The original AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES was one of my favourite games of the year when it came out in 2019, so a sequel to Spike Chunsoft’s latest smart dialogue-driven visual novel narrative series was something I was honestly looking forward to getting my hands on this year. AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative continues the unique premise that is as good as the original even with its long game title.
Set to release this week on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, the nirvanA Initiative adds to the foundation of the first game with new gameplay mechanics alongside an all-new case of unique murders, a series’ staple at this point in which players will figure out the “how” and “who” of the murders, which are smartly revealed throughout the over 20-hour campaign. Like AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES, the follow-up will have players figuring out the true culprit behind the murders that, at least for me in both the original and follow-up, will keep you guessing in the near-future Tokyo setting that is not directly tied to the case in the 2019 game.
The nirvanA Initiative, unlike other sequels, stands on its own as a separate story from the first game, making it accessible to new players who did not pick up the first game. Returning players aren’t left out as there are tons of references and returning characters who make a return during the narrative. At the start, the game will ask players if they have played the first game or not. If any players say they haven’t, the game will go out of its way to not reference plot points from AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES.
All that aside, I think it does help to play the original just for any returning character who pops up during your investigation alone, just to know the history that comes with their return to the series. That’s constant, though, as the game introduces a new cast of characters linked to the case for players to discover as they progress through the game. If players do say they’ve beaten the game before, the nirvanA Initiative won’t take their word for it. In other words, ‘prove it’ by answering some spoil-filled questions from the first game.
Getting a little into nirvanA Initiative’s story, the adventure game meets visual novel takes place six years after the original game. Play as 18-year-old Mizuki Okiura, who this time around is taking on the role of the series’ protagonist in the second entry. Mizuki was a 12-year-old girl who had more of a major supporting character role to AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES‘ protagonist, Kaname Date, her quasi-older brother figure and foster father. In her more mature years, Mizuki is a third-year Sekiba high school student and an intern/upcoming agent for a special but not publicly known Tokyo police taskforce, the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad, or ABIS for short.
At the start of nirvanA Initiative, while being shot at by a masked woman, Mizuki and her AI partner discover the left half of a fresh corpse (vertically separated in half from head to waist) that appeared due to a mysterious phenomenon. The strange thing is that Mizuki actually recognizes the body as she has seen the other half before—only that she saw the right half six years ago, and this new half is oddly still fresh even with the separation of time. This mystery kicks off with the investigation of the body, as Mizuki and the team at ABIS attempt to uncover the truth hidden behind the newly opened cold case.
AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative players won’t just play as Mizuki though, as it’s a dual protagonist story where players will see the narrative play out from two different perspectives from two separate time periods, which unveils the true culprit. The first takes place in the game’s present in 2026, and the other was six years ago – a couple of months after the conclusion of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES. In the past, players can play as Kuruto Ryuki, a 23-year-old rookie special agent at ABIS who, unlike Date and Mizuki, is not the hot-blooded type but more of an intelligent, reserved individual in how he approaches situations and the overall investigation. However, not everything appears to be well for Ryuki, as he has experienced and is still dealing with his own trauma, which is revealed more in the game’s later stages.
Like other police officers, ABIS agents have their own partners but are neither human nor animal but instead are an AI-ball—an AI that is housed in an agent’s artificial eye. The future high-tech hardware helps in situations. For example, agents can use x-ray vision, thermal vision, night vision, zoom, and so much more during their investigations. Mizuki’s AI digital assistant is AIBA (a pun on AI eyeball), who is Date’s former partner who was left behind following an accident that Date was involved in. Ryuki’s AI partner is Tama, who is a much more stern and motherly figure that calls out the young man most of the time.
All this tech does honestly help with your investigation, but at the end of the day, is pretty useless if no one actually helps with your case by answering your questions to uncover the truth. Legally, you can’t force witnesses that are withholding information to ‘spill the beans’, but if you ignore the unethical issues —what if there was another way? In the fictional future, there is an answer to that, as it is the main reason for the existence of ABIS.
The Tokyo police division has developed the Psync System, which allows an ABIS agent to psync with a witness’ brainwaves and dive deep into their subconscious called the Somnium. Players will uncover new evidence in the ongoing case through the digital avatars of their AI partners, who also have their own character designs. It won’t be that easy as the subconscious in every psync will attempt to hinder your investigation through mental locks. Only by unlocking can players progress through the story. Although you don’t have all day as you have an in-game time limit of six minutes, going beyond that limit isn’t advised.
