Making a Case For AI: The Somnium Files

Ai of the Storm*

Pictured above: a mood.

(The following article is completely spoiler-free)

It’s not often that I spontaneously decide to chip away at my Xbox Game Pass library and fall in love with a game from the opening moments. Not too long ago, I fell madly in love with another Spike Chunsoft-published visual novel series: Danganronpa. Some of the spin-off material ranges in quality, but the core trilogy of Danganronpa titles are narrative masterpieces with their immersive and ambitious worldbuilding, eclectic soundtracks, diorama-informed visual design, and colorful characters engaged in lighthearted antics, yet swiftly undercut by a sharp, foreboding wind of despair. AI: The Somnium Files also brilliantly manages this tightrope walk of bizarre levity and horrific consequence; at times it feels even more amplified here, thanks to a less abstract, urban fantasy setting that’s more grounded in our own reality (as well as just being really, really funny. One of the most genuinely hilarious games I’ve ever played). With arguably even more care placed into its character writing and environmental attention to detail than Danganronpa, this game is a worthy successor to the aforementioned (mostly) now-dormant franchise. Another series ripe for Spike Chunsoft to iterate upon to its utmost logical conclusion, before riding off into the sunset.

Pictured above: a personal attack.

AI: The Somnium Files is the latest directorial outing from Kotaro Uchikoshi, the man behind Zero Escape, which is another acclaimed series that cements Spike Chunsoft’s monopoly on transgressive, genre-defining visual novels. I have yet to play Zero Escape, but I’m sure once I do, I’ll be right back here gushing about that too. Uchikoshi-san is known for his bizarre, emotional, twist-turning works, and Somnium is certainly no different in this department.

Ladies and gentlemen: our hero.

You play as Kaname Date, a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department detective tasked with delving into people’s “Somniums,” or consciousnesses, to find clues and other valuable information towards solving cases. He’s joined by his partner of 5 years, AI-Ball, nicknamed “Aiba,” an AI installed in his prosthetic left eye who assists in his work and snarks at him for being a horny, excitable idiot. When a murder turns up resembling a serial cold case 6 years prior, the two become intertwined in a complex, personal web of affairs. Literally a web, as it so happens. AI: The Somnium Files‘ narrative takes place over multiple branching paths, depending on choices made in the various Somniums. Each route leads to a different ending, and once you’ve seen every ending, you’ll unlock the golden route to a satisfying final ending that ties everything together. A few of the most significant side characters get their own starring routes; my favorite of which is the Mizuki Route, shining the spotlight on Date’s cantankerous, tsundere roommate, who also happens to be the protagonist of the upcoming June-bound sequel, NirvanA Initiative.

Mizuki is just the best.

Whilst inside a Somnium, you freely roam about as Aiba, in a gameplay style more reminiscent of an adventure game. You have a 6 minute ceiling for probing a person’s consciousness, so within that time, you’ll work to confront numerous logical conundrums as you break through the individual’s mental locks (i.e. trying different actions with various objects, or pairing those objects with other ones, not too dissimilar to an old LucasArts game). Time will only slowly deplete while standing still, but moving around will cause time to pass normally, while interacting with objects will take specific amounts of your time away. There are plenty of creative concepts and level designs used for these Somniums, and tons of hilarious optional scenarios and conversations sandwiched in there; for instance, one will have you exploring a twisted carnival representing deep seated familial trauma, while another will task you with helping a manchild with a savior complex live out his wildest superhero fantasies.

My favorite part about any visual novel: full 3D exploration.

I only wish the cerebral design philosophy had been taken a little further. By interacting with objects, you earn what are known as “timies,” which can either reduce the amount of time you’ll spend on a subsequent interaction or, in the case of negative timies, force a significant time penalty. This mechanic feels ripe for time management brainteasers, such as needing to interact with unnecessary objects to earn timies towards expensive ones, or spending negative timies on cheaper interactions so you don’t blow through your allotted time in a single go. Unfortunately, there is only one Somnium in the entire game that actually presents a scenario like this, or any actual challenge in general. Failure is a slap on the wrist, since most Somniums are very short, one may just restart and blow through the necessary steps. Hoping the sequel increases the challenge and puzzling, or even introduces its own unique mechanics. In any case, these sections still make for fun set pieces, being some of the best showcases for this game’s uniquely demented and beautifully perverted sense of humor.

Case in point…

For me, however, the real draw comes from outside of the Somniums. The investigation segments are presented in a first-person, Ace Attorney-esque point-and-click fashion, as you survey areas for clues and converse with witnesses, suspects, and friends. The environments are jam-packed with optional observations and conversations, including tons of offbeat jokes, references, and running gags (some of which will run for the game’s entirety, and never stop being funny). These little details make all the difference, since the character writing is seriously top drawer material. Date and Aiba’s dynamic is the gold standard, with their interactions flowing seamlessly out of heartfelt, understated affection into ingeniously, uproariously cynical snark-fests; seeing as you spend the most time with these two, their unwavering chemistry absolutely carries the narrative. I don’t want to delve too deeply into plot specifics, because this is a phenomenal story that works best with less exposure. Rather, I’ll just let you in on a little secret: it’s one of my favorite video game stories ever. Every element of the writing is refined and refreshing; the execution absolutely elevates what could’ve been just another pseudo-futuristic, detective-centric VN. Hilarious and devastating all the same, filled with shocking swerves, twisting turns, and a ton of heart.

Here’s a great showcase of Date and Aiba’s god-tier banter.

Finally, I’d like to conclude by waxing about the soundtrack, which is just absolutely masterful work. Danganronpa is a powerhouse in the OST department, but AI manages to nearly match its eclectic, jazzy variety and immersive qualities, beautifully entrenching us into its equally wholesome yet gritty atmosphere. Great music is often what turns a fantastic game into one of my favorites, and AI is no exception. I’m particularly fond of the track that plays inside of the talent agency Leminiscate, “Artist, Inc.”; the one that plays inside of Date’s and Mizuki’s apartment, “Arcane Incantation”; and the song performed by our idol heroine Iris, “Invincible Rainbow Arrow” (almost every track title spells out the initials “AI,” which is a nice touch). This OST remains in permanent rotation on my Spotify, as to be expected from a Spike Chunsoft game.

Iris (stage name “A-Set”) is adorable, and a pretty big focus on a few routes.

It was always going to be no small matter to quantify exactly why I adore this game, but I hope I offered a satisfactory rundown without giving away too much. Experiences often live or die by their execution, and the execution here is outstanding. I wasn’t expecting this much at the outset, but from beginning to end, the entire experience enraptured me. I grew obsessed with the genius style, character writing, atmosphere and music of AI: The Somnium Files, which is now somewhere within my top 10 favorite games of all-time. I urge every Xbox owner with an active Game Pass subscription and a passing interest in Japanese storytelling to give it a go. If you end up enjoying this masterpiece, then hop aboard this hype train for the sequel, AI: The Somnium Files – NirvanA Initiative, due out in June 2022, because unique experiences such as these deserve any and all recognition.

Is that a… JoJo reference?!

*“Ai” in Japanese means “love” and is pronounced the same as “eye,” hence “eye of the storm.” Yes, I am a pathetic weeb; please take my lunch money.