Death and taxes are certain, and so is my infinite capacity to fall in love with murder mysteries. There are few who write and direct murder mystery videogames as exquisitely as Kotaru Uchikoshi. After falling in love with Ever 17, Remember 11, and the unforgettable Zero Escape trilogy—his most famous project—I knew I’d follow his work for the rest of my life. Thus, the announcement of AI: The Somnium Files brought me much excitement. Just like his past games, AI: The Somnium Files takes the player on an incredible journey full of twists and turns, emotional moments, and the existential and philosophical themes that he’s known for gracefully injecting into his stories. While it has a few flaws and never matches up to the best moments of Zero Escape, it’s likely one of the games that will most strongly captivate and hold your attention this year.
The game opens with a scene in which a woman’s corpse is propped on a merry-go-round horse in a long-abandoned amusement park. One of her eyes is gouged out; there are several puncture wounds on her body; there’s no blood at the scene. In steps Kamame Date, an amnesiac detective who works for a secret division of the Tokyo police department known as ABIS. It’s not public information because ABIS utilizes a special type of technology—technology that Date directly benefits from. In his left eye socket resides Aiba, a fully sentient AI and his partner-in-crime throughout the various gruesome murders you’ll investigate over the course of the 25-hour branching story.
These investigations largely take place in Somnium, dream worlds that exist inside the subconscious of every person, which Date and Aiba can infiltrate thanks to ABIS’ technology. These worlds shift and change as you investigate them, breaking the mental locks that exist in our minds to protect us from traumatic events, and uncovering the truth behind people’s darkest moments in the process. But you have only six minutes to uncover these truths because, when you pass the six-minute threshold, you risk losing yourself in the mind of the other person. As a result, you need to guess which items are worth investigating; which paths are worth exploring, and which actions will leave you with the most amount of time to proceed.
Should you close the curtains, or stare back at the enormous eye of the giant glaring at you on the other side? What tools do you use to create a passage for someone fleeing from a mysterious figure who is repeatedly stabbing them? There’s a pressure to anticipate and carry out the right choices, and if you don’t you might have to start over from the beginning. It’s a lot of trial-and-error, and while it can get frustrating, I enjoyed this process and the feeling of inching closer to a revelation. However, it did make me miss the complex puzzles of the Zero Escape trilogy, which focused less on guessing and more on smartly piecing together clues and observations.
It’s ironic that I religiously listen to true crime podcasts and actively seek out murder mysteries, given that I have a phobic fear of death. But Uchikoshi’s murder mysteries are my favorites because they’re often least about death despite the horrifying deaths that take place in them. They’re ultimately about the human condition—about vulnerability, a desire for justice, empathy, fate, love, and so much more. I’ll remember AI: The Somnium Files for its exploration of the complicated feelings behind family and non-biological parents; of how poverty and circumstances we can’t control can make our relationships with those we love messy and difficult to work through; of survivor’s guilt and redemption.
Unfortunately, while the writing ultimately nails these big moments, it’s there where my biggest issue lies. There is an overabundance of inappropriate, unfunny and pointless sex jokes. At best, they fall absolutely flat; at worst, they are forced into literal life and death situations, eradicating all the tension and undermining the stakes. The juvenile humor is constantly at odds with the story’s mature tone, and it’s distracting enough to have made me struggle to like an otherwise fairly likable protagonist. When it comes to sexual humor and slapstick comedy, sometimes less is more.
As for everything else in games directed by Uchikoshi, more is what I always want. Many years have passed since I played the masterpiece that is Ever 17, and I’m still in awe of his ability to weave in so many strands, concepts, and plot twists and still create something that isn’t just coherent, but also adrenaline-inducing and emotionally resonant. Every game is a team effort, but Uchikoshi’s brilliance is what’s made many of the visual novels he’s directed and written become cult classics. AI: The Somnium Files isn’t his best work, but it’s entertaining from start to end and a game I’d recommend to anyone interested in visual novels, murder mysteries, or simply a great story.
AI: The Somnium Files was developed and published by Spike Chunsoft. Our review is based on the Nintendo Switch version. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and PC.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.