The story of Detective Kaname Date begins one cold evening at an abandoned theme park in Tokyo. Shoko Nadami – the ex-wife of Date’s friend Renju – has been discovered dead by her twelve-year-old daughter. She is displayed on a carousel with her left eye removed from her head. This is the first killing in what could potentially become a series of murders, depending on the choices you make as the detective investigating the scene. Down one path lies the total destruction of everyone you know and love. Down the other, the truth. Everywhere in the middle, your trust in the people around you will be called into question.
The Somnium Files is a game where little is what it seems. Detective Date can enter the world of dreams using a device called a Psync machine, allowing him to investigate the subconscious minds of witnesses and suspects just as he would investigate a real-life crime scene. But the world of dreams is misleading and complicated – the information Date learns there cannot be used in a court of law, yet he relies on it to push his investigations into interesting new directions. Not only are dreams difficult to read, but people are too. Who you can trust is always in question as characters cross and double-cross you, with individuals who claim to be your allies also keeping secrets that could lead to dark histories.
Offsetting this darkness and distrust are scenes of lighthearted and playful banter. Date’s friends include a college dropout who is waiting for his “light novel” writing career to take off as well as an internet icon who insists on playing “Shovelforge” with him at every opportunity. Date himself is an incorrigible pervert who is regularly put into his place by his AI companion Aiba, who lives in his mechanical left eye and is linked to his thoughts via advanced technology. In a game where I literally screamed in shock after walking into a murder where a victim was suspended by their mouth with a rusty fishhook, I also chuckled at the ridiculousness of a protagonist who regularly put his life at risk to look for pornography in the middle of firefights.
AI: The Somnium Files is a game that may seem unusual until you consider the minds which brought it into being. If you’ve played Zero Escape or Danganronpa, then you know exactly the blend of humor and horror that Somnium employs. With that history comes a certain expectation of quality, too. These games are known for telling compelling stories with characters who are not what they seem. The way the science fiction story elements are used to create interesting twists pushes these stories into a legendary status with those who love the games. When I picked up AI, I did so specifically because I knew from where the game came. The premise alone may not have drawn me to the game, but knowing the track record of its creators intrigued me enough to be excited about the game.
Mechanically, the investigation scenes in AI will feel pretty familiar. Using a targeting reticle on the screen you can view the environment and select specific objects to examine or individuals to talk to. Compared to its predecessors, AI has pretty weak investigation scenes. The environments to investigate are smaller and they are totally disjointed. You rarely have locations where you can move between different areas or rooms within that location. Instead, most investigation beats will happen in one contained space, and when they end you’ll open the game map and make your way to another scene. Also with only one screen to investigate, of course.
Investigating also isn’t nearly as involved as one might want. There are a number of objects to look at in any given scene but looking at them rarely reveals little more than a basic description of their nature. “This is a crate.” “That’s a window.” “A bench sits in the park.” There will be some objects which, upon examination, provide a fun bit of dialogue between Date and Aiba or perhaps another character in the scene. But most of the time you can enter a scenario and simply talk to everyone on the scene without really needing to look at any of the objects in the environment.
The other main mechanical feature of the game is somnium, the dream world Date enters when he Psyncs with another person. Date interacts with somnium via Aiba, who can walk around the environment and touch the objects in the dream world to attempt different effects with them. Date’s time in somnium is limited and every action he instructs Aiba to take during the dream subtracts from that time. This means that the puzzles in somnium are all about time management – how do you take actions intelligently in order to make sure you don’t run out of time before reaching your goals in the dream?
This mechanism is hit or miss. In some somnium it feels totally random which choices are the “right” ones and there seems to be very little to telegraph how to progress. Some missions downright try to pull one over on you. One dream in particular requires you to regularly ignore certain events in the environment in order to progress – you learn pretty quickly in this dream that ignore is the proper way to move the game along. Once it teaches you that, ignore stops being useful, and choosing to ignore will cost you time without accomplishing anything.
