There’s a particular reason I was excited about AI: The Somnium Files. The developers at Spike Chunsoft were also responsible for one of my favourite series- Zero Escape. So with this game being their next venture, I was curious to see what new ideas they would bring to the table.
Storyline and Storytelling
AI: The Somnium Files starts off in dark fashion. A woman has been murdered, found tied up to a merry-go-round, with her left eye gouged out. You play as Kaname Date, a detective sent to investigate the crime. Date has a distinct advantage while investigating- he has an advanced AI built into his eye, which helps analyse data and many other functions, as well as getting sassy with him.
The game mainly takes place in two forms, the investigating and the Somniums. The Somniums are the gameplay portion which I’ll talk about later. The investigating involves travelling to different locations, interviewing different people, and learning more about the events of the crime.
Now this all sounds like a pretty standard crime game, but if you’ve ever played a Spike Chunsoft game, you’ll know to expect it to be anything other than ‘standard’. Like previous Zero Escape games, the story is visually represented on a flowchart, which can also split in different directions. Depending on how you do in certain Somniums, you’ll be taken on different story paths in which the story can change pretty dramatically.
Compared to flowcharts in other games, this game’s flowchart seems pretty small and limited. It definitely lacks the multitude of directions I’ve seen in other flowcharts, so it would have been nice to see more paths and more variations to the story. You’ll also encounter ‘locks’ in some story paths, meaning you can’t continue until you’ve progressed in other particular paths. But the fact that there really aren’t that many locks really shows the limitations in the flowchart.
Now onto the storyline itself. Being a visual novel, the game’s story is of utmost importance. Without a compelling storyline, games in this genre will fall flat and feel like a waste of time. As I played through AI: The Somnium Files, being a murder mystery, I was always compelled to learn more. Any new discoveries I made that helped unravel the case always made me want to continue.
Then it got to a certain point where any discoveries made just didn’t have much impact. Because each new story path contains different events, and they felt all so disconnected from each other, I started to care less and less about the twists that were revealed. Things started to not make much sense and I was starting to become more and more unsure as to where the story was actually leading.
I still persisted anyway because I know these developers and they have this uncanny ability of having everything make sense and feel cohesive, no matter how fragmented things may seem. Thankfully my faith in them paid off because the game’s biggest reveals completely changed the game’s storytelling, and almost out of nowhere, everything just clicked.
I can’t bring up any details for spoiler reasons, but in order to get the most out of this game, you must play it all the way to completion. I’ll admit I was losing interest for a while, but it’s not until very late that the story lives up to Spike Chunsoft’s reputation for great storylines. It may be a bit confusing, maybe even convoluted, but not enough to be put off.
Characters and Writing
Now every great story needs great characters and this game has plenty of them. Certain story paths you take will usually involve some characters more than others. The more paths you play through, the more you’ll learn about everyone. There’s the bubbly internet idol Iris, who seems to inject a lot of energy to the situation, but can get a bit annoying at times. There’s Ota, the young man who is fairly obsessed with Iris and is always wanting to protect her. And then there’s my personal favourite character- Mizuki, a mature but feisty 12 year old who is quite capable for someone her age.
There’s plenty more characters to get to know, and they’re all quite memorable. The voice acting is fine, nothing spectacular, but nothing too poor. The dialogue on the other hand can be a bit off at times. Sometimes you’ll wonder whether the writers were taking this game seriously. Plus there’s a lot of sexual innuendo…and I mean a LOT! It feels like almost every scene will contain it, and while it doesn’t bother me personally, it felt very excessive at times.
In fact, there were some moments where it was borderline ridiculous. Minor spoilers here, but using a porno mag to distract well trained soldiers just seemed really silly and unrealistic. Speaking of unrealistic, there were even some scenes of Mizuki, a 12 year old girl, somehow taking on a large group of armed men directly shooting at her, and her somehow winning the fight. I know it’s a game, but things like this irritate me because it felt so out of place.
Like I said before, the Somniums are the gameplay portion of the game. Throughout Date’s investigation he’ll be required to ‘psync’ with certain characters, which allows him to explore their subconscious dreams, in order to discover clues and secrets that characters might be reluctant to willingly give out.
In these Somniums, you’re given a ‘six’ minute time limit to complete it, but it’s not all in real time. Moving around makes the clock count down, and performing certain actions also reduces the time. There are also modifiers you can earn that you apply to these actions to cut down their time penalties, and are actually essential in later Somniums. This in a way becomes a game in itself, where you’ll need to manage which modifiers to use and when to save them. Once you’ve completed all the checkpoints (known as Mental Locks) and discovered the clues you need, you complete the Somnium and progress the story.
The main problem is that I just really didn’t enjoy these sections- at all. Simply put, they weren’t fun or enjoyable in any way for me. If comparing to the Zero Escape games, these Somniums would be the equivalent of the escape rooms which were actually fun. I’m not even sure if the Somniums could be considered puzzles because there was no real logic to the solutions. I felt a lot of it was guesswork, or trial and error.
At the very least, each Somnium looked unique and colourful. They looked like they were some kind of distorted dream (which isn’t far off from what they actually are), so they had that going for them. But I just never looked forward to actually taking part in them, and was more than happy when I was done with them.
AI: The Somnium Files Review Summary
Overall I still enjoyed this game. The story did at times fail to keep me interested UNTIL close to the end, so if you play this game, make sure you stick it out until the end credits (some of the best end credit scenes ever actually!). The characters were all memorable in their own way, even though some of their dialogue was a bit hit and miss at times. The sexual innuendo is quite over the top, so if you’re not into that, it may put you off.
I really do wish I enjoyed the Somniums though. They could have been amazing if they were actual puzzles, or just something that got my brain ticking. But they don’t require any real thought and the solutions are mostly illogical, and it really did ruin the fun I should have been having. If the Somniums were better, I would be scoring this game much higher.
Does Ai: The Somnium Files live up to the great Zero Escape series? No, not even close. Is it still worth a go? Yes, for sure. There’s plenty more out there that are better, but I would still recommend this, even to visual novel veterans.