While having access to a Switch means access to some of Nintendo’s best new games, one of the titles I was looking forward to most in 2019 was actually from independent publisher, Spike Chunsoft. Ai Somnium Files is a murder mystery where you play as Date, an inspector from the newly established psychology division of the Metropolitan Police Department called ABIS. With his cybernetic eye that uses the latest technology he tracks down a serial killer dubbed ‘The New Cyclops Killer.’ The latest visual novel from the original writer behind the Zero Escape Trilogy with character designs by the guy from No More Heroes, it’s certainly an enticing mix with a good pedigree.
While Zero Time Dilemma was a mediocre whimper as an ending to the Zero Escape Trilogy, 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward were excellent games with good writing, and I was more than happy to give the writer another chance. While a completely independent story from the Zero Escape stories, you definitely get that same kind of tropes: elaborate conspiracy with references to paranormal myths and urban legends, a dash of science fiction and a sprinkle of dirty humor between elaborate puzzles set in the Somnium world. Inspector Date lost his memory and his left eye six years ago after a case involving the original ‘Cyclops Killer’, a serial murderer who was killing women and stealing one of theirs eyes from their corpses. Date’s eye was replaced with Aiba, a robotic eye that connects to his brain with an artificial nerve and has an artificially intelligent personality in the form of a human woman. When Date ‘psyncs’ with a suspect, Aiba acts on his behalf and goes into their ‘Somnium’, their dream world, where solving puzzles reveals clues about cases.
The story begins when Date is called to a murder scene to find his best friend’s ex wife dead and with her eye removed. As more and more bodies start stacking up with their eyes removed as well, Date must find out who is the ‘new’ Cyclops Killer and find if there is any connection between the original murders and these new killings. Date investigates crime scenes, interrogates witnesses and suspects, and when all else fails, dives into their dream worlds to get new information before the killer strikes again. It’s actually a pretty gripping case, and like the Zero Escape games, the story branches off depending on what you do, and particularly, how you solve the Somnium worlds.
And like Zero Escape, you have to unlock all the endings to get to the truth.
The Somnium worlds are a mix between the original Zero Escape puzzles, and oddly enough, Ghost Trick’s mechanical puzzles. You have six minutes to find the information you need, though that isn’t entirely accurate. While running around the Somnium world eats up real world time (one of the few badly dealt with mechanics in the game, as the camera is kind of a mess and you waste a lot of time reorienting yourself), examining the various doodads and random objects doesn’t use any time at all, and selecting various tasks can actually use up more time than actually passes. You can also modify time with various objects, and if you run out of time you can redo parts of the puzzle, or do it over entirely. You don’t get a bad ending from screwing up, you just have to keep redoing the puzzle until you get the solution. However! The Somniums have multiple solutions, and those solutions affect the plot.
You can definitely tell that Spike Chunsoft gave this game a big budget. The character models are all highly animated, there are a lot of fully animated cut scenes, and the backgrounds can sometimes be highly elaborate. The game is also fully voiced, though I did find a couple of glitches where the dialog won’t play, and the game’s voice options are available in English and Japanese. They look good too. All the characters look really distinct and varied, with highly expressive faces and body language and stylish clothes that all fit their roles and personalities.
The characters are all extremely compelling. Date is a hard drinking smartass with a bit of a pervy streak, and has great chemistry with the AI in his eye. Aiba is clever and snarky, with a charming fascination with insects. Date’s ward, 12 year old Mizuki, can come off as a major brat, but her behavior is kind of understandable, considering what kind of life she ended up living. She’s a little kid who had to grow up way too fast and tries too hard to act older than she really is. Date’s coworkers, informants and the people he investigate all stick with you and the voice actors are quite well directed.
It’s not a flawless game. Towards the end, the game slows down and has a hard time loading videos and dialog files from earlier in the plot and causes some serious lag. A few times I had to close the game and reboot it because the lag would sometimes turn into a freeze. So save fairly frequently. There are also a couple of disappointing plot points. The writer really tried to do right by the LGBTA community in representation, bless him, but he still fell into the trap of some old cliches. Mama, a genderqueer drag queen feels too much like a stereotype. I didn’t dislike her, but well, people who would dislike her won’t be wrong to do so. But otherwise the good points outweigh the bad tremendously.
And after how much of a letdown Zero Time Dilemma’s ending was, Ai Somnium Files’ ending is freaking AMAZING. A pulse pounding, nail biting climax with a surprisingly emotional finish, and a very satisfactory epilogue. Not only was every character’s story resolved, I can’t spoil it for you, but it was one of the best, most unexpected ways to finish a murder mystery game I’ve ever seen. Complete catharsis after how brutal the game could get at times, which was sorely lacking in Zero Time Dilemma, and harkens back to the best of 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. And because the game is totally self-contained, you don’t have to worry about any blue ball inducing cliffhangers. It’s a complete return to form.
If you liked 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, or puzzle solving mysteries with memorable characters like the Ace Attorney series, give Ai Somnium Files a chance.