Now there are some chapters which cleverly incorporate a mechanism called “timies” in order to create some truly interesting puzzles. In one particular somnium, certain required actions gave a timie that significantly increased the time cost of your next action. By leaving open small actions that only took one second, you could burn these negative timies with minimal impact on your overall time. Additionally, there were multiple actions which did not progress the scenario which granted timies that set the time cost of an action to 1 second. These were important for reducing the time of certain necessary actions that cost 999 seconds. Going out of your way to get positive timies while also carefully burning your negative timies on cheap actions was the only way to navigate the scenario completely. Whether the challenges worked like this or were more random as described in the previous paragraph, ultimately the challenges of somnium are focused around pattern memorization. Like an old school platformer, you fail until you memorize the path that will lead you to success.
The weak investigations and the hit-or-miss somnium puzzles made it so that AI felt mechanically weak compared to the Zero Escape games which inspired me to play it in the first place. But in a game which is closer to the visual novel end of the spectrum, poor mechanics can still be saved by great characters and a compelling story to tell. Fortunately, these aspects of The Somnium Files are where the game truly shines. The gameplay sections are vessels through which the game’s story is delivered, and that story is the true focus of AI.
Unfortunately, because the story is built on a mystery scenario and it truly is the core of what makes The Somnium Files special, it’s difficult to review the game without diving into spoilers. I don’t want to spoil the story in order to describe how great it is, so instead I’ll try to highlight the things that I appreciated about it as I played through the game. I’ve already done one article on the various science fiction elements in the story and how they enhance the storytelling of the game. I mentioned in that article that the concept of woo – the use of scientific terms to mislead – is never mentioned by name in the game but is core to how the characters communicate with Date and how the game convinces the player to take sides. It’s clever storytelling that adds to the way in which there are no characters that can be trusted.
Date himself is an unreliable narrator, and because his partner Aiba is ultimately a piece of technology, she can only be trusted to the degree that her creators and sponsors can be trusted. The game skillfully gives you just the right information in each scenario so that you spend the maximum amount of time wondering who can be trusted and what information is true and what is false. You’re introduced to a number of science fiction concepts and conspiracy theories and left to wonder which ones are true and which ones are bogus. The game has clear science fiction elements, leaving room for anything to be possible. But what is “reality” in the context of The Somnium Files? In a world where a man can enter your dreams or hack your computer with his mechanical eyeball connected to his brain, are parallel worlds ridiculous? What about aliens? Deciding for yourself what to believe as you engage the story is all part of the fun of AI.
What I loved the most about AI’s story – even compared to titles like Virtue’s Last Reward or Zero Time Dilemma – is that the story is grounded and kept somewhat simple in spite of all the fakeouts and possibilities. When you finally learn the truth, there is a simplicity to it that makes everything click into place, and in hindsight you can see there were clear hints at what was truly going on. There were many hints that I recognized throughout the game and was only one step off from seeing how they all connected together, and while I think that it might be pretty difficult to identity the twist before it happens, it’s definitely within reason to figure out most of the puzzle and then for the game’s major revelation to lock the final few pieces into place.
If you play video games for a mechanical payoff – fun controls, clever puzzles, or difficult challenges to overcome – then AI doesn’t have much to offer you. If you love a story with quirky characters, deception and distrust, and grisly murder, then The Somnium Files delivers on those things in spades. The drama and humor is well-spaced and they balance each other well to keep the experience from becoming too heavy (though it can definitely become too ridiculous). I will mention that the objectification of a specific character that I shared during my first impressions is not something that ever improves, and in general the game is not particularly progressive in its portrayal of women or members of the LGBTQ+ community, specifically trans women. This won’t come as a surprise to players of Zero Escape, and it wasn’t egregious enough to make me put the game down. But I definitely found myself rolling my eyes at many points and feel like players in the affected communities should be aware of this particular problem before investing in the game.
The ending of the Somnium files is an over the top and ridiculous display that somehow perfectly fits this otherwise dark and gruesome title. As the credits rolled, I found myself smiling at the drama of it all. But I also found myself appreciating the excellent way in which the story was delivered, how the game kept me guessing until the end while also giving me enough information to reach some conclusions on my own. It’s a fantastic demonstration of quality storytelling that’s held back somewhat by mechanisms that are weaker than its predecessors. I got a lot of enjoyment out of the game and, outside of the reservations I described in the previous paragraph, I would recommend it to any fans of the murder mystery genre and especially those who enjoyed Zero Escape.