Having established himself as one of the most talented Japanese game writers out there with the Zero Escape games, many saw Kotaro Uchikoshi’s follow-up AI: The Somnium Files as a one-off dive into a different narrative genre. I’m so glad we were wrong, though, because its incredible detective mystery adventure was all too deserving of a follow-up, and AI: The Somnium Files – Nirvana Initiative is bigger and better in nearly every way.
Given how people consume media these days, you might feel put off by not having played the first game in this series, but you need not worry. Much like it’s predecessor, this is a gripping standalone adventure that doesn’t lose any momentum if you aren’t familiar with the previous game.
In the present, Special Agent Mizuki discovers half the body of a famous CEO, apparently killed just hours before. Strange in its own right, but stranger still when, 6 years prior and in a completely different location, Special Agent Ryuki discovered an identical half of that same body, and in the presence of a younger school-aged Mizuki. This inexplicable occurrence is the initial setup for the game, and these Half Body Killings are what fuels your adventures across separate timelines as Ryuki and Mizuki to not only solve the CEO murder, but stumble upon other victims, unravel dimensional conspiracies, and meet a creepy comedian with a cube-shaped head.
You’ll recognize Mizuki if you played the first AI: The Somnium Files – previously a rebellious and loud-mouthed supporting cast member, her transition into an older and now playable protagonist is awesome. She’s just as bossy and rude as ever, but equipped with newfound authority and a police-issue electric baton in the shape of a metal pipe. Ryuki, meanwhile, is a by-the-books investigator with troubling signs of mental fatigue.
The two don’t get many moments to bounce off each other, but they do have their AI-ball companions – supercomputer-powered AI women who are stored in eyeball-shaped devices within each protagonist’s left eye sockets – to talk to and crack jokes with throughout the game. Mizuki is paired up with returning AI Aiba, a deadpan and delightfully bizarre partner, while Ryuki is paired with Tama, an outrageously tall and curvy AI in a sexy cop costume who balances wild sex humor with an endearing concern for Ryuki’s wellbeing.
Within their respective time periods, Mizuki and Ryuki are both rookie Special Agents at ABIS, the secret Advanced Brain Investigation Squad within the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. They investigate live crime scenes and interview suspects like regular detectives, but when a suspect seems cagey or nervous and won’t share what’s on their mind, Mizuki and Ryuki can use their Psync abilities to dive into peoples minds and uncover the info buried within.
In the first game, these Psync scenes were surreal trial-and-error exploration adventures where the right answer was rarely predictable, but even incorrect answers offered interesting bits of dialogue or hilarious impromptu gag. This time around, these scenes incorporate more moments of real puzzle-solving akin to the head-scratching dilemmas you’d encounter in the Zero Escape series. I definitely needed a pen and paper to track my solutions in a few Psync scenes, but even the most confusing puzzles were pleasantly balanced out by quick injections of unexpected humor.
You’ll explore bizarre, dreamlike environments in Psyncs as your AI companions and even awkwardly swim through floating pools of dream-blood – but you get plenty of gameplay diversions outside of these scenes to help break up the dialogue-heavy visual novel segments.
Each fresh murder you encounter sees you exploring a VR recreation of the crime-scene as Ryuki or Mizuki to uncover clues the regular cops couldn’t catch. You’ll sometimes use X-Ray or Thermal vision during dialogue scenes, but those abilities are a must in VR investigations. You’ll even encounter a hefty amount of QTE-fueled fight scenes that are all off-the-wall and incredibly well animated. I have a soft-spot for visual novel games that break up the dialogue monotony and the presentation of Nirvana Initiative combined with it’s frequent gameplay and investigation diversions keeps the pacing fresh and fulfilling all the way until you hit the finale.
In the previous game, your choices in Psyncs brought you down various alternate paths to a multitude of endings, and it wasn’t until you discovered all these endings that you could then go down the path toward the games True Ending. Nirvana Initiative changes things up with a much more linear path – you first play through Ryuki’s full route before moving on to Mizuki’s route. There are still some side-endings to pursue if you want to dive a bit deeper into sub-plots that are left without conclusion in the main route, but part of me definitely missed the thrill of hopping across story paths and piecing together details from various routes to paint the bigger picture of the game. The timeline hopping nature of Nirvana Initiative’s story, though, still fulfills that delight to an extent.