Six years after the New Cyclops Serial Killings, ABIS investigator Mizuki Date arrives at an empty soccer stadium. In the middle of the field is half of a body, cut down the center from the top of the head to the base of the spine. It is a sight Mizuki knows well – six years before, the other half of this very same body fell from above into the middle of a studio where she and a group of friends were livestreaming a quiz show special. During the six years between, more half-bodies were found in a string of murders that the police labeled the Half Body Serial Killings. The culprit was never found, and now it seemed that they had resurfaced at long last. This begins your journey through AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative, a game in which you play as both Mizuki and fellow ABIS investigator Ryuki as they try to unravel the Half Body killings both six years in the past as well as present day.
nirvanA Initiative is a science fiction mystery game. Gameplay is split between investigation and Somnium, the latter of which is a puzzle-filled exploration of the dream world of a key witness or suspect. In this game you interview people, investigate scenes in both reality and virtual reality, solve puzzles to unravel the secrets inside of dreams, and navigate action scenes through quick time events (QTEs), all while pursuing the mystery of the Half Body killer. The creators behind nirvanA Initiative are known for more than just the previous Somnium Files game – between the Zero Escape series and the Danganronpa series, this is a studio well versed in the creation of visual novels with compelling mysteries. But what is it that sets nirvanA Initiative apart, if anything? Does this game build upon the strengths of the first game? I hope to answer these questions in this review!
First I’ll talk a bit about the game’s structure. Like the first Somnium Files, nirvanA Initiative is a game which features a timeline on a flowchart where you move through a series of events. These timelines split in Somnium – certain dream worlds have choices or puzzles which will lead you down different paths. These paths conclude in “endings” of the game – the credits roll and the arc for a particular character or pair of characters is typically resolved, but the whole case may not be. In reality there is one true ending where all the threads are tied, all the questions answered, and you can truly consider the Half Body Serial Killings to be solved. It is this ending you’ll be pursuing as you investigate, but compared to the first Somnium Files, the path to that ending is significantly more linear. Two of the splits in nirvanA Initiative are blocked not by choices but by passwords – you need information from a different timeline or timelines in order to progress. This means that while there are ultimately five main endings you need to get to unlock the true path through the game, you won’t be doing those endings in any order you please. It is I think a matter of personal taste whether this is better, worse, or neutral compared to the first game. Personally since you have to play all the endings either way, I wasn’t particularly bothered by being more railroaded in this game compared to the first, but some may miss the “player story” that comes from experiencing the narrative in one order compared to another.
Investigations are pretty similar to the first game for the most part. During a scene, your character stands in a static position but you can look around using a targeting reticle to investigate named objects or talk to people on the scene. The majority of the time, there is no real practical reason to investigate – the object descriptions are largely straightforward “this is a broom” or “this is a plant” type text unless there’s an opportunity for a joke, in which a character may chime in and say something when you look at an object. There are occasionally situations where looking at something is necessary to progress, but you can generally get away with just focusing on the dialogue.
Conversations are guided to some degree by the player – when you target a character, the four directional buttons will have topics to choose from and for the most part these can be asked in any order. Some options will be hidden behind other ones and sometimes choosing a particular topic of conversation will progress the game, closing off any branches that weren’t important to the story. This can be frustrating on occasion if you really want to see everything, because it is not always obvious which topic is going to be the one that closes off the conversation. You can replay scenes to see dialogue you missed but generally that’s not going to be worth the effort. It’s a minor irritation, but I’ve seen other dialogue-heavy games handle their similar branching systems in a way that better conveys to the player when they are moving on from a topic they may want to finish exploring.
There’s one aspect of investigating in nirvanA Initiative that is totally new compared to the first title: Virtual Reality Activation. These investigations allow your character (Ryuki or Mizuki) to move around in third person rather than simply looking through the environment from a static first person perspective. You can switch between multiple vision modes such as x-ray or thermal in order to find clues not obvious to the naked eye, and use the information you collect in order to recreate the crime scene and learn new information about the suspect. These are a pleasant if relatively simple addition to the investigation segments, a sort of simplified Somnium that makes investigating feel more active for the player. I particularly appreciated the addition of this mechanic, and it is something I would enjoy seeing expanded upon more in a theoretical third Somnium Files game.
