I thought AI: The Somnium Files had reached peak insanity when Aiba, the robot girl who lived inside my eyeball, passed out from snorting an imaginary pot plant. How wrong I was.
Even outside of the dream-based sections, this investigative adventure/visual novel is as daft as it is compelling, not unlike the Ace Attorney series. Your police-detective protagonist, Date, butts heads with cast of oddball characters including an idol-obsessed teen, a similarly obsessed Yakuza chairman and an antagonistic, superhuman schoolgirl.
Once you step into someone’s subconscious AI, dials things up to eleven and you’re punching toy frogs to get to the truth. The mystery at the heart of AI: The Somnium Files, however, is grimmer than anything Phoenix Wright has had to deal with; having lost his own eye under mysterious circumstances Date, with your assistance, has to track down an eyeball-stealing serial killer.
This entails picking through crime-scenes and other locations, interviewing characters and the aforementioned dream-delving. Having Aiba to hand – er, eye – means you can access all manner of legally-suspect resources. I never got tired of watching people squirm when she pulled up the security footage to prove they were lying about their whereabouts. Aiba also acts as your avatar when you enter a suspect’s dream world (or Somnium), which occurs at specific points in the game. As entertaining as these sections are, it’s disappointing that AI: The Somnium Files never addresses how utterly suspect this practice is. You’re told the ‘evidence’ gleaned is inadmissible in court, but your boss is still happy to sedate people who haven’t been charged and shove them into a mind-scanning machine. Phoenix Wright would have a field day with this legal minefield.
AI: The Somnium Files, which shares a director with the Zero Escape series, is always entertaining but the dream sections really kick it up a notch. Several of the dreamscapes are breathtaking to behold, offering a skewed view of (supposedly) real life events; filtered through the prism of a traumatised mind, an abandoned carousel becomes a nightmarish, lightning-charged blender. Even the more mundane looking mental locations can, when you discover the correct trigger, morph into an otherworldly spectacle. The means by which you proceed is superbly thought out; you’re given six minutes of in-game time which counts down if you move or perform an action, the aim being to open ‘mental locks’.
To this end, there are various items scattered throughout each dreamscape, three quarters of which won’t bring you any closer to the “truth”. AI: The Somnium Files warns you beforehand how much time interacting with an object will take off the timer, but some objectives give you time modifiers which can prove useful in manipulating more critical items.
You might, for example, suspect that the paint can on the floor is a red herring, but then you notice that kicking it will halve the time it takes you to perform another action. So you give it a boot and lose 30 seconds, but the modifier you get lets you punch a mannequin at a cost of one minute instead of the usual two. You can replay each dream section as many times as you need, but you’ll end up performing all manner of mental gymnastics as you work out how to complete the necessary actions within the time limit.
The clues you gather as you proceed prevent these sections of AI: The Somnium Files from becoming too dry and give you an inkling of what your suspect has been hiding, even before you get the chance to interrogate them. Murder may be the main course, but AI’s anime-styled characters have all manner of skeletons in their closets. Aided by a superb soundtrack, AI: The Somnium Files seamlessly shifts between comedy and tragedy without (for the most part) making you think you’ve wandered into the wrong game. The characters all have real depth – to the point that you can’t peg any one character as the obvious, moustache-twirling villain. So when the game tries to mislead you, as it often does, you’re thoroughly – and embarrassingly – taken in.
AI: The Somnium Files avoids many of the usual anime tropes and most of the jokes land well, though some of the humour is a little off. For example, there’s a scene where Aiba spots an enemy pointing a gun at Date and, in order to get him to duck, tells him there’s a porn magazine on the floor. He immediately ducks and Aiba later explains she knew that would get him to move faster than just saying duck. His response to this is ask where the porn magazine is. Then he’s back to being a tough detective.
Later on, he makes a joke about how his adopted teenage daughter isn’t his type. Right to her face. Really. In fact, given that Date relies so heavily on Aiba (her alternative vision modes are instrumental in solving cases), I’m not entirely sure why he was given the job.
Questionable humour aside however, the icing on the murder cake is the way that AI: The Somnium Files has you revisit scenes, following different plot branches to produce a different outcome (sometimes radically different) without needing to start all over again. Date may not be a great detective, but there’s no doubting that AI: The Somnium Files is a great detective game. It blends humour and human horror to deliver an engaging, mind-bending experience that’s a cut above most visual novels.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to solve this case before Date sits down and starts singing about boobs.
AI: The Somnium Files is available on PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch. We reviewed the PS4 version.
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