Review: AI – The Somnium Files

With the release of Zero Time Dilem­ma, the Zero Escape series’ third and final ent­ry, fans were left won­de­ring what would be next for series wri­ter and direc­tor Kota­ro Uchi­ko­shi. As more infor­ma­ti­on was revea­led for AI: The Som­ni­um Files, it see­med like it would car­ry the spi­rit of Zero Escape wit­hout just being just a copy of that series. The final pro­duct brings Uchikoshi’s style of wri­ting and humour to a new set­ting and, while not qui­te reaching the heights of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward’s best moments, tells a con­sistent­ly engros­sing sto­ry from start to finish. 

Switch version

Set in a near-future Tokyo, spe­cial agent Kana­me Date is sent to inves­ti­ga­te the mys­te­rious mur­der of a woman in an aban­do­ned the­me park. Due to the way the body was left – tied to a mer­ry-go-round hor­se with a mis­sing left eye, it’s clear this is no nor­mal kil­ling. Both the vic­tim and many who are invol­ved with the case are peop­le Date is fami­li­ar with, and his inves­ti­ga­ti­ons turn up more than he ori­gi­nal­ly bar­gai­ned for. As he sear­ches for the kil­ler, Date has the help of an AI insi­de his arti­fi­ci­al eye and a spe­cial machi­ne that can be used to dive into people’s memo­ries and find infor­ma­ti­on they may be hiding.  

Most of your time during AI will be spent tal­king to the varied cast of cha­rac­ters, so it’s good that the wri­ting is strong for the majo­ri­ty of the game. Date is pre­sen­ted as a serious cha­rac­ter in the game’s art­work and his design in gene­ral, but this is the com­ple­te oppo­si­te of his actu­al per­so­na­li­ty. That’s not to say he’s inca­pa­ble of acting like an actu­al mem­ber of the poli­ce, but he’s often quick to crack jokes or say some­thing stu­pid. His eye AI Aiba (try say­ing that a few times in a row) is the more matu­re of the pair, though she’s still pro­ne to goo­fing off or enab­ling Date’s anti­cs. They both work well tog­e­ther, and Aiba has a lot of deve­lop­ment for a cha­rac­ter that can usual­ly only com­mu­ni­ca­te with a sin­gle per­son. 

As for the rest of the cast, they’re an inte­res­ting bunch. From the inter­net idol Iris (who was used to pro­mo­te AI with a real You­tube chan­nel) to Date’s enig­ma­tic Boss, most cha­rac­ters bring some­thing new to the sto­ry. AI has a small amount of cha­rac­ters that show up in gene­ral, and even less that appe­ar for more than a hand­ful of sce­nes, so the main cast real­ly nee­ded to stay inte­res­ting for the ent­i­re sto­ry. We’d say they mana­ged to achie­ve this, and a lot of this suc­cess is due to how the sto­ry is struc­tu­red. As with the Zero Escape games, the­re are many bran­ching paths that each lead to their own ending. Many of the­se rou­tes focus on a spe­ci­fic cha­rac­ter, so you have ple­nty of time to learn about the main cast mem­bers. It’s satis­fy­ing to go through a rou­te and learn some­thing new about a cha­rac­ter that gives more con­text to their actions in the sto­ry. 

Switch version

Over­all, the sto­ry and its cha­rac­ters are gre­at, having a good balan­ce of goofy and dar­ker sce­nes. Date’s inves­ti­ga­ti­on into the mur­der and the ties it has to him­s­elf and the rest of the cast is full of mys­te­ry, with enough infor­ma­ti­on fed to you to keep the plot inte­res­ting wit­hout giving you all the ans­wers strai­ght away. Howe­ver, unli­ke the Zero Escape games, the plot twists and final reveals of the game can feel a litt­le too easy to pre­dict befo­re­hand. AI’s use of fores­ha­do­wing is nowhe­re near as bad as a few games we’ve cove­r­ed recent­ly, but some of the later twists don’t have qui­te the impact they should have. The sto­ry still ties ever­ything tog­e­ther nice­ly though, rare­ly having a dull moment even if you can tell what will hap­pen next. It’s also hard to igno­re just how good the Eng­lish dub is, easi­ly the stron­gest we’ve heard this year. Japa­ne­se voice acting is also inclu­ded, but for many cha­rac­ters the dub is supe­ri­or.  

