entirely new map that reflects this. In some minds it's a scene from their past, in more imaginative minds it could be a recreation from a video game (there's a Minecraft-like mind that was seriously fun, the graphics even morphed into low-res square cubes).
The reason this part is so interactive is that Aiba (who has created a projected image of herself as a human) takes centre stage and you move her around in typical RPG fashion to investigate this world. There is also a 6 minute time limit. This sounds like a lot, but certain tasks eat up a set amount of time. There are also 'timies' that can shorten, or forcibly lengthen, the amount of time taken to complete the task. And you can never be sure that it is the correct path you are following.
The fun part of the Psynch? The surrealism. Are you supposed to be investigating the puddle of blood in the corner or the low table with a child's picture on it? Are you supposed to stick your hand in the blood or rip the picture… it all depends on the person's mind. You can get a feel for what you're supposed to be doing if you have paid a lot of attention to the character before the Psync, it's faux psychology in a way. Would the character need you to act out the actions you are questioning them for? Or choose actions they complete in their day to day? Choose wrong and you could lose a whole minute of time so it's a really interesting mechanic.
Japanese Pop Culture
This game was made in and based in Japan, so it is fair to say that you will come across a lot of Japanese content not typically focused on in Western games.
You will see one of the main characters and persons of interest in this game above, an internet idol who goes by the stage name A-set. She comes fully equipped with that stereotypical 'I'm sO iNnOcEnT aNd SwEeT' persona that a lot of real life female Asian idols adopt, but she grows on you I promise. It becomes endearing surprisingly quickly. Which is good, because she gets a lot of screen time.
Spike Chunsoft even went through the effort of giving her a real life YouTube channel, which is mildly entertaining and has twenty six videos even on her English channel in the link.
While there are one or two 'Oh for XXX sake' short skirt camera angle moments, there is a surprising lack of fan service overall considering there is definitely room for more considering some locations and themes used. I view this as a win.
There are appearances made by the Yakuza, a mermaid-themed maid cafe, a japanese-style manor house, and even an ikigai (tiny niche bar often native to the Golden Gai in real life) that doubles as a gay bar run by the genderless 'Mama'.
What is unusual in the depiction of drag queens or trans characters in Japanese Pop culture is that the humour used around Mama is not at her expense. She was given a likeable personality, is invaluable to the plot (as an underground informant), and has a good friendship with the straight male lead. More of this please.
I enjoyed the incredible difference between the setting of this game and what I personally experience in my own day to day life, but some may find this jarring so be warned.
This game looked very serious at first glance, and at times it is. Especially in the very beginning. But the game opens up into what has to be one of the funniest detective games ever made, with a cast of unusual characters that aren't just overrated tropes rehashed yet again.
The cast is the heart of this game. I despised two characters more than I have hated real life evil people, and wanted to adopt others and look after them.
The entire game is offbeat, enjoyable, and just odd. There are twists that I didn't see coming, as well as an 'obvious' twist I thought I saw coming that never ended up being incorrect.
Seeing as this game is in a visual novel style for the majority of the playthrough, the graphics are suitably up to par to carry the inactivity. At times I do wish they sacrificed the graphics to speed up loading times, which lagged whenever there was a flashback sequence but performed well enough for the rest of the game for this to not undermine my enjoyment.
Play this game if:
You don't mind a game with less action.
You appreciate it when effort is taken to create a unique cast.
You enjoy the sci-fi and mystery genres.
You either like or don't mind Japan-centric themes
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