Spike Chunsoft could be considered by some to be the kings of the visual novel genre. To many, they're best known for fan-favorite series like Zero Escape and Danganronpa, and if this new title is anything to go by, they look set to have another success story with AI: The Somnium Files. And that's primarily because Kotaro Uchikoshi is back in the director's chair.
Uchikoshi is the creator of the aforementioned Zero Escape series - three titles that became beloved for their incredibly complex narratives, quirky but well-written characters, brain-bending puzzles, and a tone that could be horrifyingly dark in one scene and bizarrely funny in the next. They had a unique style of writing that could not be replicated, so any fans of those games will immediately recognize all of Uchikoshi's own quirks in AI. His creative thumbprint can be found all over this game.
While it's overall narrative is nowhere near as convoluted as Zero Escape's, it still plays with expectations, offers seemingly outlandish and confusing scenarios and then gives proper explanations, and has some amazing foreshadowing and pay-offs for its plot points. Those familiar with Uchikoshi's work may actually be able to predict some of these plot points but it doesn't take away how effective they are. In fact, he even subverts his own writing style a couple of times. This is not a title for the easily squeamish, however. There are quite a few grisly sights, though the game never completely revels in them to the point where it becomes tasteless. They're not as frequent as in, say, Zero Time Dilemma, which arguably divulged in gore a bit too much.
Players take control of Detective Date, who must solve a string of grisly murders with the help of his AI companion, Aiba, who exists inside of Date's left eye. The game is split into two different gameplay sections - Investigations and Psyncs. Investigations are incredibly simple, as players are confined to a single area and investigate the scene from a fixed first-person perspective. It's during these sections where Date can find clues by interacting with objects and gathering information from witnesses by speaking to them. The game prevents leaving the area until all the relevant info has been acquired so there is no risk of missing anything, aside from some humorous flavor text that can be found.
However, it's not always entirely clear what needs to be checked; there were a few moments where we found ourselves clicking on everything in an attempt to make progress, and sometimes what needs to be examined is in the background and, as a result, is really small and easy to miss. Trying to get the cursor to highlight these ones can be really finicky since there's no option to zoom in, unless it's prompted by the game itself. Occasionally, these sections are broken up with little mini-puzzles and QTE sections as well, but these are incredibly simple and failing them just results in letting the player try again immediately.
The real puzzles can be found during the Psync sections. Whenever a suspect refuses to divulge important information, Date and his team hook them up to a special machine that allows Date and Aiba to dive into their Somnium - a surreal dream-like world made from the suspect's memories. In these sections, control switches to Aiba who, in a more humanoid form, can freely move around the area, interacting with objects to get past Mental Locks that alter the Somnium and reveal the hidden truth within the suspect's memories.
What conditions need to be met varies depending on the Somnium. For example, in the very first one, the subject can be seen trapped inside of a merry-go-round and needs to be reached. However, not only is there a giant cage surrounding it, the merry-go-round is spinning insanely fast, so Aiba needs to find a way to get past these obstacles to reach the subject. But since they're in a dream world, how these puzzles are solved isn't always so simple and usually requires a more abstract level of thinking. Fortunately, there is a logic to how these puzzles work; they're not "random" in any way and a handy hint is provided in the top left of the screen to give players an idea of what they need to do next. Though some players may struggle more than others, simply experimenting with what's available will eventually yield results.
But Date and Aiba can't stay in Somnium forever. Unlike the escape rooms from Zero Escape, players only have six minutes to solve the puzzles and simply moving around the Somnium eats up seconds. Thankfully, once players select an object to interact with, time freezes so players can mull over the different options they are given. Each interaction does use up time as well, but the player is told how many seconds are needed to perform an action. While not every object is necessary to complete the puzzle, it's almost worth making wrong choices as performing some actions rewards the player with a Timie, an object that can be used to reduce the time spent on these actions. Up to three of them can be held at one time and they're almost mandatory for completing these sections. Annoyingly, there are negative Timies as well, which the player is forced to use, and these make actions take up more time. What's particularly infuriating is that, sometimes, performing actions necessary to completing the puzzle will "reward" the player with one of these negative Timies, which some may feel like is a bit unfair, since it should be a punishment for an incorrect choice.
Chances are that most players will find themselves failing their first attempts at the Somnium sections but, honestly, failing in AI feels more like a slap on the wrist than anything resembling actual consequences. At the beginning of a Somnium, the game provides three Retry tokens that can be used to return to a previous checkpoint, which are reached whenever a Mental Lock is unlocked. However, the further the player wishes to go back, the more of these tokens need to be used (e.g. if the player has passed the third checkpoint but wishes to go back to the first one to save time, they must spend two of the three tokens). If all three are used up, a game over sends the player back to the very beginning.
Since these sections need to be solved within the in-game six minutes, none of them ever feel like they outstay their welcome, and as long as the player remembers what they did originally, getting back to where they failed shouldn't take long either. There were a few times where we resorted to simple guesswork, memorized the actions and then just started the whole section over to save time. Regardless of the player's skill at puzzle-solving, they will eventually clear these sections and won't find themselves stuck banging their head against a wall for hours, though completing them quickly enough rewards the player with concept art and a photo of Aiba doing something funny or cute in the Somnium. If we had to criticize one thing, though, it'd be the map screen. While it is helpful showing how many interactive items there are and where they are, it doesn't show which direction Aiba is facing, which led to a few times where we would head for a certain object, only to realize we had gone in the opposite direction.
One other key aspect of the Somnium sections is that some of them have diverging paths - instances where the player is given two different options for progression, which end up changing the remaining puzzles and set the player down a different story route. Yes, much like Zero Escape, there are different story routes to be explored, which help flesh out the entire narrative. Certain questions that are raised in one route are only answered in another, which helps add to the overall mystery. While hitting these major plot points out of order can be confusing, seeing how they all come together in the end is possibly the most satisfying part of the whole game.
For fans of the Zero Escape games, AI: The Somnium Files is an absolute must-buy, and its more accessible story, interesting puzzle gameplay, and slightly muted anime aesthetic hopefully means it can enjoy a more mainstream success and potentially kick-start a new series for Spike Chunsoft.
AI: The Somnium Files is out right now for PS4, Switch and PC. GameRant was provided a Switch code for this review.