Kotaro Uchikoshi has definitely made a name for himself in the visual novel genre. Known for his science fiction themes as well as an abundant use of plot twists, you’re at least guaranteed some form of surprise when playing through his games. AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is no exception to this trend. But how does this visual novel hold up for someone with no experience of Uchikoshi’s previous work?
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative takes place after the events of the first game. But for those who have never played it, you’re able to jump right into nirvanA Initiative without the worry of spoilers. The game opens up on a game show stage, where you play as a very confused investigator known as Ryuki. He seems to be out of it but plays along with his boss on the game show until the lights suddenly switch off. Just as quickly as the lights turn off, they turn right back on, and right at the center of the room is half of a corpse, laying sliced-side down on the floor. And things only get stranger from there.
In between those unfolding events, another storyline plays out with Mizuki, another young investigator who finds a half body in the middle of a stadium field. And we learn very quickly that the half found in the stadium belongs to the half that was found in the game show studio. But that won’t end up being the killer’s only victim. You’ll need to piece together the mystery of the Half Body Serial Killings; who’s behind the killings, what’s the motive, and who are the potential future victims.
Without going into spoilers, the overall mystery of nirvanA Initiative is well put together, making things interesting and having the player question what’s real and what isn’t. There are plenty of twists to catch you off guard, many of them believable within the context of the story. However, a major plot twist that is revealed does end up making the entire game feel just a bit convoluted, even though contextually, everything makes sense and lines up if you think about it. At that point, it does feel more like a plot twist put in to turn the story on its head rather than one that benefits the story.
There are multiple endings that the player can come across while playing through the game and in order to complete the game, you’ll need to unlock all of the main ones. There are a total of five routes including the true ending, along with a bonus ending after you complete the true ending. All of the other routes provide answers to the main story in some way, so it’s not as though the game is having you complete storylines that have no meaning. But of course, that means that there are going to be instances where the main characters aren’t aware of certain facts until it’s explained to them later, because those details were only revealed on a specific route.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is an adventure game with point ‘n click elements, mixed in with visual novel aspects and quick-time events. No matter who you control (Ryuki or Mizuki), you’ll be navigating to different locations, inspecting items and talking to people, and sometimes playing through quick-time events. There are difficulty settings that you can set for both the quick-time events and the Psync moments, making them as easy or as difficult as you’d like.
A huge chunk of the game is split between Investigations and Psyncing. With non-formal investigations, you’ll be inspecting your environment and talking to characters in the cast. Most items that can be investigated won’t give you anything of import, just mentions of what exactly you’re looking at. Sometimes, your companion (Aiba if you’re playing as Mizuki or Tama if you’re Ryuki) will chime in with some unique dialogue depending on the item, but that’s all flavor text. It’s not required, but if you’d like to see the characters interacting with each other, it’s a cute way to watch things unfold.
When it comes to talking to characters, you will be given several conversation topics to pick from. Sometimes you’ll need to go through all of the topics in order to advance the scene and other times, you just need to select the story relevant topics.
There will be times when you need to investigate the scene of the crime and put together exactly what happened and how the body ended up where it was. In these scenarios, Aiba or Tama will generate a VR crime scene where you can interact with everything. Along with that, you can also use the X-Ray and Thermal features of your eye to see things that normally would be missed by the investigation team. After collecting all of the information from the scene, you’ll need to put together what happened at the scene. These moments tend to be straightforward to put together, but even if you have no idea, there isn’t a penalty for giving wrong guesses.
The other bulk of the game is maintained by Psyncing, which is where you investigate inside of the mind of a person. The rules of the dream world are not like the real world and therefore, you’ll need to think outside of the box in order to progress. Each Somnium that you explore will be different from the last, which is definitely a plus given the number of times you’ll be Psyncing. There’s a great variety in the puzzles and the atmospheres, much like how every person’s way of thinking is different.
While inside of a Somnium, depending on the difficulty chosen you may or may not have a time limit. At the beginning of each Somnium, you’ll be presented with a synopsis of what you need to find out, the difficulty currently set, and how many times you can retry before you get a game over. Along with those, you’ll also be shown several Mental Locks that you need to solve. These Mental Locks act as checkpoints for your retry meter. After all of that information is told to you, you’ll be let loose to explore the Somnium.
If you have set the game to a difficulty that has a time limit (ex. Normal difficulty is set to a six minute time limit), then you need to be mindful of the time. Every step that you take decreases your timer, which will be visible to you at all times. Even standing still, while it decreases your time at a slower speed, loses you precious seconds. Interacting with items and people in the Somnium also eat away at your time, with the time requirement displayed to you before you decide to continue or not.
