Even with its dumb jokes and insubstantial "puzzles," AI: The Somnium Files is a deeply engrossing mystery that twists and turns in ever-exciting directions.
As a developer and publisher, Spike Chunsoft has produced some of the most original and intriguing adventure games in recent history - and AI: The Somnium Files is another one to add to that list. Written and directed by Kotaro Uchikoshi, who is also responsible for the acclaimed Zero Escape series, The Somnium Files is a similarly under-the-radar release that certainly deserves more recognition. While the game appears to be just another murder mystery at first blush, it quickly upends any expectations or predictions thanks to its expert pacing, deceptively deep characters, and Uchikoshi's characteristic plot twists. The puzzles are more down to luck than skill and many of the jokes don't land, but anyone willing to explore the game's branching storylines will uncover a captivating and even touching narrative.
AI: The Somnium Files takes place in Tokyo in a not-too-distant future, as the player takes on the role of Special Agent Kaname Date of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Despite losing his memory and his eye six years ago, Date is one of only a handful of operatives known as "Psynchers" - people trained to infiltrate a sleeping suspect's dreams (or "Somnium") and interpret relevant information. One rainy night, Date is called out to a murder scene at an abandoned amusement park. The victim turns out to be Shoko Nadami, an old acquaintance of his.
Shoko's body bears some disturbing similarities to a series of unsolved murders from six years ago: multiple stab wounds, left eye pulled out, and the corpse displayed for all to see. As Date investigates the scene, he discovers that someone is still hiding there: Mizuki, Shoko's own daughter. She's grasping a bloody ice pick in fear, and she's so traumatized that she can't speak. Date immediately takes her in and links himself into her Somnium... and what he finds there sends him down a spiraling, interpersonal path of guilt, lies, and secrets.
Beyond that, it's almost a challenge in itself to discuss the game's expansive, winding plot without spoiling one of its myriad surprises. Much like the Zero Escape series before it, The Somnium Files features an entirely nonlinear story structure with numerous different routes and endings, each revealing more about the central mystery. The truth can only be found by piecing together the details in every individual route and ending, and doing so becomes more and more absorbing as the game goes on. A convenient flowchart allows you to return to any point in the story at any time and unlock new routes in whichever order you choose. Just when it seems like a given storyline has gotten too far away from the investigation to be relevant, it hooks you with a startling revelation and pulls you right back into the main mystery.
Of course, this fascinating tale would be nothing without its surprisingly eclectic cast of characters. As Date encounters new characters over the course of his investigation, they each appear to be a trope at first - like the annoyingly well-informed but tight-lipped otaku or the bubbly but manipulative internet idol. But like most other elements of the game, these characters are more than what they seem. Their personalities develop and their motivations change in response to their involvement in the case, and their histories are fleshed out as Date talks to their friends and family. Almost every character has a deeper side to discover as their stories and relationships expand, resulting in moving tales of love and friendship, physical and mental illness, and betrayal and conspiracy.
The Somnium Files also has exceptionally high production values for an adventure game, especially one that is mostly made up of selecting dialogue options and reading text boxes. All areas are rendered in full 3D and can be smoothly and quickly investigated without the need for fixed angles. The eye-catching and detailed character designs are courtesy of Yusuke Kozaki, famed for his work on the No More Heroes series and the modern Fire Emblem titles. Character portraits are also fully animated with a lively variety of expressions, showing that this game really goes the extra mile for visual quality.
As engaging as the game's overall narrative is, the actual puzzles are decidedly less interesting. When Date isn't pursuing leads or interviewing witnesses, he'll be required to subconsciously dive into the minds of sleeping suspects at certain points in the timeline. These attempts to verify an alibi or get new info are deliberately absurd puzzle segments based on dream logic. In truth, these Somnium puzzles can't really be called puzzles at all; they're largely a trial-and-error process of running around and performing ridiculous interactions with random objects until something happens. They may be thematically relevant, but without any consistency in puzzle design, they simply don't challenge the player in any way.
Another big thing about The Somnium Files is its penchant for humor. It sets a comical and self-aware tone for itself early on, with a clear desire to bring some levity to its dark and serious subject matter. Most of the time, however, it doesn't succeed. Too many of the gags come off as stupid, from its litany of sophomoric sex jokes to its lame word association puns. Maybe the word puns would be funnier if they didn't have to be translated into English, but the game is also infused with countless references to other media. These frequent nods to everything from Dirty Harry to Yuri on Ice are generally better handled than the other jokes, but the game's mostly outdated humor still feels like more of a drawback overall.
It's not the most substantial adventure game in terms of puzzles or comedy, but AI: The Somnium Files has it where it counts: the story and characters. Whether or not you're experienced with Kotaro Uchikoshi's work or Spike Chunsoft's history, this game offers a lot to anyone who wants to dig into a sizeable, surreal narrative with a wealth of twists and turns. Such a well-produced niche title like this deserves all the attention it can get.
AI: The Somnium Files is available now on Steam, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch for $59.99. A Switch code was provided to Screen Rant for the purpose of this review.