Releasing globally next week, AI: The Somnium Files is a new Spike Chunsoft title that is coming out for PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC. For our review, we checked out the PS4 version.
AI: The Somnium Files brings together the talents of Kotaro Uchikoshi, director of the Zero Escape games, and Yusuke Kozaki, responsible for the visual style in titles like No More Heroes. Given Uchikoshi’s involvement, it’s no surprise that there’s a mystery to unravel here, and Kozaki has crafted a unique and cinematic style to go along with it. The result is interesting, to say the least.
Set in a futuristic version of Tokyo, the story follows a detective called Kaname Date, who arrives at a gruesome murder scene that hits a little too close to home. In a theme park, he finds a murdered women on a carousel who’s been stabbed multiple times and has had her eye taken out by the killer. He then discovers a little girl hiding nearby, holding a bloody ice pick. Why does this hit close to home? Date himself lost an eye years ago, and has amnesia that prevents him from remembering much about it.
The investigation centers on a serial killer with a familiar eye-catching modus operandi, and because it’s set in the future you have some sci-fi tech available to you to help you catch the killer. You are part of the Advanced Brain Investigation Section of the police, and your missing eye has been replaced with an AI unit called Aiba – and this allows you to dive into people’s subconscious to find out what they’re hiding. Aiba also aids you in the real world, for instance by offering you the chance to view something with X-ray vision.
A lot of these special skills are controlled by the narrative though, and not always available when you’d like them to be. This can get frustrating, but as long as you’re gripped by the story and character development in the game I feel like this won’t be a big issue. It does, however, come with a sense that player choice doesn’t always matter – at least at times. More on that later.
The gameplay in AI: The Somnium Files is roughly split into two sections: investigations and dream dives (exploring “the Somnium”). There are optional side quests in the game, as well as a branching storyline with a story tree that allows you to backtrack and explore possible other routes you could have taken.
Investigations are a little like those in the Phoenix Wright series, where you piece together clues by examining scenes and question people based on the evidence you’ve found. There are action scenes as well, but the fighting is resolved though quick time events rather than turn-based gameplay or actual brawling. Piece two key elements together, and the game will often give you a cinematic montage of how they relate to one another.
Somnium sections are a little more interesting, as they’re short (time-limited) explorations of someone’s subconscious where you have to solve puzzles in order to get to the truth that is being hidden. In some cases there is a perfectly logical way of achieving this, but because this is a dream world things can be a little deceptive and not work like you would have expected.
Some of the story branching happens inside these dreams, as Somnium parts can have different outcomes. The puzzle element often lies in how to use TIMIE, which is the equivalent of time but also acts as a collection of action points with the Somnium environment. Different interactions require different amounts of TIMIE, and going in the right order could be the key to success (or a different outcome).
Yet, despite the branching story and different outcomes of conversations and puzzles, it sometimes feels like AI: The Somnium Files wants to make some of your choices for you rather than leave you to it. The game determines when you can use some of Aiba’s special functions (or not) and obviously there’s not much to choose inside a quick time event besides pressing the right button at the right time. Somnium sections can also (albeit rarely) turn into trial and error moments, which makes you feel like you’re not in the driver’s seat.
To me, this wasn’t a big issue – I was more than happy being along for the ride and enjoying the cinematic presentation of another crazy Uchikoshi mystery with an interesting plot, ditto characters and good voice acting.