When acclaimed character designer Yūsuke Kozaki (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Daemon X Machina, the No More Heroes series), composer Keisuke Ito (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night), and beloved designer/writer Kotaro Uchikoshi (of Zero Escape series fame) get together, you expect magic to happen. And even with that expectation in mind, their latest project, AI: The Somnium Files, totally exceeded it in many, many ways.
One of 2019’s best games isn’t a reboot of a beloved horror entry, nor a big-budget military shooter or open-world checklist with light RPG elements, but a visual novel adventure that asks you to investigate a series of serial murders with a sentient eyeball companion by diving into people’s dreams. It’s as rad as it sounds, trust me.
In AI: The Somnium Files, you play as detective Kaname Date, who works in a special division called ABIS that allows them to “psync” with people and explore their dreams. As you can imagine, having this power is incredibly handy, but the ABIS branch is so hush-hush that nobody on the outside even knows they exist.
Assisting Date is his partner Aiba, a sassy A.I. eyeball embedded into his left socket that can scan and converse with him via brain waves, rather than spilling the beans to anyone within earshot. That’s not to say Date’s big mouth doesn’t screw up at times, like complimenting a woman’s gigantic breasts when he *surely* just meant to think it. Aiba and Date are buddy cop incarnate, bantering back and forth inside of his head and providing some of the most perfectively delivered comedic lines I’ve heard in a long while. For a darkly themed game, The Somnium Files doesn’t skimp on the humor and often had me snorting during its conversation pieces.
One day, Date is called in to investigate a body found at a local amusement park that’s been out of commission for nearly a decade. When he arrives, he’s surprised to discover the corpse of his best friend’s ex-wife — bound to a carousel horse with her left eyeball missing. What’s more, the victim’s 12-year-old daughter is found hiding nearby with a bloody icepick, yet no blood is present by the corpse. Prior to the murder, Mizuki was actually entrusted to Data’s care due to the couple’s marital problems and a busy schedule, so she’s not just a witness and a suspect, but also Date’s roommate.
The plot thickens immediately as new suspects and witnesses are introduced. There’s Iris, a teenage idol who recently found popularity by live-streaming her songs and playing video games online. Her biggest fan, Ota, goes to great lengths to support her on social media by creating fake accounts that exist purely to bash and defend her. Of course, politicians and the yakuza are involved, because this is Japanese crime drama we’re talking about, and as new bodies show up with similar missing features, you’re off to find out who is at the bottom of things.
All of the characters are absolutely brilliant, chock-full of humor and personality that always encouraged me to wring out as much dialogue from them as humanly possible. And the equally brilliant aspect of The Somnium Files is the way their personalities shift depending on how your version of the story plays out.
For the most part, AI: The Somnium Files plays out like a visual novel. You’ll venture off to different locations, have lengthy conversations with people, and uncover new plot points that advance the game forward.
Once it’s time to delve into someone’s dream world, called Somnium, control shifts from Date to Aiba, who now appears humanized in her cute anime girl form. Date says she looks like a shrimp here, but I disagree. Somnium Aiba is the best Aiba, despite her eyeball form also taking the shape of an adorably gross teddy bear.
It’s here, in Somnium, where you’re tasked with solving bizarre dream puzzles by interacting with objects in the environment, in order to break through the subject’s “mental locks” that withhold important information. However, Date can only remain psynced for six minutes before his mind is scrambled and absorbed into Somnium.
The timer plays heavily into the Somnium investigation scenarios since you really do have only six minutes to figure out a solution. The tricky part, however, is that interacting with objects in certain ways costs a specific amount of “time” that’s subtracted from your remaining total. For instance, turning a doorknob would only take a second in real life, but two minutes in Somnium.
You can manipulate these time penalties by collecting items called TIMIES that can be used to reduce their cost by a percentage. Of course, the dream world is a tricky place and negative TIMIES can also be picked up that have the opposite, undesired outcome.
Failing a Somnium psync doesn’t have much of a penalty since you can retry from the start, or from your most recent “mental lock” checkpoint. With such strict time requirements, I found myself interacting with things, taking notes on what they did, and restarting from scratch with a better understanding of what to do.
As an adventure game, AI: The Somnium Files has multiple branching narratives that are determined by how you solve these Somnium puzzles. One way may treat the remainder of the story as a cliche murder mystery with a happy ending, while others throw logic in the river and truly fuck with your mind. It’s absolutely brilliant how each different route plays out, changing suspects, offering new Somnium to visit, and more, and they’re all wholly rewarding in their own right.
Similar to Detroit: Become Human, The Somnium Files presents a flowchart that shows your specific outcome and where your decisions split off from other routes. You can use this to jump back into these important chapters earlier in the game and branch off from there, rather than having to play the entire game from scratch.
Visually, AI: The Somnium Files pops will clashing neons and dark backdrops and has some wonderfully designed character models (as expected!) with emotionally-driven facial animations that help drive their dialogue home. Action scenes are animated well too (complete with VERY few quick-time events) and give the cast plenty of room to express their booming personalities — Mizuki’s yakuza ass-kicking immediately comes to mind.
Overall, AI: The Somnium Files is the total package. It’s an expertly written murder mystery that’s as dark as it is hilarious; jam-packed full of equally impressive characters and choice voice actors.
Greg Chun (NieR: Automata‘s Adam, Octopath Traveler‘s Alfyn) nails Date’s horny-on-main slash hard-boiled-detective personality, with Erika Harlacher’s (Persona 5‘s Ann Takamaki, Danganronpa‘s Kyoko Kirigiri) Aiba, Corina Boettger’s (Megadimension Neptunia VII’s B-Sha) Mizuki, and Allegra Clark’s (Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Dorothea and Shamir, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3‘s Spider-Gwen) “Boss” being my overall favorites in the game. Zach Aguilar’s (Fire Emblem: Three Houses‘ male Byleth) performance as Ota and Jackie Lastra’s (Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana‘s Ricotta, Crystar‘s Pheles) Iris were also great performances, especially together as an overly obsessed fan and upcoming internet idol.
Honestly, I can’t praise AI: The Somnium Files enough. It’s easy on the eyes, has great musical arrangements, and has some of the best writing of 2019 — if not THE best. It’s so good that you’ll WANT to search every nook and cranny for additional dialogue and banter, without forcing you to do so. If adventure games and visual novels are your jam, especially dark murder mysteries with a large slice of humor, there’s no better game to play right now. This is it — the masterclass.