Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Platforms: PS4, Switch, PC (PS4 Reviewed)
Code Provided: Yes
I’m a big fan of the works of Kotaro Uchikoshi. I’ve read almost all of the visual novels he has had his hand in and absolutely loved them so when information started coming out that he was working on a new project with a bigger budget, I was quite hyped.
Fast forward to September 2019 and having finally had a chance to play AI: The Somnium Files I’ve come away from it with an interesting collection of feelings I have been trying to dissect ever since I finished it. AI is most certainly an enjoyable game and the plot is well worth the price of admission however there are a few flaws in it that I feel are really holding it back from reaching its full potential.
I really have nothing to complain about with the story. AI is a very enjoyable Sci-Fi Mystery Thriller experience all the way through and Uchikoshi brings his trademark twist writing into the mix with some absolute belters of plot twists. For the sake of spoilers I’m not going to go really in depth with the story at all in this review simply because I know many people might like to go in blind but if you’re one of those people who has been looking forward to AI: The Somnium Files for the purposes of experiencing another Uchikoshi story then I can safely say it very much delivers.
The writing is sprinkled with Uchi’s trademark humor as well, moreso than in previous titles. Some might be worried that with the kind of subject matter AI talks about you’d have the potential for mood whiplash but the I never really felt that happened during the course of the roughly 20 hour story.
While the characters aren’t really the major focus of the story there is some character development present throughout the course of the adventure. Our two main characters, Kaname Date and Aiba get a decent amount of development between the two but it is easily Iris and those related to her which get the most development and make her into one of the most interesting characters in the whole game.
So, the story and writing are good but what about the gameplay? Sadly, this is where I think AI: The Somnium Files kind of stumbles a little. The game features multiple gameplay styles but the two you’ll be seeing the most are the Somnium puzzles and the exploration system.
The exploration system is probably the chunk of the game you will spend most of your time in. You go from area to area on the map and look around from a first person perspective talking to people to gather information about what is going on. It’s pretty simple stuff but it works well although on the PS4 aiming the cursor to select smaller objects can be a bit of a pain due to having to use an analog stick.
The Somnium’s on the other hand are much more involved. In the context of the game, a Somnium is a characters dream that our main character Date can enter into with the use of a special machine. You then control his AI partner Aiba and explore these Somniums solving puzzles to unlock “Mental Locks” (which basically act as checkpoints) and progress the story.
Due to these puzzles literally taking place inside peoples dreams, the environments tend to vary wildly in design and often enter surreal territory in both graphics and the puzzles themselves. As a result, a number of the puzzles can often have unusual answers which may not make a lot of sense at first if at all but in the context of a dream you can understand why they’re there thematically.
Unfortunately, while these puzzles work thematically they don’t work so well when you factor in the other major gameplay system in Somniums, the 6 minute time limit. This is basically as it sounds, you only have a total of 6 minutes in a Somnium before it’s game over. How this system is implemented however is that not only does moving around in a Somnium deduct time but so does performing actions. Each action will deduct a certain amount of time which is specified somewhere next to the action. Some of these actions though can deduct upwards of 30 seconds off the clock which when coupled with the sheer amount of items in each Somnium you can interact with.
In an attempt to counteract this, the game has items called Timme’s which can be used to shorten the amount of time deducted by an action. These Timme’s are collected when you interact with an object and perform an action in a Somnium. On the flip side though, some Timme’s will actually increase the amount of time deducted instead which is made even worse by the fact that if you have one of these Timme’s in your inventory then you will be forced into using it for your next action.
Rolling this all together is the often nonsensical solutions to some puzzles to the point where I was having to trial and error my way through some of them simply because the game gives no indication as to what the answer might be nor does it give you the relevant information to work with which is just infuriating. Multiple times I have been kicked to a game over screen because I couldn’t figure out the solution to an incredibly nonsensical puzzles which you are given barely any clues on how to solve.
It feels like a major step backwards from the tightly designed escape the room logic puzzles of the Zero Escape games and as a result I actually found myself enjoying AI: The Somnium Files a little less than I did the Zero Escape games due to how nonsensical and infuriating the puzzles could get at times, not because the puzzles were hard but because the answers can sometimes make no sense whatsoever.
A good example of this is one of the late game Somniums has you solve a puzzle by picking up a skull and throwing it against a wall, shattering it. The game gives you no real hints about this and the relevance of this solution to the puzzle itself is minimal at best, you just sort of have to throw a skull at the wall to proceed.
Sadly, it’s these moments of frustration and annoyance that stuck out the most to me when looking back on my time with AI: The Somnium Files. The frustration caused by having to trial and error some of these puzzles flat out made me put the game down for the rest of the day at some points simply because of how irritating the whole experience had become.
On a more positive note, while AI: The Somnium Files has quick time events they actually were one of the more enjoyable parts of the game for me mainly helped by the strong writing and solid presentation and animation of these scenes. They aren’t challenging by any means but they are fun.
Presentation wise it’s clear that AI: The Somnium Files had a bigger budget to work with than any of Uchikoshi’s previous titles. Character models are well done and characters themselves are well designed. Environments tend to be well designed especially in the Somniums although graphically they are a little on the basic side. AI is fully voice acted in both Japanese and English and the English dub gets a special mention for being one of the best English dubs I have heard in a game for a long, long time. The music also is pretty good with a good mixture of tracks and a very good credits theme.
My experience with AI: The Somnium Files was an interesting one. It was also rather polarizing. On the one hand I loved the story and characters and those are certainly worth sticking around for but on the other hand the gameplay feels like a step backwards from what we had in Zero Escape which is just a shame.
However, despite the flaws in the gameplay and puzzles, AI: The Somnium Files is still a game I can personally recommend simply for the quality of the story alone. Uchikoshi really knocked the ball out of the park with AI and the story is one that will keep you glued to your seat from beginning to end and will very much satisfy fans of Uchikoshi’s works. If you can handle the slightly trial and error gameplay then AI: The Somnium Files is well worth checking out.