Thirst Impressions of AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative

AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative was first advertised online through a riddle posted by Spike Chunsoft and related webpages on social media. Despite a long history of gaming, I’m not much of a puzzle buff, so after trying my hand at a couple of the challenges presented I just waited until other people started figuring it out. The solution opened a link to a countdown, and the countdown heralded the first trailer for the upcoming title from the minds behind Zero Escape and Danganronpa. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the game ever since, and this past weekend I finally got to give the game a try.

If you’re not familiar with the series, AI: The Somnium Files is a sci-fi mystery game, a sort of 3D visual novel with investigation and puzzle elements. It followed a man named Kaname Date as he investigated a series of murders called the New Cyclops Serial Killings. Date learned about the murders through speaking with witnesses and suspects, investigating crime scenes, and using technology called a Psync Machine to dive into the dreams of key players and learn information they were not willing or able to share verbally. I wrote a few articles on the game here on Adventure Rules, including a review in which I praised the game’s storytelling while wishing that the mechanics had been a bit more involved.

So what’s the nirvanA Initiative? This game takes place six years after the first – well, I suppose that’s only half true. You see, nirvanA Initiative is focused on a new series of murders called the Half Body Serial Killings, in which the victims are vertically sliced clean in half. The first of these killings took place mere months after the incidents of the first game, and in one of the earliest scenes the second half of the same victim appears on the same date six years later. This time split is a core piece of the game – six years in the past you investigate as a Psyncer named Ryuki who was a rookie detective under Kaname Date. In the present, you play as Date’s adopted daughter Mizuki. Jumping between these characters seems to be one of the key mechanics of this game – Mizuki needs to learn what Ryuki discovered in the past so that she can successfully identify the culprit in the present.

Unfortunately had to just take photos of my monitor with my phone when playing this game, but I made sure to get plenty of evidence that Somnium Files is still thirsty as hell.

Now if you’re reading this and thinking “hey, this sounds kinda neat but I never played the first game,” the game tries to account for that. You begin the game in a dream where the characters address You the player and ask how much you know about the New Cyclops Serial Killings, the events of the first game. If you’ve played it, references to those events are included in the game, including explanations for apparent inconsistencies between the two. If you haven’t, nirvanA Initiative is written and designed in such a way to avoid spoiling the original game. It’s a neat concept even if some of the hoops that they have to jump through to keep from spoiling new players are a bit far-fetched. The prologue insists the two stories are not connected, so not knowing the first game shouldn’t put you in a situation where this game cannot be appreciated for what it is.

With the story bits out of the way, let’s talk mechanics. There are two main phases in nirvanA Initiative: Investigation and Somnium. During investigations, you look around spaces in the game’s real world and click on objects to inspect them. You also select people and can speak with them, asking questions related to the current situation. Similar to the first game, these conversations are the real focus: most scenes that aren’t explicitly about investigating a crime scene don’t require you to click on everything. You can see fun little gags and whatnot by touching the various objects but the majority of them just say stuff like “it’s a door” or “a poster on the wall.” Personally I would prefer for things that don’t have what I consider to be a worthwhile interaction to not be clickable, but it’s a minor gripe all things considered. (Note: though I’m saying “click” to describe how you interact with the objects, this game is available on a variety of platforms. I personally am playing on PS4.)

Investigation scenes also have quick time events (QTEs) during action scenes. This requires you to press or mash a button or aim a targeting reticle within a time limit. The game has a few different difficulty settings for these QTEs – the standard difficulty, a version that gives you extra time and makes mashing a little less demanding, and a version that extends your time a lot while also reducing the number of presses needed during a mash significantly. Notably, this difficulty setting is distinct from the one for Somnium, so if you want full difficulty puzzles but need more approachable QTEs, the game supports that. I’m not an accessibility expert so I can’t speak to how effective these alternate difficulties are; in my own case, I am playing on standard.

Returning players will recognize recurring gags from the first game, but it doesn’t take long for newer characters to take center stage and have their own running jokes to enjoy as well.

Somnium are the puzzle segments of the game, the portion where you explore a witness’s dreams in order to discover information they can’t or won’t share by more traditional methods. Each Somnium has a different aesthetic and theme based on the subject of the Psync, but they are tied together by a few common mechanical elements. Rather than moving a reticle around to look at an environment in first person, you instead move around the dream in third person – not as your investigator but as their AI companion. Somnium are on a time limit – standing still slows time to a crawl but it moves at normal speed when you walk. When time runs out, you fail the Somnium and have to reset to a previous checkpoint within the dream – run out of resets and you start the whole thing over from the beginning.

Somnium has a distinct difficulty setting from QTEs. The standard time limit is six minutes with only three resets to work with. By changing to lower difficulties, you can reduce the time cost of actions as well as increasing the number of resets available to you, with the lowest setting having infinite resets. If you’re finding the puzzles difficult or simply want more leeway to explore Somnium, these lower settings allow for that to some degree. Notably there are some mechanisms in the game which encourage you to replay Somnium, so if you plan to engage them the lower difficulties may be a useful tool for reducing the total number of replays.

The main way you progress a Somnium is to interact with objects or characters in the dream to solve puzzles. Interactions cost blocks of time from your total time limit – some of them make progress, some give hints, and others just waste time. Trying to figure out the useful interactions while ignoring the harmful ones is how you move through a Somnium towards a useful clue for your real world investigation. The hints are a new feature in nirvanA Initiative; they’re referred to in-game as “keys,” the purpose of which is to describe the dream logic that a particular Somnium functions upon. It’s a clearer way to give you concrete information you can use to solve the puzzles.

Somnium features a lot of visual gags that are only possible thanks to the wild logic of dreams, including Aiba getting objects lodged in wholesome holes, like her nose.

There are a couple of other factors that might influence your choices in Somnium. Some dreams branch and lead down different timelines – the path you take will ultimately lead to a different segment of the game’s story. Often choices will include what’s called a “timie,” a consumable that either reduces the time of a future action or sets it to a specific value. These are useful for reducing the time you are spending on actions and essential for completing some Somnium. And any choice you’ve never chosen before gives you “eyeballs,” a metagame currency you can spend for alternate costumes for your AI companions. Eyeballs are also awarded for finding hidden spots in Somnium as well as completing a Somnium with time left over. They’re totally optional but they do add some additional reason to engage with choices which are not obviously beneficial in any other way.

In a visual novel game like this, the story and characters are ultimately the pieces that keep you engaged. So far, I’m compelled by what I see. A lot of the early parts of the game are focused on establishing Ryuki and his AI partner Tama, who are new characters to this setting. While characters from the original game are still present and you do interact with them, it’s clear that the newer members of the cast are going to be the real stars of the show this time – with the possible exceptions of Mizuki and Aiba, who are billed as joint protagonists with Ryuki. The returning characters bring a pleasant familiarity while the newer characters are just as quirky. I can already imagine which ones they want to set up as early red herrings in terms of pointing towards suspects, and similar to the first game there’s a lot left up in the air as far as what pseudoscientific forces do and don’t exist in this world. Conspiracy theories already abound and I can imagine that they will only get deeper as the game goes on.

So far I am enjoying my time with nirvanA Initiative. It builds logically on the original while presenting some interesting new characters and a scenario that I’m curious to learn more about. The Somnium gameplay has added features while still retaining the core appeal of that style of puzzle. It’s hard to say anything definitive this early on; I’ll be looking to see that the story maintains its momentum, that the characters are compelling, and that the gameplay adds to the experience rather than simply serving as the obligatory “game” part of the video game. I’m excited to play more and see if it lives up to my positive regard for the original.

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