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AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative is Masterfully Mind-Bending

nirvanA Initiative is an excellent addition to the AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES franchise.

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AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative Review

Developer: Too Kyo Games | Publisher: Spike Chunsoft | Genre: Adventure |
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch | Reviewed on: Windows


It is hard to know where to begin when describing the experience of playing AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative. It is the sequel to 2019’s AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES, but requires no knowledge of the first game whatsoever and can go out of its way to hide spoilers if players have not experienced the original. The first game’s essence is still very much present in nirvanA Initiative, and there are a multitude of improvements to the puzzle-solving elements that makes for an overall superior gameplay experience. It is among the best of its genre, while also being at times completely nonsensical. It is a game of halves, while also being a game about halves.

For those who don’t know: nirvanA Initiative is directed by Kotaro Uchikoshi, perhaps best known for creating the Zero Escape trilogy which has a strong cult following due to its wacky sci-fi storytelling and mind-blowing plot twists. Both AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES games follow this same principle, with a focus on telling dense sci-fi murder mystery stories set in a near-future Tokyo with branching narrative paths that lead to different endings and a “true” ending once the in-game flowchart has been fully explored. They are half visual novel, half puzzle-solving adventure titles, and shift tonally between deadly serious and hilariously goofy throughout.

nirvanA Initiative shines brighter than its predecessor in that it perfectly encapsulates an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Its puzzles are vastly more enjoyable this time around, but this alone would not create a memorable Kotaro Uchikoshi game. Instead, the true heart lies with a stellar cast of characters both old and new, breathing new life into fan-favorite figures from AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES while also introducing new faces that are just as, if not more, emotionally gripping. Combine this with an unhinged sci-fi plot filled with twists, turns and hidden agendas, and the end product speaks for itself both in profundity and absurdity.

Don’t Sleep On Somnium

One of the Somnium puzzle rooms in AITSF:NI
Image: Spike Chunsoft

Just like in the original game, nirvanA Initiative’s most engaging gameplay aspect is its Somnium puzzles — essentially, these are dream sequences whereby the protagonist uses high-tech machinery to delve into people’s heads and discover their secrets. This is where nirvanA Initiative truly shines in comparison to its 2019 predecessor. Not only are these Somnium sections more visually engaging this time around, but the puzzles within are more structured, more satisfying, and require much less random guessing to solve. The level of improvement here is so noticeable that the Somnium sections are among the best parts of the experience as a whole.

Each Somnium puzzle has a six-minute time limit, and time only passes when the character moves around or performs an action, giving players plenty of time to think before they act. This is more important than ever in nirvanA Initiative because there is a greater structure to the puzzles which generally requires more thinking. In some cases, the time limit became very tight by the end of the segment, encouraging the player to rewind time using one of the three restart functions and optimize the run to save time moving forwards. This was extremely compelling and never became frustrating, especially compared to 2019’s AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES occasionally presenting players with completely nonsensical options and having to blindly guess solutions.

There is also a considerable variety on display, with Somnium segments ranging from having to collect and battle using fake Pokémon, to running and hiding from a genuinely unnerving villain, to smashing brains together to gain superpowers and overcome obstacles, and much more. More than ever before, the inner workings of the Somniums are alive and teeming with engaging interactions. The music adds a great deal to the atmosphere in each puzzle, and the narrative insights that these sections provide flesh out the cast in exciting and unexpected ways. The cherry on top of all this is the addition of two tiers of difficulty below “normal”, which allow players to have a much easier time with the Somnium gameplay if they so wish by adding more restarts and slowing down the ever-present ticking clock.

Brutality, Duality, And Virtual Reality

One of the virtual reality investigation scenes in nirvanA Initiative
Image: Spike Chunsoft

Continuing the discussion of gameplay, nirvanA Initiative also features enhanced investigation gameplay that takes the strong foundation of its predecessor and spins it into something more exciting and engaging. Plenty of time is still spent talking to suspects at crime scenes and working out the details of gruesome murders, but key new features such as the Virtual Reality segments help to alleviate the tedium of the investigation gameplay loop by injecting some much-needed interactivity into the mix.

