AI: The Somnium Files is an adventure game that combines two classic storytelling genres: the murder mystery and the buddy-cop movie. On top of that, the "buddy" for AI's lead character, detective Kaname Date, isn't human. Or animal, for that matter. Rather, it's a snarky, quirky, super-powered feminine artificial intelligence in the shape of an eyeball--named Aiba--that lives in his left eye socket and has a direct connection to his brain. Oh, and she also helps Date by transforming into a humanoid avatar form to explore the dream worlds of various characters you meet throughout the game. Talk about an odd couple, huh?
It's an intriguing concept for sure. Thankfully, the near-future sci-fi detective story that AI: the Somnium Files tells lives up to the promise of its unique premise, delivering a great dialogue-driven adventure that sucks you in and doesn’t let up until all of its twisted mysteries have been unraveled.
Date is a detective for a secret, experimental Tokyo police division called ABIS. When the body of his best friend's ex-wife is found displayed in an abandoned amusement park, Date soon finds himself swept up in a complex investigation to find the culprit before they strike again. Along the way, he crosses paths with a bubbly up-and-coming internet personality, her diehard fanboy (and his beleaguered mother), a Yakuza group, a corrupt politician, and the victim's young daughter, amongst many other odd, interesting, and sinister personalities. And that's not even mentioning the oddest personality of them all: Aiba, his quick-witted and sharp-tongued AI partner and confidant in exploring the case.
Having a smart-alecky AI constantly feeding commentary into your brain might sound nightmarish, but Aiba comes with some special skills to aid Date with his investigations: X-ray vision, heat sensing, zooming to check up on faraway places, and even the ability to help Date in quick-time event-style combat. But Aiba's biggest role is to help Date get information from the various characters by acting as his avatar in their dream worlds. When interrogation gets tough, ABIS staff hooks a subject up to a Psync machine, which allows Date and Aiba to explore their subjects' subconscious "somnium" dream world to uncover clues and deeply hidden (and sometimes forgotten) secrets. The excursion is under a strict time limit--otherwise their consciousnesses become forever intertwined.
Gameplay in the exploration and investigation sections of AI: The Somnium Files follows a fairly typical point-and-click adventure game style: You look at objects in the environments for clues and talk to characters by making comments and asking questions. The way AI handles these sections makes you less likely to get stuck than in other adventure games, however. You're only given the option to move to a new area once you've done everything necessary to advance the story in one particular location, which ensures you won’t need to backtrack or worry that you're missing anything important. If you can’t move to the map, you know there’s still more to do.
While exploring the various environments will yield a fair amount of clues, it's the interactions Date has with the various characters (and Aiba’s reactions to those interactions) that really move AI's twisting mystery along. Each character you interact with is unique and memorable in their own way. There's Iris, the cheery aspiring internet idol whose mischievous personality causes Date much consternation; Ota, a devoted fan of Iris with numerous nerdy pursuits; So, a slimy politician with his fair share of secrets; Boss and Pewter, two eccentric personalities that work with Date at ABIS; and Mizuki, Date's friend's daughter with a sour attitude and strength beyond her years. There are many more interesting faces you’ll meet, too, each with an important role to play in the story and a strong personality to match. The excellent character designs by Yusuke Kozaki (Fire Emblem Awakening, No More Heroes) also give each NPC a striking visual element to match their distinct characterizations.
At certain points in the story, you encounter other modes of gameplay, like interrogation scenes where you present evidence to a character and action scenes involving quick-time event-style button presses to help Date fend off threats. However, the most important parts of the game take place when Date uses the Psync machine to explore another character's somnium worlds. Using Aiba as an avatar, you interact directly with elements within these characters' surreal, illogical, and often very disturbing dream worlds, with every action she performs costing precious time. If Date and Aiba can’t solve the puzzles in the somnium within the time limit, they’ll be forced out, and you will have to start the somnium exploration over from the beginning.
Solving the puzzles to progress in the somniums involves performing certain actions in a certain order on certain objects--and since these are bizarre, often illogical dreamscapes, sometimes the solution isn’t obvious or runs contrary to common sense. You can earn and use items called TIMIEs to help conserve time, but if time grows short, your best option might be to restart. This involves repeating much of the same actions and dialogue to get back to where you were, but skipping all the previous, time-wasting actions you tried before. If you don’t want to do the whole event over, you can go back to checkpoints within a somnium to try and save time by only performing necessary actions. However, you can only do this up to three times before you are forced to restart. Making this even worse is that sometimes you’re saddled with time-penalty TIMIEs from certain actions, meaning that your next action will cost significantly more time than usual and possibly even lead to unwinnable situations. As a result, the six-minute time limit winds up being a source of stress, discouraging you from exploring and appreciating the well-crafted dreamscape environments as much as you’d like and sometimes standing as a roadblock to further progressing the story.
Besides revealing important story beats, the somnium sequences serve another important purpose: Depending on your actions within the somnium, the overall story will branch down one of many different potential paths, with different events taking place on each story branch. Only by seeing all of the various story possibilities, good and bad, will the whole truth behind AI's saga be revealed. Fortunately, you’re able to jump around to various points in the game’s saga (and replay somnium sequences) whenever you want, so you can put one story branch aside and pick up another anytime you feel like--though there will be roadblocks in some spots if certain plot points have yet to be revealed. As the various branches of the story give tantalizing tidbits of information and reveal more about each of the main characters, you feel like you’re piecing together an elaborate puzzle, which makes it all the more satisfying when big revelations happen.
Despite the occasional frustration in exploring its dream landscapes, the whole of AI: the Somnium Files winds up being a fun, thrilling, and engaging experience. The story is filled with intriguing twists and shocking surprises, and the characters and their individual arcs inspire you to care about what happens to them. The somnium dream worlds add a layer of psychological horror to the ongoing mystery, and Date and Aiba’s constant back-and-forth interactions provide levity to make every investigation all the more amusing. AI's unconventional detective story is one you won’t soon forget.