As a freelance reviewer, I have the privilege of checking out a ton of games each year. While I love most of the games I check out (aside from some disturbingly lazy shovelware titles), there are some games I just need to tell people about. Last year graced me with Switch ports of Duck Game and Downwell, but if there’s one game I would wholeheartedly recommend from 2019, it would be Spike Chunsoft’s AI: The Somnium Files. With a gripping narrative and a great cast, this is one adventure game you need to play.
Here we are in the future and it’s bright
In AI: The Somnium files, you control Kaname Date, an agent working at a top-secret organization known as ABIS, or the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad. After a woman (later revealed to be connected with Date) is murdered in a grisly fashion, ABIS is on the case. With the help of his virtual pal Aiba (who is literally a part of him as a prosthetic eye), he solves different cases by going through a process known as Pysncing, which will allow a user to go into someone’s mindscape (otherwise known as a Somnium).
There is one limitation to this, however: Date can only go into a Somnium for six minutes, or else something unspeakably bad will happen. Delving into this will go into spoiler territory, but suffice to say the game does a great job with integrating the gameplay and the story. Which brings me to my next point…
Innovative puzzle-solving… with a twist!
During a Somnium, you’ll control Aiba, who is represented as a beautiful girl that’s more emotive and bubbly compared to her real life AR counterpart. This is the meat of the gameplay, and it’s an innovative system that requires some creative thinking to solve puzzles. If you’ve ever played the Zero Escape series, this is similar to that franchise: You’re locked in an environment and need to open Mental Locks in order to achieve your goal, such as trying to protect a character from getting murdered in the Somnium or getting a piece of critical information.
You have free movement in these sections, with a strict six minute time limit looming above you; standing still will make the timer grind to a halt, while moving will deplete it in real-time. You’ll have to interact with different objects within the Somnium to advance the story, although every action will cost precious seconds (or in some extreme cases, minutes), so you have to be exact with your decisions. That said, there are a ton of choices that can hinder you or give you some flavor text interactions with the characters. It’s here where Aiba and Date’s relationship as partners shines, as it’s a witty back-and-forth that are equal parts informational and entertaining.
While the solution to a Mental Lock may seem straightforward, dreams operate on a different logic entirely, and as such something as simple as opening a light switch might be hard considering there are some dangerous thorns in the way. You’ll have to read context clues from your recent interactions with the person with whom you’re pysncing, and it leads to some pretty cool solutions that would otherwise come out of left field in a regular puzzle game.
It was the best of TIMIEs, it was the worst of TIMIEs
In order to mitigate the six-minute limit, you also have items called TIMIEs which will allow you to reduce the amount of time it takes to perform an action. This actually has an important purpose later in the game, as there will be times when you’re given negative TIMIEs for actions (which will double the amount of time… or worse), so you need to plan your actions in advance. Luckily, it’s easy to restart or go back to a checkpoint, and the game rewards trial-and-error (so much so that the six-minute limit feels like a godsend rather than an annoyance).
Don’t kill my flow(chart)
As a visual novel/puzzle game hybrid that is similar to the Zero Escape series, there’s a flowchart included within the game too. It’s a pretty well laid out one, which will diverge once you make certain choices in a Somnium (which means that your decisions matter while in the dream world). By going through and unlocking every normal route, you can experience the true ending. Let me tell you, while it seems that the game’s final revelations come out of left field, in reality it’s the culmination of everything you’ve experienced in previous endings, which means it’s necessary to go through everything the game has to offer in order to get the full enjoyment out of it.
A sense of humor, even in the gallows
Perhaps the strongest aspect of AI: The Somnium Files is how deftly it’s able to switch from moody and grim environments to lighthearted and low-brow humor in an instant. While the Somnium worlds are the main chunk of gameplay, there are Ace Attorney-like sections where you can inspect and interrogate people and objects in a background over world. It’s here where you understand that Date is far from your average investigator (well, aside from the unexplained memory loss in the beginning of the game), and is a bit of a lecherous dolt at times.
Many characters exploit his… urges in order to motivate him to do the right thing, and while it can get a little too over-the-top at times, his heart’s in the right place. There’s this one sequence where a serious shootout occurs, and the only way to succeed is by allowing things like a nudie mag and panties to get in the way of assailants, which also happens to be the keys to surviving a sequence later on in the story. Most of Date and Aiba’s internal monologues are humorous, and while most objects you can inspect are optional, I kept trying to look into every nook and cranny because I wanted to hear a stupid or silly quip from Date.
It helps that the cast of characters is as eccentric and jarring as the story. Aside from Date and Aiba, you also have Iris Sagan, who goes by the internet idol alias A-set, who sings and plays Minec…erm, Shovelforge from time to time. However, almost every character is not who they appear, and even comic relief characters like “reformed” mobster Moma has their moments to shine. It’s the genuine chemistry of the whole cast that makes this AI: The Somnium Files so charming. (My personal favorites are Mama, an information broker who has quite a bit on her mind and spouts out more innuendos than Date, and Kagami, whose presence becomes a bit of a running gag that pays off well into the story). The fully-voiced performances of the game in English or Japanese deserves some props too, and now I feel like I want every visual novel I play to have voice acting. A good performance stays with you, and I have to say there’s not one weak voice actor in the English dubbed version here. You can feel the passion and depth of each character (even minor ones), and I have to commend how the game nails this.
In short, if you haven’t heard of AI: The Somnium Files and love visual novels or puzzle games, you definitely should pick it up right now. Seriously, there’s also a demo if you’re still on the fence about it, so what are you waiting for?