In these Virtual Reality sections, the player must search around a reconstructed version of the crime scene looking for clues, and x-ray and thermal modes can bring to light previously hidden details that aid understanding of what is going on. While the gameplay here isn’t as mind-bending as the Somnium sections, the Virtual Reality investigations are a more than welcome edition. Each one ends with the player having to recreate the culprit’s actions by selecting clues in the right order, and this can be tricky to get right, especially early in the game when the wider narrative is still shrouded in mystery.

Outside of the new Virtual Reality segments, investigations in nirvanA Initiative are almost identical to its predecessor, with a solid gameplay loop of talking to characters and ascertaining what happened on a particular day. This can become a little tedious when there are too many locations to visit, including one segment which involved going to every location in the game one after the other searching for a missing character, but thankfully this was resolved before it became a huge slog to get through. In any case, the cast remained more than engaging enough throughout the game to keep these dialogue-heavy sections interesting, and there are some hilarious jokes for players who engage with the flavor text of each location thoroughly.

New Heroes and Returning Legends

Gen and Amame from nirvanA Initiative, in the game's Brahman restaurant location
Image: Spike Chunsoft

The cast of nirvanA Initiative is, in a word, outstanding. The vast majority of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES’ already fairly strong cast returns in varying degrees ranging from unimportant side characters to major plot influencers, but as said in the introduction, it is not necessary to know the backgrounds of any of these people to enjoy what the game has to offer. Instead, the cast is bolstered by a wide range of brand-new characters whose personalities shine as bright as, if not even brighter than, those who came before.

Things are never quite as they seem in the world of nirvanA Initiative, and this is reflected in its new cast members. A man who may seem creepy at first could turn out to have a heart of pure gold, and an equally wholesome bartender can be seen as monstrous because of his appearance. There are layers of perception at play here, and only by getting to know the cast better over the course of the game can we begin to watch them truly shine. No one is ever safe from suspicion when murder victims keep showing up in unexpected places, and the characterization does an excellent job of making players second-guess themselves at every corner. The uncomfortable tension of never knowing what a character is capable of makes for a remarkably engrossing experience.

The game’s dual protagonists, returning cast member Mizuki and brand-new ABIS agent Ryuki, are both incredibly fun to play as and have a hilarious rapport with their respective AI companions. Having more than one protagonist enriches the investigation gameplay by giving multiple perspectives, including scenes where the other protagonist is in the room and can be questioned just like any other suspect. Ryuki’s instability gives the experience an unnerving sense of dread, while his AI-ball Tama provides the crude sexual humor and witty gags that fans will recognize from the previous game’s Kaname Date, but with a new twist. Mizuki, on the other hand, pairs well with the iconic AI-ball Aiba, and with the game being split into two halves, players get to spend an equal amount of time with both protagonists.

Without You, I Am Only Half

Two characters, Mizuki and Lien, investigate something mysterious in AITSF:NI
Image: Spike Chunsoft

A few months after the events of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES, half of a body is discovered in extraordinary circumstances, and six years later, the other half mysteriously appears. This is the primary mystery of nirvanA Initiative, and it is one of the most compelling Uchikoshi mysteries to date. What follows is a tale of intrigue, secret societies, rumors of human experimentation and conspiracy theories galore, culminating in twists and turns that are very hard to see coming. Fans of the Zero Escape franchise will feel right at home here, but for the uninitiated, be prepared for an adventure that is equal parts dramatic and absurd.

Aside from the main story, there are a number of side plots that enrich the experience with drama and emotion that was a joy to watch unfold. Characters such as Kizuna and Lien grow a great deal throughout the story, as does their bond with each other, and it was hard to know exactly where things were going to end up given the ever-present mysteries and intrigue of the main story. The cast is easy to form an emotional bond with, and the stakes are raised as their lives are thrust into chaos as the story progresses. There are heartfelt moments, tragedies, and the occasional alternate reality where things turned out differently — for better or for worse. The English voice cast is almost without fault, and the incredible talent of voice actors such as Erika Harlacher, SungWon Cho, and the late, great Billy Kametz all succeed in bringing relatability and emotion to these characters.