The gameplay of AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative is divided into basically two parts. The first is in the real world, where you are looking into possible witnesses at both familiar and new locations across the city. This is the part where the visual novel part of the game comes into play, as you can investigate everything in the static environment of the location and crime scenes you find yourself in with the AI-ball, revealing more details not seen by the naked eye. The sequel has added a new mechanic to the game, including a “wink psync” which allows Ryuki and Mizuki to safely and remotely psync with a witness or suspect. You’ll see their mental state in AR for a quick six seconds before asking specific witnesses some of your burning questions.
By design, I never really got the answers I was looking for, as that would be too easy, right? In certain situations, throughout nirvanA Initiative, you can psync with witnesses withholding information to help you toward your goal of blowing up this case wide open. This is where the second part of the game begins where you head to ABIS headquarters to enter the dream-like world of the Somnium through the Psync System. This allows players to discover new clues and find the truth hidden behind the illusion.
Honestly, the investigation segment of nirvanA Initiative is pretty straightforward, but getting into Somnium is where you’ll actually play the ‘game‘ as you try to use your six minutes wisely as you interact with items and other stuff in the subconscious of the ‘psync-ing’, which will eat up your time. The first level is more of a reintroduction to the main gameplay loop and tutorial of the first game for returning players, which isn’t that hard to figure out, but as you dive deeper into the game, it does get harder.
Throughout these levels are collectable currency known as “eyeballs” that players can get by interacting in the level or finding five ‘hidden eyeballs’ which will reward players with a bigger amount. Whatever you end up collecting can be used to redeem bonus content in the main menu, which includes unlocking concept art, outfits, and more.
Starting with the second psync, the game really tests the player’s mental fortitude to figure out how to solve the puzzle-like nature of the Somnium’s mental locks. To add to this, the nirvanA Initiative adds a new gameplay mechanic called ‘keys’ which are five unfinished factual statements about the ‘psync-ing’ players will discover throughout the level. Fill out the multiple blanks in each key by trying to use every option at your disposal. Doing so will help you reach the end of the Somnium level.
The con of this approach is that a lot of your time will be eaten, which is honestly the goal as you can have three retry tokens to rewind to earlier parts of the level – use all three to go back to the very beginning. No matter what, your progress with your keys in the psync level will carry over if you retry. The strategy for the harder levels is to get all the keys in six minutes. Once that’s taken care of, rewind to the beginning and attempt to go through the level again, but this time taking the normal approach. Spike Chunsoft’s revised approach to game design for the sequel’s Somnium levels is super smart game design and is one of my favourite aspects of the game, which is much better than the original.
“AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative is an incredibly smart game…”
The new information in the Somnium will lead to revisiting the crime scene and, using VR, reenacting the scene in “Truth Reenactment” to determine exactly how the out-of-this-world crime was committed using real-world logic. The presentation of which is treated like a movie as the player tries to line up the scene in a video editor as your character puts the pieces together with all the evidence now in hand. One criticism I have of it is that AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative is an incredibly smart game to the point that it’s almost a crutch as players really have to pay attention to figure out the solutions. Truth be told, I was stuck for hours trying to figure out a solution, so be warned, the puzzles can be quite difficult.
AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative is on top of the visual novel genre as far as its big-budget presentation goes as it continues to improve on Spike Chunsoft’s visual 3D-anime art style introduced in the Zero Escape trilogy. Compared to AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES, the nirvanA Initiative is mostly the same, with a bit of an improvement in cutscenes. Speaking of which, during the investigation part of the game, during the story players will have to use anime-style QTEs when dealing with enemies – they are usually fun to watch as they are pretty out there and kind of epic, unlike other QTEs.
While the nirvanA Initiative is linear in nature, players need to complete a route in the game to go forward in the story. Afterwards, you can go into the game’s time flow chart to go back to an earlier part and take a different route with the information that players have learned. This mechanic was first introduced in the Zero Escape trilogy, it was also in AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES and now in the sequel as a way to allow players to go through the worst-case scenario of endings to unlock the true ending of the game. While this means there is less player choice in the overall narrative, it’s still worth going through just to experience the story alone. As those other routes play out, more opportunities to psync with new characters will present themselves, giving you a better sense of what’s going on in the game.
AI: THE SOMNIUM FILES – nirvanA Initiative continues the trend of Spike Chunsoft’s output of visual novel adventure games over the last decade, the new entry to its most recent series hones more into the quirks of the first game in the best way possible. While the sequel retreads the water of the original with familiar characters and a branching story that unveils the true route and culprit.
It does enough to keep you once again on your toes as the next generation of psyncer detectives attempt to solve a new string of murders at two different times, alongside a new cast of characters to dive into the Somnium. The developer also does a good job balancing the Game’s dark theme by upping the humour in the second adventure that honestly had me chuckle a few times throughout my playthrough. While the puzzles in nirvanA Initiative are brain-racking raking at times, it’s worth sticking around to see how the whole story plays out – even if you need a little help along the way.