Then there are the Somnium scenes. In Somnium, you investigate not as Ryuki or Mizuki but as their AI companions Tama or Aiba, respectively. Somnium is a dream world, and the logic of each Somnium varies based on the personality and secrets of the character you are investigating. These are timed puzzle sequences where you have 360 seconds to reach the end of the Somnium and learn critical information. The timer essentially stands still when you do but it moves when you move, and taking actions like interacting with objects or investigating them causes larger chunks of time to pass. Some interactions give you “TIMIEs” which you can use to reduce the amount of time spent on future actions, though there are also bad TIMIEs that increase your time as well. Solving a Somnium requires you to make the right choices while carefully managing your time so that you complete the dream world before your 360 seconds are up.
This is all pretty consistent with the first game, but nirvanA Initiative has some appreciated quality of life features as well as some other expansions on the formula of the Somnium. Difficulty modes allow you to reduce the time penalties if the timed aspect of the puzzles is a barrier for you. There are also keys, which are hints you gain as you interact with the dream which reveal more information about how it works. These keys are valuable for solving puzzles when you get stuck. Somnium are also more varied in this game in a few key ways. A couple feature alternative forms of movement such as swimming or flying. Another new feature is the idea of the “conscious antibody,” a presence in Somnium that is either static or moving that costs you time if you touch it, to no benefit. Avoiding these obstacles is key to navigating such Somnium successfully. Beyond these more practical changes, there’s also a broader variety of visual styles and puzzle types in the Somnium this time. I don’t want to spoil specific gimmicks but you can look forward to more minigames this time around as well as fun references to other videogames.
Now the meat of a game like Somnium Files is the narrative – while this game certainly is a step up gameplay wise from the first, if the story isn’t delivering then that gameplay is likely not worthwhile. Fortunately, I was pleased with the story of nirvanA Initiative. I won’t be including any spoilers in this article, but I will say that the game successfully accomplished a similar effect as the first for me. While the clues provided as well as a bit of intuition on my end were enough to get about 90% of the way to the big plot twist, there were one or two elements I hadn’t fully figured out so by the time I realized exactly what was going on, my mind was still blown by the story. The game feeds you plenty of little conspiracy theories and sci-fi concepts to throw you off the trail, and it feels good when you see through the mess and put the pieces together to figure out a bit of information before the game expects you to.
I will say that if you’re reading this and you’ve not played any of the previous works by this creative team, one thing you should probably be aware of is the sense of humor. nirvanA Initiative can be emotionally moving and serious at the right moments but there is plenty of comedy mixed in either through witty banter, ridiculous dream logic in Somnium, and a lot of anime-style fanservice and lewd jokes. I’d say for most folks the first two will probably not be an issue but the sex jokes can get old and are generally geared towards straight men. If you’re used to dealing with this sort of writing from JRPGs or anime then there’s probably nothing here that will be particularly shocking or off-putting, but if you’re coming here from the lens of a more serious detective/investigation game then it is something to be aware of.
Overall, nirvanA Initiative is a solid sequel. It builds logically on what the first game offered by adding some new mechanics and refining the old ones so that they feel more varied and unique. The story is more linear than the first game but still delivers that science fiction mystery goodness that fans of the first game will likely be looking for. The new characters are compelling and do a good job of taking center stage while the characters from the first game largely serve in supporting or comic relief roles. While I’ll need more time to reflect on which game I prefer from a story standpoint, I can confidently say from a gameplay perspective that nirvanA Initiative is a meaningful improvement on its predecessor. While I feel this is likely the last we will see of these characters and the setting, I’d certainly be open to seeing the developers continue to explore the gameplay concepts that this game has refined to expand upon them even more.