PS4 Pro version

If only the som­ni­um sec­tions were of the same qua­li­ty as the sto­ry. As men­tio­ned ear­lier, Date can enter people’s minds through a pro­cess cal­led psyn­cing to gather infor­ma­ti­on they may be with­hol­ding, their memo­ries forming a dream­li­ke world, other­wi­se known as som­ni­um. You con­trol Aibi while explo­ring the­se are­as, try­ing dif­fe­rent inter­ac­tions with objec­ts to pro­gress deeper into their memo­ries. The main gim­mick here is that you can only stay for 6 minu­tes, with each action taking a cer­tain amount of time to per­form. Actions often have long time requi­re­ments to per­form, so use of items cal­led timies is essen­ti­al. The­se can cut down the amount of time it takes to per­form actions, though nega­ti­ve ones ins­tead do the oppo­si­te and must be used next time you do some­thing. 

It’s a sys­tem that starts off inte­res­ting, as you try dif­fe­rent inter­ac­tions to try and figu­re out the stran­ge logic of each som­ni­um, but later are­as give you far less lee­way for mista­kes. Rest­ar­ting is quick and you have a limi­ted num­ber of rewinds to key points, but this just makes the time-based mecha­nic seem even more unne­cessa­ry. Some of the later are­as also just resort to making the last few actions cost a lar­ge amount of time, for­cing a restart if you don’t have the right timies. At the very least, each area has a dis­tinct the­me and even its own back­ground music. Depen­ding on your choices, you’ll also unlock dif­fe­rent paths through the som­ni­um which is how rou­tes are cho­sen in AI. Tying the rou­tes to what infor­ma­ti­on you find in the­se sec­tions is a gre­at way to link game­play with the sto­ry, but actual­ly play­ing through them is by far the weak point of the game. 

Switch version

One other area that AI could have been bet­ter in is the visu­als, though it’s still a big impro­ve­ment com­pa­red to the 3D Zero Escape games. Cha­rac­ter models are far nicer to look at and are more expres­si­ve during dia­lo­gue. Becau­se of this, the game looks its best when you’re just tal­king to peop­le or exami­ning the envi­ron­ment, whe­re ani­ma­ti­ons are more subt­le and the­re are only a coup­le of cha­rac­ters on screen at once. The UI is also sty­lish, from the text boxes to a dis­tinc­tive pau­se screen. AI ends up drop­ping the ball during cuts­ce­nes though, espe­ci­al­ly ones with a lot of action. The­re are mul­ti­ple sce­nes whe­re someo­ne is hit in a way that lacks any impact visual­ly, and cha­rac­ters often just stand in place in the back­ground while only a coup­le are ani­ma­ted. At least this isn’t a com­mon occur­rence, unli­ke the spot­ty per­for­mance of AI on the Switch. 

PS4 Pro version

Regard­less of whe­ther you play the game in hand­held or docked modes, you’ll run into pro­blems. When play­ing hand­held, the cha­rac­ter models look crisp on the Switch’s small screen, and other than a few small objec­ts it’s easy to see ever­ything during the inves­ti­ga­ti­on sec­tions. Unfor­tu­n­a­te­ly, the game will often noti­ce­ab­ly stut­ter, even when not­hing is real­ly hap­pe­ning on screen. Fur­ther­mo­re, the­re are many times during dia­lo­gue whe­re the game takes mul­ti­ple seconds to load in ano­t­her cha­rac­ter model or image. The per­for­mance issu­es are odd con­si­de­ring that most of you time is spent tal­king to peop­le, and even the som­ni­um sec­tions are not over­ly detail­ed enough to exp­lain the stut­te­ring. Docked mode on the other hand avo­ids most of the­se pro­blems, at the cost of loo­king some­what ugly on lar­ger screens. The 3D models seem like they were desi­gned to be view­ed only in hand­held mode, due to the jag­ged edges and low reso­lu­ti­on across the board. While the game runs smooth­ly on Play­Sta­ti­on 4, the rela­tively long loa­ding times and jag­ged edges are still appa­rent in this release. The models them­sel­ves look crisp on PS4 Pro. Shadows are also poor in both modes, though this only real­ly noti­ce­ab­le in the som­ni­um are­as. There’s a chan­ce that the issu­es in hand­held mode may be addres­sed in future patches, but it’s clear that litt­le focus was pla­ced on how the game looks in docked mode and it’s unli­kely that this will chan­ge post-launch. 

Switch version


The­se tech­ni­cal issu­es on Nin­ten­do Switch, and the lacking som­ni­um sec­tions, aren’t enough to ruin AI: The Som­ni­um Files, as the plot and over­all feel of the game make it an incredi­b­ly enjoy­a­ble expe­ri­ence throughout its many rou­tes. The main cast of cha­rac­ters pro­du­ce some enjoy­a­ble moments – the high­lights usual­ly being any inter­ac­tion bet­ween Date and Aiba – and the sto­ry mana­ges to keep you enga­ged, even if its later twists lack the impact of the Zero Escape games.

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