Action sequences are a returning feature from nirvanA Initiative’s 2019 predecessor, and they feel a little more streamlined without compromising their obvious absurdity. While nothing quite of the caliber of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES’ completely ridiculous action scenes happens before the final few hours of this game’s plot, there is nonetheless a goofiness present that makes it easy to separate these comedic segments from the reality of what actually happened. Individuals face hordes of gun-toting scientists, cultists, and security guards with ease, pummelling their way to victory in flashy quick time events and over-the-top finesse that wouldn’t look out of place in a blockbuster movie. Overall, these scenes are a welcome break from the serious drama of the story, and it’s always fun to beat the baddies in style.

Of course, all Uchikoshi games are famed for their mind-blowing plot twists, and nirvanA Initiative is no different. In fact, the story of the Half Body Killings is among the most intricate murder mystery plots I’ve played, with a grand plot twist of such immense importance to the story that it flips the player’s understanding of events upside-down. Thankfully, these dauntingly complex sci-fi elements are explained thoroughly enough that as the credits roll there is a sense of satisfaction rather than one of pure confusion. While the finale itself will likely not go down well with every player due to its somewhat absurd resolution, for me it marked the end of a wacky and heartfelt saga that built upon the foundation of its predecessor extremely well.

Conclusion: nirvanA Initiative is the Adventure Genre Gold Standard

Kizuna Chieda poses for the camera as she dances for her friends in nirvanA Initiative
Image: Spike Chunsoft

It became clear by the final act of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative that with each iteration of utterly insane sci-fi mystery plot, director Kotaro Uchikoshi has been honing his plot execution to near perfection. There are always going to be holes and unanswered questions, and I cannot fully confirm if all of the crazy twists here are completely watertight, but they were exceptionally fun and engaging regardless. I personally see no merit in meticulously trawling through a story to find the odd part that doesn’t quite fit, and by a certain point I’ll admit to simply trusting that the game knew what it was doing, but this ultimately led to a hugely satisfying experience.

This level of sitting back and letting the game entertain regardless of minor plot holes is largely thanks to nirvanA Initiative setting its tone remarkably well. The serious parts are meant to be taken seriously, and as soon as things begin to get absurd, the tonal shift marks a shift in perception. These two concepts are balanced well and used effectively for dramatic and comedic timing, separating dense narrative exposition and character development with wacky hijinks involving deflecting bullets with a metal pipe or firing at adult magazine vending machines to give Kaname Date superpowers. This is not at all to suggest that one should simply turn one’s brain off and enjoy the game uncritically, far from it, but rather to see the game from the perspective of what it is clearly trying to achieve.

If the aim of nirvanA Initiative was to create a sci-fi murder mystery plot with twists and turns that boggle the mind alongside a heartfelt cast of characters, then it has achieved this without question. There are some minorly unsatisfying plot points, but as a whole the execution of the narrative is genuinely impressive. It is an utterly essential experience for fans of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES and for fans of director Uchikoshi’s work in general, but will more than likely remain an enigma for those outside of such a niche circle. nirvanA Initiative will not break into the mainstream, but it knows its audience well, and caters to it with love and respect. I don’t think I could have asked for much more.

James is a university graduate based in England whose main hobbies are history, languages, and of course video games. His favourite games are Hollow Knight, Horizon Zero Dawn, and anything made by Atlus or FromSoftware, and you can usually find him on Twitter @sacGOONER63 drooling over these games and many more. You can also read his weekly ramblings about games at sacgooner63.wordpress.com if you so wish.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    July 12, 2022 at 5:01 pm

    Great review! Am intrigued to play further myself to see exactly what you were talking about and if I agree or not.
    About 12h in and loving it so far!

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