REVIEW | AI: The Somnium Files

its like sherlock holmes, but with a weird A.I teddy bear and stuff.

Styling itself as a futuristic, sci-fi spin on the classic noir detective stories, ‘AI: The Somnium Files’ sees you take the role of special detective Kaname Date as he seeks to track down a serial killer with the help of his A.I Eyeball called Aiba. Yep you heard that right, this game certainly doesn’t shy away from being a bit strange, and if that small amount of crazy is enough to tempt you, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to assume you’ll probably like the rest of the game too.

The latest title from the developers at SPIKE CHUNSOFT is a wild ride to say the least, and for some people it may even be worth picking up the physical edition being published by Numskull Games. There really doesnt seem to be enough in terms of physical representation for these kinds of games, thankfully this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

When I said you play as a “special detective”, that might have been a slight misnomer. You are a detective, but working for a secret branch of the police called ABIS (or Advanced Brain Investigation Squad)…… yeh. A highly advanced technology focussed branch of the police, you and the seemingly only two other co-workers you have, use the fully patented ‘Synch’ machine to enter the dreams of suspects and witnesses alike, in order to piece together what happened by using clues found in the subconscious; in a dream-world called Somnium. To their credit is does seem to be quite effective, but I still cant shake the horrendously intrusive Minority Report vibes that I get whenever the opportunity to Synch comes up.

But you’re a hard grizzled detective, right? You don’t need the help of a machine to solve crimes for you, you’ve got your street smarts and your own two fists… ok maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. In reality Date is actually more cocky and headstrong than grizzled and hardwearing; he accomplishes more through traditional means such as questioning suspects and following up on leads, and this is what you’ll be doing for most of the game too. The majority of the gameplay consists of you visiting different places and talking to the larger than life characters you meet along the way. When doing so you play from a fixed position, unable to move Date around, and when I first loaded up the game and was presented with a fixed character with a point+click to look around mechanic I started to worry; could this turn out to be yet another point+click piece of shovel ware that I see plaguing the eShop all too often? Thankfully this wasn’t the case.

Whilst it took me slightly aback when first starting the game, it didn’t take too long before I realised there was considerably more effort put into developing this game than anything along the lines of the mobile hide and seek games. Instead it’s largely tunnel focussed – with whatever you need to be doing often being right in front of you, with the mechanics serving as a way to move the story forward, rather than trying to be any primary mechanic.

There are of course times when you might have to scour the screen for some small element that you need to click on to continue, but its mostly just talking to the characters in front of you, and if you do look around the environments, most of the objects are of no consequence, and only offer simple descriptions. Who would’ve though, for example, that when I click on a park bench the game would feel the need to tell me “It’s a park bench.” Yes, yes it is, thanks game. Despite that however, if you want to make the most of the game, some of the background items do offer up additional dialogue that serve either to flesh out the characters, or to make references to other games and movies – only some of which I actually got. Now this may seem like I’m making it out to be empty, but honestly I found it to work much better for the pacing; being able to go to a area, question someone, then move on to the next location meant that the atmosphere never grew stale, and any sense of urgency the game built up wasn’t dashed away because I was too busy scoring every pixel of the background for potential clues.

The only issue I faced here was that – like many people – my joy cons are suffering from terrible drift and need replacing. This made the point&click nature of the game very frustrating at first. Luckily however, the game makes excellent use of the Switch’s touchscreen, and by a couple hours in thats what I was using almost exclusively.

The only issue I faced here was that – like many people – my joy cons are suffering from terrible drift and need replacing. This made the point&click nature of the game very frustrating at first. Luckily however, the game makes excellent use of the Switch’s touchscreen, and by a couple hours in thats what I was using almost exclusively.

It’s worth noting however, that this streamlining of the story can also work against the game. When you talk to someone for example, you can focus on them and ask whatever questions the game offers you at the time. Some relevant, some just tongue-in-cheek. When you’ve exhausted your options, it’s time to move on to the next location. The problem here is that too often the game feels like it’s giving me all the information I need, rather than leaving me to piece it together. If I ask a question to a suspect and they lie, its because they were meant to lie and always will. If I have to leverage them to confess somehow, then that’s exactly what will happen and what was supposed to happen in order to continue. I guess it makes sense coming from a studio who’s previous works include visual novels, but the fact that the story will progress regardless of what you do does take away somewhat from the feeling of being detective. The sense of player agency fades a little, and can result in the feeling that I’m not Date working to solve these crimes, but a silent partner who’s just along for the ride.

