A gruesome crime scene, a woman mounted on a merry-go-round, her left eye gouged out. A broken down theme park, slicked with rain. It's a perfectly noirish opening, introducing us to a future version of Tokyo and our hero, detective Kaname Date. Soon Date is interrupted by his partner, a - and there's really no way to ease you into this - fully sentient AI who lives in his left eye socket and sometimes takes the form of a one-eyed transparent hamster or a young woman. Her name is Aiba, short for eyeball.
Coming from developers Spike Chunsoft, AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES is a weird game to try to explain. Part detective game, part visual novel and part puzzler, it certainly brings a lot of interesting ideas to the table. Originally released on Nintendo Switch and PS4 in 2019, now, two years late to the party, it’s time for the Xbox to get in on the action.
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.
The futuristic setting fits the mood of the story, and the pacing is excellent, with new revelations and twists emerging just as you think there will be a dip in the action. Most of all I think that AI: The Somnium Files showcases a great way to use branching storylines and how to make players want to go back and explore some more, it's a technique some of the very best visual novels of the genre, such as CLANNAD and Steins:Gate, are so good at. That's why I think The Somnium Files is broadly recommendable - to those still new to visual novels, to fans of Uchikoshi and this brand of games in general, and to those simply on the hunt for an engrossing interactive story.
AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES has been an interesting game to play through. Whilst the visual look may not immediately be appealing, give the narrative a chance and you’ll become invested. Just don’t expect the theory you form throughout your play time to hold up…
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