If you’re playing on the Normal difficulty, the earlier Somniums won’t give you much trouble. However, as you progress, you need to be fairly perfect with your time management with a select few Psyncs. Just a few wrong guesses can end up with you running out of time. Running out of time results in a game over, from which you can decide to use one or more of your retries to go back to a checkpoint, or just start over from the beginning. Somniums are not the place to investigate every single little item, so if you’re a completionist in that sense, you’re better off selecting the easiest difficulty that doesn’t give you a time limit. However, it’s in your best interest to keep playing until you actually run out of time, because you can still complete a Somnium when your time runs out if you’ve selected the final choice in the investigation.
There are times where after making a selection you receive either eyeballs (which can be used to unlock bonus content) or Timies. Timies can either speed up or slow down time and along with the time requirement, any potential Timies that can be earned will be shown as well. Since you can only hold three Timies at a time, it’s best to use them as you get them. You’ll also want to be mindful of the negative Timies that you can potentially earn, because those quickly stack up and eat away at your time. You’ll also be forced to use them should they enter your stock.
Quick Time Events
Throughout several cutscenes, there will be moments where Ryuki and Mizuki must fight against other characters. You’ll want to keep your eyes peeled during these cutscenes, as the QTE will pop up without warning. It will be a mix of hitting the correct buttons, moving the joysticks in the right direction, or aiming the character’s gun at the right point and shooting. If you get a QTE wrong at any point, you’ll be taken back to the beginning right before the first QTE played again. That’s your only penalty, but for those moments where the cutscenes can start getting a bit long, it can be frustrating to flub up right at the end and have to start all over again.
Eyeballies and Aiba/Tama Special Mode
Outside of the main gameplay, there are other gameplay modes that are available. Truthfully though, there isn’t much substance with these modes. There is a tamogachi-esque mode where you answer random questions every twenty minutes. There are no right or wrong answers, each answer increasing specific stats and helping the Eyeballie grow. Once the Eyeballie has grown to be an adult, it will go off to learn more about the world. At this point, you’ll earn eyeballs that can be used to unlock bonuses. This is a pretty reliable way to earn eyeballs, if you’re interested in the bonuses available for purchase.
Depending on the character you’re playing as, you can visit them in their respective rooms. In their rooms, you can choose to seek life advice from them. By answering random questions, they will give their advice about how you should go about a situation. While a cute idea, the amount of questions is extremely low so you’ll quickly play through every question in a single session. Along with that, you can also change the outfit that they are wearing, mixing and matching the head gear and clothing. This clothing will also appear on the AI-Ball in question in-game, which makes this a cute addition.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative uses 3D models in the entirety of the game. Even for the character sprites that you see next to the text boxes are just using the headshot version of the 3D models. This is actually a pretty ingenious way of displaying which character is talking while also displaying exactly how they’re feeling. Outside of psyncs and investigations, you’re pretty much rooted down to a front facing view of whatever location you’re currently at. The models look really nice and even more so, the design of each character stands out nicely.
The entirety of nirvanA Initiative is almost fully voice acted, even down to the little quips that the characters make while inspecting items. The only exception is when the character you’re control is thinking internally. There is both English and Japanese voice acting available and can be changed at any point within the game.
The music range in nirvanA Initiative is definitely one to behold. Whether’s it the haunting piano tones of the opening song, quirky game show music, or fast-paced guitar riffs, there’s a song for every moment and location in the game. Of course, some songs are more memorable than others (for instance, the theme music definitely encompasses the general feeling of the game), but as a whole, the entire OST is one that really takes this game up another level.
UI and Overall Design
The styling for nirvanA Initiative is very striking, leaning into its sci-fi and detective theming. The bright green on black background looks really cool for the menu. And the general UI, while a bit overwhelming at first, is easy to get used to after a while. The only thing to criticize is the options menu. The styling fashions this menu as a checkbox form and the text is extremely small, leaning more towards form over function in this sense.
Overall, the performance of the game on the Nintendo Switch is decent, although there were consistent issues with lag during the investigation portions right before the scenario you’ve put together plays out. Lag does show up in other sections of the game, but those moments aren’t as consistent to pick out at the prior mentioned moment.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is an interesting and fun adventure game, but not without some caveats. The story is enthralling and keeps you on your toes, although it does feel as though it relies a lot on plot twists to keep the player engaged and shocked. The gameplay is fun to play through, though, as you progress, you may find yourself having to redo some Psyncs due to time constraints, if you’re bad at picking out exactly what you need to do. Presentation-wise, nirvanA Initiative definitely blows a lot of other visual novel adventure games out of the water.
Overall, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative is definitely worth playing through, especially if you’re a fan of the first game. And for those of you worried that you need to play the first game in order to play this one, worry not because while this is a sequel, it features a standalone story with no worries of spoilers from the first game.