“If you like detective noir stories, or Japanese graphic novels, I would highly recommend picking this up.”

Complete enough of these sections and progressing the story will eventually lead you to the other side of the gameplay: the Somnium sections. In these you take control of an anthropomorphic likeness of Aiba – your A.I eyeball. The theory behind these sections looks alright on paper, but unfortunately suffers in practice. The idea is that you can move Aiba around the 3D space of the suspects subconscious (this is the only part of the game you are free to move around) and delve deep into their thoughts to uncover clues. The omnium states are strange and erratic, much as you would expect a “dream realm” to be, and you are given just 6 minutes to explore the area and break through the “mental locks” that prevent you from gaining the information you need. You do this by moving through the area and interacting with objects in the dream, which in turn eats away at your time limit. Time modifiers are given as options here but they can serve to hinder you as well as help, so use them wisely.

See? On paper it sounds like a solid gameplay formula. But in reality there seems to be the oversight that the dream worlds are very obtuse and rely heavily on symbolism – symbolism that might have been obvious to the developers, but is just needlessly obscure to the player. There is an argument of logic to be made for all the puzzle solutions, but in a lot of instances it only made sense in retrospect, if it even made sense at all. Because of this I found myself stumbling through these sections, having to rely on trial and error more than I would care to admit. Maybe this is just a personal gripe and others would be able to see the logic more clearly, but, in the end – and despite the gameplay change – I actually found these sections to be the weaker side of the game.

Switching between these two methods of playing you’ll slowly uncover the mysterious events and the identities of those involved. Throw in a few quick-time events and environmental tools like thermal and x-ray vision for good measure, and the game thoroughly exceeds and surpasses the shovel ware titles I initially likened it to. Despite its flaws, ‘AI: The Somnium Files’ tells a fantastically gripping story with wonderfully fleshed out characters, and enough twists and turns to make your head spin, and it’s worth every penny of the full release cost. If you like detective noir stories, or Japanese graphic novels, I would highly recommend picking this up.

Before I wrap this review up I feel I need to touch on one aspect of the game that slightly irked me at the beginning, but really annoyed me by the end; the Japanese factor. Ok so again this may not be an issue to some of you, and if that’s the case then you can ignore this next part, but as someone who has only recently started paying more attention to big JRPGs and classic Japanese titles, the blatant misogyny is a real deal-breaker.

Coming off the back of playing titles like ‘Tales Of Vesperia’ and ‘Xenoblade Chronicles 2’, I had a real crash course in the type of sexism in these games. And while a lot of these moments can be argued for as a “male gaze” situation (obscene gravity-defying anime boobs for example), many of the interactions can cross the line entirely, and ‘AI: The Somnium Files’ is amongst the worst I’ve experienced yet. Remember how I said that the characters are really well written? Well that’s true, especially of Date, who’s quick-wit and charm make him instantly likeable. Only to be instantly dislikable, however, in the very next scene where he’s written as an actual pervert.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe I’m being a leftist nut-job hell bent on PC culture. Maybe you won’t mind, or even notice, the parts that make me that uncomfortable. But when the likeable main character meets a barely legal girl and gets flushed, or when he tries to use the x-ray vision to see under a waitresses clothes, or when he plays rock, paper, scissors in the hopes of getting “anything” from a girl as a prize (yes it’s meant to be sexual, just trust me), that to me is when a likeable character is turned into a creepy asshole.

Again this won’t be a huge deal for most people I imagine, but personally it was enough to take away some of my enjoyment. Despite the effect it had on the writing and my perspective of the characters, it was enough to take away too much from the fun I had playing it, and as such I won’t be taking that into account for the final score. However,  I did think it was worth mentioning, as I know some people will be instantly up off by its inclusion. That being said, if you don’t mind that sort of thing, or can mostly ignore it, what remains is a very fun story with a decent amount of replay value. Despite its downsides the game is well put together and you can see the passion the devs had for it. And personally I can say with confidence that this really is worth picking up sooner rather than later.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.