What a weird and wild ride AI: The Somnium Files is. At its heart this is a detective thriller styled as a visual novel, but that basic description sells this consistently bonkers title very, very short. The characters, their interactions with one another, and the world around them are all over the top and comical to some degree, yet the game is able to tell a serious and at times gripping story. It's a balancing act that shouldn't work, but somehow, AI: The Somnium Files gets away with it time and time again.
If you've played the Zero Escape games then you'll kind of know what to expect in terms of tone, and that's because series director Kotaro Uchikoshi thought this title up as well. There are definite similarities: a plot that can split in different directions depending on your actions, brain-bending conundrums, and characters that have a habit of going off on tangents about various scientific phenomenon. Again, it's a mental experience, but that just makes it all the more interesting.
You play as Kaname Date, an agent of a secret law enforcement department based in Tokyo. Utilising futuristic technology in the form of an eyeball that houses its own highly advanced artificial intelligence (it's cleverly referred to as an AI-Ball), Date tackles especially difficult investigations. With the AI-Ball socketed into his skull (having lost one of his own eyes several years ago), Date has a direct neural connection to the artificial intelligence known as Aiba.
Of course, in typical Japanese fashion, Aiba projects herself as a young woman, complete with a snarky attitude. Together with Date -- who loves wisecracking, disastrous puns, and has the hots for just about any and every attractive female that he comes into contact with -- the two make for an entertaining team. There are an abundance of dumb jokes to be had throughout, and while some of them are bound to make you wince, the duo's back and forth stupidity is endearing.
As hinted, the game's comedic aspects gel surprisingly well with an otherwise serious and mature narrative. On the hunt for a serial killer, Date meets with a wide range of colourful personalities, and all of them are well defined with a clear part to play. The story comes equipped with numerous, often gut-punching twists and turns, and although we dare say that you'll see one or two of them coming, the plot generally does a fantastic job of keeping you on your toes. That said, things do start off a little slow -- it takes a good two or three hours before the story really begins to click, particularly since Date and Aiba themselves initially come off as wacky for the sake of being wacky.
AI: The Somnium Files is a visual novel, meaning that you'll be spending most of your time listening to characters chatter amongst themselves. Fortunately, the dialogue's engaging and snappy when it needs to be -- it rarely feels like you're having to trudge through endless reams of text. What's more, the user interface is excellently crafted and implemented. Much of the game adopts a first-person perspective, and since you're seeing through Date's eyes, this allows Aiba to bring up relevant information on-screen, from case files and recordings to simulations and even x-ray analysis. It's all very clever, and the additional context makes every conversation feel meaningful.
It also helps that the game's nice to look at. Graphically it's nothing amazing, but the character designs are great, and as mentioned, the presentation is slick and stylish. The only time the title falters is during its dream sequences, which ditch the visual novel approach and have you run around strange environments as Aiba. It's fair to say that the textures and assets in these locations look like they've been ripped from a low budget Vita release.
These aforementioned dream sequences are the weakest part of AI: The Somnium Files, and not just because of how rough they look. They make up the title's 'gameplay' component, in the same way that puzzles punctuate the Zero Escape games, or class trials bookend each chapter in the Danganronpa series. In short, Date can enter the subconscious of victims or suspects in order to learn more about the case. In the 'somnium', Date gives Aiba commands as she interacts with objects and attempts to unlock the secrets of the subject's mind.
It's an undeniably cool concept, but the game struggles to make these scenarios much fun. Because you're exploring a dream, there's no pre-determined logic to the puzzles that you have to solve. Interacting with an object can have an effect on another completely unrelated object, and there's no real explanation for it other than "it's a dream, anything can happen". The whole thing can quite quickly devolve into trial and error as you scramble to work out which objects actually do something and how you should be interacting with them.
For example, you can be stuck in an apartment and the door is held shut by chains and padlocks. In your usual point-and-click conundrum, your first thought would be to find bolt cutters, or a different exit. Not so in The Somnium Files, as the correct course of action involves shining light from the window onto a potted plant, which turns on a lamp in the corner of the room. Knock the lamp over and the skeleton, which is casually sitting on the sofa, also falls to the ground. Give the skeleton's skull a swift kick and that'll smash the chains and padlocks to pieces.
At their worst, these 'puzzles' have no discernible rhyme or reason to them, and you're forced to just fumble your way through until something, anything, clicks into place. To make matters worse, you're given a time limit while you're in the somnium, and interacting with things takes chunks of it away. Now, to be fair, not every dream is so frustratingly obscure. Some have certain patterns that are relatively easy to spot once you've wrapped your head around them, but there are definitely points where you'll feel like you've got absolutely nothing to go on.
All in all, the enjoyment of delving into a character's subconscious can be very hit and miss. Sometimes you'll catch on early and feel like a genius as you guide Aiba through one locked memory after another, and at other times, you'll feel like you're headbutting a brick wall. With a little more guidance, these dreams probably wouldn't be so bad, but as they stand, they ultimately detract from the snappy pace of the story, even if there are only a handful of them throughout the game.
AI: The Somnium Files tells an often engrossing tale. It takes a couple of hours to really get going, but when it does, it blossoms into one of the most impressively executed visual novels on PS4. A range of characters, both surprisingly deep and brilliantly stupid, elevate an already intriguing and smartly paced story. It's just a shame that the dream sequences, with their frustratingly obscure puzzle solving, can really put a dampener on the experience.