AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative Review

Four things I like about this game, and one I don't

AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative keyart

By Paul Hunter

My whole life I've always loved a good murder mystery whether that's reading The Three Investigators novels, playing the board game Clue or watching the many Sherlock Holmes movies. When it comes to video games, Spike Chunsoft has ruled this genre with their best-in-class murder mystery visual novels like Danganronpa and Zero Escape.

The publisher's trend of murder mystery hits continued in 2019 with the release of AI: The Somnium Files, a new dective adventure game IP that received praise for its outstanding artistry, superb voice acting, masterful storytelling and incredible production values. Now Spike Chunsoft, along with director Akira Okada and legendary game writer Kotaro Uchikoshi, are back with a follow up title, AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative, available on PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.

The past couple of weeks I've had the chance to play through the main campaign, so lets take a trip to near-future Tokyo and see what nirvanA Initiative is all about. Here are four things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: Outstanding Production Values

The presentation of nirvanA Initiative is just stellar, whether that's the impressive hand-drawn characters from Yusuke Kozaki (of No More Heroes and Fire Emblem fame) or the thumping 60+ original musical tracks from composers Keisuke Ito and Yasushi Asada.

There are so many memorable-looking characters in this story including most prominently the game's two protagonists, the sharp-witted cyan-haired Mizuki and suave black spiky-haired Ryuki. Both of them have exceptional attention to detail, from Ryuki's slick black and orange formal wear to Mizuki's messy hip-length braids, plus both character have mesmerizing different coloured eyes—a series signature. But it's the wacky supporting cast that adds even more flavour, such as the hilarious square headed "quiz king" Komeji or the restaurant owner Gen with his creepy clown skin mask that looks like Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Kaonashi.

Rounding out the exceptional presentation are the silky smooth character animations and spot on voice work. Notable voice actors like Corina Boettger (Mizuki) and Greg Chun (Date) make their welcome return, and along with newcomer Stephen Fu (Ryuki) all deliver superb performances that draw you deeper into the story and characters. And while most of the story is told from a first-person perspective, there are plenty of cutscenes and 3D "somnium" dreamscape sequences with beautiful visuals and fluid animations. Anyone that's played the original Somnium Files or Spike Chunsoft's other visual novel series will surely love what's on offer here.

Liked: Investigations

The nirvanA Initiative tells a wonderfully engaging story told from two unique perspectives: in the past six years ago and the present day. The story opens with the left half of a body suddenly appearing out of thin air, and then exactly six years the right half shows up with no signs of decomposition. Playing as Mizuki, a newly appointed ABIS (Advanced Brain Investigation Squad) agent, you'll investigate this "Half Body" serial killing case in the present. And then as Ryuki, also a ABIS special agent, you'll experience the origin of this case six years in the past as he attempts to unravel the mystery.

In both timelines you'll examine crime scenes, conduct interviews and listen to witness testimonies. Investigations are done in first-perspective where you'll circle around a 360-degree space to point-and-click on NPCs or objects of interest to interact with them and gather evidence.

Dialogue in the game is absolutely hilarious, provided you find innuendos and suggestive chitchat funny (I sure do!) because there sure is a lot of that. Plus you get silly moments like forgetting poor Kaniza's name so often that it drives him batshit crazy, or the many times your characters beat down others simply for the fun, sadistic pleasure of it. Yeah, nirvanA Initiative unabashedly caters to a certain audience and that's totally fine—there's clearly an audience (myself included) for spicy, titillating adventures.

I appreciate the quality of life features during the investigative phases, like how objects you haven't interacted with show up in green and then get greyed out after you've exhausted the dialogue. Or how your AI-Ball helper will jump in whenever a new concept or acronym is mentioned to make sure you, the player, always stay informed. Plus there's a handy encyclopedia you can access in the menu at any time if you want a refresher on definitions or previously introduced gameplay mechanics. It's little elements like this that helps carry the game's momentum over the 30-hour adventure.

