Visual novels are a tough genre of game to review. With not much in the way of gameplay, and few visual elements to talk about either, it can be difficult to correctly convey whether the game would be right for the player. Luckily for me on this occasion, AI: The Somnium Files doesn’t behave like any other visual novel.
AI: The Somnium Files has a straight up an excellent story, even sitting here now I’m tempted to excitedly rave about the various plot twists and later story points of the game. The game follows Kaname Date, a detective (of sorts) with a secret branch of the police that specialise in the brain, investigating a gruesome murder in a fairground.
Investigating this one incident results in an unravelling plot, pulling in other characters around the protagonist, and takes more turns than the merry-go-round that the tale begins on. This is especially true as the narrative has a multitude of branching paths that can, in places, dramatically alter or even prevent events of the overall story.
The narrative of AI: The Somnium Files triumphs in this area in particular. Returning to previous points of the case and finding new pieces of evidence that alter the path of the investigation is not only immensely satisfying, but is also written in a way that makes sense within the narrative that already exists. It’s just supremely clever writing.
Not quite as clever as the gameplay of the game however, which seamlessly incorporates so many different elements it is genuinely astounding. You have first-person investigation segments, interrogations and general conversations, and the incredible jumps into the titular Somnium, solving puzzles in the subconscious of characters.
A large bulk of the game is played in first person, interacting with the various characters, finding clues, and examining surroundings. The last of which usually comes with a witty exchanges between Date and his AI eyeball, Aiba. It’s good to be thorough in these, as one small piece of hidden evidence can open up new lines of enquiry for Date.
The interrogations are where you need to note what the other character is saying and aim to either disprove their lies with the right evidence, or use it to make your own assertions. Think along the lines of the Phoenix Wright titles and you’re almost there. You can’t get these wrong, as it gives you infinite chances, but it’s still satisfying to succeed.
However, all of this pales in comparison to the incredible puzzle set-pieces that are the Somnium scenarios. Each one has a main objective to resolve, a set of smaller objectives blocking your progress called Mental Locks, a countdown timer of six minutes, and as they are individual dream states, all have different gameplay rules to work out.
The Somnium will show you the physical manifestations of the character’s Mental Locks before you start, and you simply have to work out how to remove them. This can be as simple as flipping a switch or as obscure as strangling a mannequin, but every action you take in the Somnium will eat away at that six minute timer so speed is key.
Time doesn’t run normally inside the dreams of others, and therefore, time can be altered if you have the resources. Certain actions will grant “Timies”, which can make the time used for actions shorter, or sometimes even longer. The clever use of these is key to solving the problems within the six minutes, especially with some of these puzzles.
Here lies the one problem I can find with the Somnium. Some of the solutions when exploring are painfully esoteric, resulting in a lot of frustration. This does lessen as you continue and your mind starts to follow the warped logic of its world. But, at first, you will more than likely be just about clinching the final objective as the timer runs out.
However, what truly makes AI: The Somnium Files incredible from a gameplay standpoint is that, despite all of these disparate elements, it manages to weigh them all out so precisely that it still feels cohesive, yet never feels like it’s over-stretching itself. It’s a very solid game and nothing feels like it’s surplus to requirements. Quite the feat.
AI doesn’t only provide some of the most engaging content I’ve experienced this year, but is undeniably an incredible visual fest for the eyes too. The choice to make this visual novel in a cel-shaded 3D style instead of typically 2D really helps all of the characters stand out from the backdrops, and also they look simply gorgeous in motion.
Coupled with an incredible voiceover, and great music too, AI: The Somnium Files just oozes attention to detail and quality. Even the UI throughout the game is slick, user-friendly and narratively appropriate. It’s clear that a lot of care went into the presentation on this title, so much so that I feel it easily rivals some of the greats of the VN genre.