Those who know the name Kotaro Uchikoshi will know that he's responsible for the Zero Escape series, among other things, and now he's back with a title called AI: The Somnium Files, directing and writing this sci-fi story. Having played Zero Escape, we were curious as to how AI would work out, and now that the credits have rolled and the mystery has concluded, we're confident in saying it's some of his best work.
The game opens with you, protagonist Kaname Date, investigating the scene of a grisly murder. A woman has had her left eye removed and has been tied to a carousel horse in an abandoned park, and you must investigate her murder with the help of your companion, Aiba, who lives in your eye socket.
You see, you're part of the top-secret Advanced Brain Investigation Squad (ABIS), and Aiba actually stands for AI Ball, sitting in your eye to provide analysis and conversation as you investigate. It's a weird concept at first, and that's not helped by the fact she can come out of your eye as a squishy little creature in front of you. She's your companion though, and you certainly need her around.
That's just the very start of the story though, as within the roughly 20 hours of playtime you'll unravel a much deeper mystery that we wouldn't dare spoil here. All you need to know is that it's just as imaginative, bizarre, and disturbing as any of Uchikoshi's other works, and it goes down some really interesting avenues, especially in the latter half of your time with AI.
In the minute-to-minute gameplay you'll be observing scenes and discovering clues via point-and-click-style interactions, but more important than that are the conversations you have. It's like a visual novel in this respect, as you're constantly talking with characters regarding the investigation, or just for your own personal interest, which can be done by clicking on them and selecting various dialogue choices (it's just as easy on controller as on PC, since we played on Switch).
To pursue your investigation though you'll need to enter people's dreams via a somnium scan using a Psync Machine, and these happen with a variety of characters at key points in the story. Here we're thrown into a third-person puzzle in which Aiba, as a woman this time, looks at key elements of the dream to uncover clues and unlock deeper elements of the psyche. Oh, and there's a six-minute time limit, with each action using a certain amount of time, and extra time bonuses and penalties thrown in as well.
What's more is that there are also branches of narrative to discover. Your first playthrough will see you run through the story and get to one of many endings, and it's at this point AI really starts to get interesting. These branches take place in the somnium scans themselves, and once you finish the game once you can see the flowchart of events to see which branches you still have left to take, uncovering more of the lore behind the world, the links between the characters, and clues to piece together the puzzle.
There are certain paths which actually lock you out at a specific point though, requiring you to complete more of the game elsewhere before you can progress, and in this way Spike Chunsoft keeps the pace steady for unraveling all the mysteries. In fact, there's a constant flow of information coming your way without being overwhelming or confusing, and it's a satisfying journey to the end, when everything is wrapped up nicely and all the threads are finally brought together in front of your eyes.
One of the frustrations of this game comes in the form of these critical points, the somnium scans. The solutions - especially when it comes to the alternate paths you can take - can be obtuse and confusing, and often we were left looking online for a guide to help us out. With a time limit in place as well, it can get tedious trying to replay these and only investigate what's necessary to help you progress, especially since you still have to watch the same cutscenes and dialogue (albeit with a simple fast-forward and skip button).
Where AI excels, however, is with the characters, designed by Yūsuke Kozaki. These aren't only colourful in their style, with plenty of variety packed in, but also in their personalities. Each adds and hinders the investigation in their own way, and finding out how they link to each other is incredibly rewarding. It's hard to anticipate what's going to happen and how the stories connect, but AI constantly surprises.
It's also nice to get to know these characters with Date as a person, rather than just a detective. He forms bonds and friendships with these people and connects with all of them, meaning there's room for more fun moments aside from the morbid criminal pursuits. Iris, for example, is a social media influencer who always wants to play ShovelForge (like Minecraft), and one somnium scan in her brain stood out as a highlight, bringing her love of bright colours and eccentric dancing together in a very special way.
Many characters have their own dedicated endings as well, so you can unravel their personal stories while on your main quest, and this really adds another layer to AI: The Somnium Files, past just the disturbing scenes (of which there are many) and the central mystery at the heart of the story.
Another thing that let AI down a little was the constant sexual references. Some of these moments were harmless and just downright ludicrous, like distracting an alleyway of armed thugs with a set of women's underwear (of course), but the comments from Date and others about wanting to see through women's clothing or touch their breasts were more creepy than funny. We felt uncomfortable, and they're a wildly unnecessary feature, coming at random points without any context whatsoever.
That said, once all of the branches were done and the story was finally wrapped up in an excellent ending (seriously, you need to see it), we were left quite stunned by how much Uchikoshi and Spike Chunsoft had reeled us into the narrative. We were enjoying it a lot before the branches opened up, at which point it was elevated to new levels, and we can confidently say this is a game you should certainly play this year. It's a unique cocktail of dark moments mixed with over-the-top silliness, all of which combines with a web of mysteries to produce a very special game indeed.
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