One more important note: you don't need to have played the previous game to enjoy nirvanA Initiative. It's a fresh story that doesn't require you to have prior knowledge of the characters or gameplay elements as everything is properly explained. The intro even includes a mini game show quiz to help newcomers understand some of the key story beats of the previous game, very helpful!

Liked: Somnium Dreams

At certain points in your investigation, you'll bring witnesses back to the ABIS headquarters to hook them up to a Psync machine and enter their dreams. You're given six minutes to search for clues within the dreamscape, and specifically you'll need to break the character's three Mental Locks and reveal their hidden psyche.

Inside the somniums the camera switches to third-person and you'll control the protagonist's AI-Ball, either Aiba the fun-loving and smart AI of Mizuki or Tama the sassy and stern companion of Ryuki. As Aiba or Tama you'll need to tackle various number or word logic puzzles to advance further into the dream, all within the time limit. Each action and movement takes up time, though you can reduce the amount of time needed for actions by using consumable Timies found within the level.

What's cool is each dreamworld is based on the subject's personality and memories, so they're quite varied both visually and structurally, and each world has its own rules. In addition to multiple dreams you'll explore on foot, the sequel introduces all-new underwater and aerial levels for even richer variations in design. Somniums can also have diverging paths with differing outcomes, which helps personalize your story but also provides incentive to replay them.

The dreamworlds provide a fair challenge overall, so if you enjoy good brain ticklers then this game has you covered. Some of the puzzles can be rather involved but thankfully you can review your notes in the menu to help you put the pieces together. Don't worry if your six minutes runs out, you can replay dreams three times—and there are easier difficulty settings if you want more retries and reduced time costs for actions.

Liked: Bonus Content

There are some minigames in nirvanA Initiative that I thought were a lot of fun, even hilarious at times!

One such minigame is Eyeballie, nirvanA Initiative's version of the classic Tamagotchi digital pet. Once obtaining your Eyeballie pet, it'll ask you random and weird questions like "What is your preferred cacao ration in chocolate?" every 20 minutes. By responding with one of four answers you can encourage your Eyeballie to grow and evolve in different ways. The best part about Eyeballie is how your digital pet likes to add "ie" to random words in its replies to you, like "I became a child-ie" and "tell me more-ie!". But moreover, Eyeballie offers welcome laidback comic relief after a taxing dreamworld Psych session or between focused investigation scenes.

Another minigame I had fun with was visiting my AI partners for their version of "life counselling". Your AI buddy will ask you ridiculous questions like whether you're financially secure or how your love life is going, after which you can respond with one of four answers. Your AI companion will then provide advice like dumping your partner or to get a job, basically silly responses that probably nobody should listen to. But that's what's makes the counselling session so entertaining—they're about as trustworthy as a Mattel Magic 8 Ball.

Oh and I'm not afraid to admit I had a wee bit of amusement cashing in "eyeballs" I acquired while exploring somniums to purchase costumes for your AIs, Aiba and Tama. There are palette-swap outfits, beachwear and even hotdog outfits if you purchase the DLC. Plus, they'll wear the costumes you've assigned them during the campaign, cool!

Didn't Like: One Save Slot

I literally have no gripes about the game itself, as everything from the story to the visuals to the gameplay are top notch. But what does suck is there's only one save slot, an odd decision considering the game has branching paths and you'll likely wish you could save in a few slots to easily revisit areas. Plus, most modern games in this genre offer multiple saves, making the omission seem even stranger.

The Verdict

AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative is an exceptional follow up and a must-play title for all fans of visual novels and murder mysteries. If you've played Danganronpa, Zero Escape or the original AI you'll absolutely love the superb blend of engrossing storytelling and two-part detective and puzzle gameplay on offer here. Stellar character designs and quality voice work round out this amazing experience not to be missed.

Final Score: 9.5/10 - Amazing

AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative details

Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Genre: Detective Adventure
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

A key was provided by the publisher.