There’s a dead body in the abandoned amusement park. Tied backward onto a merry-go-round horse, their blue dress is stained beyond repair and littered with puncture wounds. Most noticeable is the bloodied socket where their left eye used to be. It was ripped out when the victim was still alive. AI: The Somnium Files isn’t messing around.
You can tell this was written by Kotaro Uchikoshi, the man behind the Zero Escape series. His style is all over this; a murder-mystery adventure game focusing on story, characters, and piecing together information across multiple timelines. Yet despite similarities, there’s definitely a new set of rules that makes The Somnium Files its own unique experience.
The story follows Kaname Date, a detective in near-future Tokyo. Being part of ABIS (the Advanced Brain Investigation Section of the MPD) gives him access to technology the rest of the world could only dream of. Date can quite literally get inside someone’s head if they’re suspected of withholding information. So that’s useful. Oh, and a sassy AI robot called Aiba lives in Date’s empty eye socket and acts as his partner. Wait, there’s a killer that removes eyes and a protagonist who’s missing one. Coincidence?
A lot of time is just spent being a regular detective. Using crazy sci-fi gadgets and kicking bad guys in the face is part of the package, but the focus is on a cinematic experience through story and art more than anything else. Luckily The Somnium Files is super engaging. Cue spending too much time in the shower, replaying scenes in my head as I try to work everything out. Paying attention does actually pay off, as no solution comes out of left-field. I ended up guessing just enough in advance to feel smug while still enjoying the ride; my favorite kind of murder mystery experience.
Every member of the cast is fun to talk to, no matter whether they’re a worried mum or eccentric yakuza boss. Take obsessed fan Ota using fake ‘To-Witter’ accounts to belittle video idol A-set. Don’t worry, he defends her under his actual name so that she thinks he’s her hero. It’s painfully real. What’s more, I could always tell when someone wasn’t telling me everything. Not because the dialogue was throwing facts around, but from solid art and voice acting choices, like having someone touch their arm for comfort.
The actual gameplay follows Phoenix Wright rules. Investigations are about examining each object in a location and choosing what questions to ask. Interrogations require the right pieces of evidence to back up a claim, while any fighting is solved through quick-time events. Just different reasons to press X really. I never stopped having fun though, as Date always found time for a joke. I casually clicked on a microwave and he snarkily offered to heat-up Aiba if she got cold. Her response was that it would be more useful in warming his heart. True friendship right there.
Being a robotic AI means that Aiba has access to nifty features, including x-ray vision, thermal vision, and a zoom. I was so excited to check every corner with the zoom, and spot liars with thermal vision. Denied. They’re only to be used when the plot says so. Okay, I can’t really expect the devs to have skeleton models of everyone just in case I want to x-ray something. But being given a cool toy, then told I can’t play with it makes me feel sad.
There’s actually quite a bit of hand-holding going on. For me, the most frustrating example of this is when the game denies me a sense of victory. Excited squeals from putting two facts together are almost always ruined with a flashback showing exactly how those pieces work together. Given The Somnium Files’ mature rating, I’m not sure why it insists on spelling out every detail.
Anyway, I’d better talk about that ‘going inside someone’s head’ business that was mentioned earlier. You see, one of the hardest parts of being a detective is that people rarely want to tell the full story. They hold things back to protect themselves, or a loved one. Yet, using the Psync Machine at ABIS HQ allows a ‘Psyncer’ to enter someone’s subconscious, or ‘somnium’, and reveal their deepest secrets.
Naturally, the human brain isn’t a simple filing cabinet of organised information. Instead, somniums are a dream-like world, layered in symbolism. Thought has gone into every detail from the use of mannequins and children’s drawings to questioning why the dream features someone the dreamer shouldn’t have ever met before.
The truth is hidden behind ‘mental locks’ which will only open if surrounding objects are interacted with in the right way. For a nice change of pace, Aiba is controlled during these sections. Approaching an item gives her anywhere from one to four different ways of messing with it. So, a puddle of liquid could give options of ‘inspect, drink, throw something inside, or stick your hand in’. What’s fun is that we’re dealing with dream logic, so trying to throw a pebble inside could have it bounce back into Aiba’s face.
As fun as it is to discover all the weird things that can happen, there is a six-minute deadline. Each action costs a certain amount of seconds from 1 to 999 (yes, that is way over the six-minute mark). Don’t worry though, we’re not playing a game of trial and error. Actions can reward TIMIEs that, when used, lower the cost of your next choice. The best puzzles in The Somnium Files require careful use of TIMIEs — whether that be saving them for specific actions or purposefully making negative choices that gain back precious seconds later on.
Unfortunately, there is very little challenge here. Solutions are often logical, despite the dream setting, and there are usually not many objects to play around with in the first place. TIMIEs are also frequently dished out, which undermines the time limit mechanics. There are one or two more difficult somniums later on, but it’s a shame that the majority don’t feel overly satisfying to solve.
To be fair, certain dreams do have more than one solution. Changing what happens within a somnium means gaining different information that shifts the path of Date’s investigation. As a result, there are multiple story pathways and endings, each with their own version of the mystery (and fresh gory murders). There’s only one true solution though, which is revealed once everything else has been discovered. All hail the ‘flow-chart’ that lets you hop to any part of the story. No boring repeated scenes here, just juicy new stuff.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for being disappointed with AI: The Somnium Files. Everything is so cinematic that player input feels close to pointless — from mysteries being solved through flashbacks to easily solved puzzles. Yet in the end, it’s easy to forget about silly annoyances. The visuals, voice acting, and writing completely distracted me. I’m a sucker for a decent story, and this one deserves attention.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Spike Chunsoft.
Despite a few frustrations, AI: The Somnium Files is one of the most immersive stories I’ve ever played.