Operation Bluebird Review — AI: The Somnium Files (Nintendo Switch)
I was lucky enough to receive an advance review copy of AI: The Somnium Files in my capacity as both a freelance journalist and an admin for Operation Bluebird, so the following is my honest opinion on the game:
The name doesn’t exactly give anything away, so what is AI: The Somnium Files? The latest visual novel/mystery/sci-fi blend from renowned director Kotaro Uchikoshi, AI follows amnesiac protagonist Kaname Date, a Special Agent in the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad, as he investigates a mysterious set of murders known as the Cyclops Serial Killings. These murders are connected by the killer’s gruesome calling card: the theft of each victim’s left eye. During the investigation Date is accompanied by an AI companion, Aiba, who resides in his own empty left eye socket and provides him with several useful abilities, including a thermal lie detector and X-ray vision.
Similar to other mystery games, such as Ace Attorney and Danganronpa, a large amount of time is spent exploring murder scenes and tracking down and interviewing various persons of interest. As fans of the genre will already know, this can sometimes be a tedious effort — especially when AI’s branching timeline means that you might end up receiving similar information again and again with only slight differences. For the most part though, the masterful writing and witty dialogue triggered by selecting almost any object found throughout the game more than makes up for this. The inclusion of a variety of characters accompanying Date throughout the game also make the investigations much more enjoyable — with dialogue between Date and his room-mate/surrogate daughter figure Mizuki being a particular highlight.
The remainder of AI’s gameplay comes when Date enters other character’s dream worlds, otherwise known as Somnia. Using the Psync machine at ABIS headquarters, Date is able to enter the bizarre dream worlds of people tangled up in the Cyclops Serial Killings and explore their subconscious. Within these dreams you control Aiba — now transformed from an eyeball to a snarky young woman — with six minutes to interact with objects, unlock Mental Locks and discover clues that will help solve the murders. It sounds relatively complex, but in practice it is easily picked up.
The Somnia are gorgeously designed, exciting to explore and provide new, esoteric locations to explore beyond AI’s usual Tokyo setting. However, my main issue with exploring Somnia was that often the puzzles felt random and more to do with trial-and-error than logic. Up until the final few they were easy to complete by just muddling through and interacting with objects until something clicked — often well within the time limit!
Nonetheless, if you are anything like me you’ll have picked up AI more for its plot than gameplay — and in this, it is close to perfection. It’s a joy to gradually piece together the real story behind the Cyclops Serial Killings, sorting between red herrings and real leads, and getting to know the characters around you. Without spoiling anything, several of the character-driven endings are rich in emotional depth and made the relationships between Date and his companions feel much more authentic.
Even with the inclusion of a branching plotline and multiple endings AI is definitely more linear than Uchikoshi’s previous works, but this is by no means a bad thing. In fact, I felt the plot to be seamless and smooth with surprisingly few loose ends — while fans of the Zero Escape series were left with questions even after the trilogy ended, AI has no such issues over the course of its 20 odd hours of play time. The narrative itself is characteristic of what I’ve come to expect from Uchikoshi; fans of his previous works will relish in characters’ random tangents on conspiracy theories, weird sci-fi tropes and even references to prior games. And that’s not even mentioning the inclusion of sound effects that will be more than familiar to fans of the Zero Escape series.
The one thing that did feel very different though, is the sense of danger I felt playing AI. For me at least, it definitely lacked in suspense. While there was no shortage of mysteries to solve, I very rarely felt that Date was in danger despite the fact that there is a serial killer on the loose throughout the game. Since in AI the player experiences murders through the eyes of a seasoned crime-fighter rather than an ordinary person, there’s a big differentiation between its dynamic and that of Uchikoshi’s previous works. That said, I doubt the occasional lags helped with building suspense: nothing kills tension like a long loading screen directly after a body discovery.
Overall though, AI’s shortcomings pale in comparison to the areas in which it shines. The game has a brilliant and varied score — I particularly like the title screen track which is reminiscent of the music from Nier;Automata — and visually, it’s a delight. Considering its dark subject material I wasn’t sure if AI would have a strong sense of humour, but I’ve gladly been proven wrong. Add to this an brilliant and absurd plot, beautiful aesthetics and a wonderful cast of characters and you’ve got yourself a solid game. The final credits have rolled on my experience of AI and I can’t say I’m anything other than satisfied. It’s not Mr Uchikoshi’s strongest work, but it’s definitely up there — and well worth a play for newbies and long-time fans alike.
- Engaging story and likeable characters
- Gorgeous soundtrack
- Visually pleasing
- Occasionally laggy
- Didn’t feel like Somnia reached their full potential