What is it? A dream-diving visual novel where you solve a murder mystery in nearby Tokyo.
Publication date: Out now
Expect to pay: £50/$60
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Judged by: Intel Core i7-10750H, 16GB RAM, GeForce RTX 2060
Jin Furue has been murdered. Someone has cut the CEO in half and left one half in a TV studio, where a live quiz show is being recorded. The other half of Jin doesn’t show up until six years later, having apparently passed away just hours earlier. That’s the mind-boggling setup for AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative, a visual anime novel out there, but with a compelling murder mystery at its core.
You’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given how crazy this sci-fi adventure can get. Your constant companion – at least for half the game – is a filthy artificial intelligence that lives in a fake eyeball where your left eye should be. With her help, you’ll solve the mystery of the Half Body Serial Killings as you discover conspiracy theories, creepy viral videos and a cult that believes the world is just a simulation, the world is gone. That is, when you’re not battling faceless goons for quick prompts in one of a handful of ridiculous action sequences.
Like its predecessor, Nirvana Initiative is a sprawling mystery that touches multiple genres, combining visual novel conversations with the aforementioned action pieces, and more interactive scenes for puzzle-solving and investigation. Somehow it all comes together – this generic fusion and the conspiratorial sci-fi – because it doesn’t take itself quite seriously. You might be surprised by a Pokémon minigame in the latest Frogwares Sherlock Holmes adventure; here, it’s just another day at the office.
Set in the near-future Tokyo, the Somnium Files games involve a division of elite, high-tech cops who use the aforementioned eyeball AIs to help them solve perplexing mysteries, turning their real eyeball into operation. deleted. But this horrifying mutilation also comes with an upside: With the AI nestled in their ocular void, the agent can view things in X-ray or thermal vision, and roam around nifty VR recreations of crime scenes.
For the first half of the game, you play as the mentally unstable special agent Riyuki, whose mind unravels as the case takes its toll. After failing to find the culprit, the story jumps forward six years and puts a super-powered high school student named Mizuki on the case after Jin’s left half mysteriously reappears.
Both agents – thanks to those AI balls – can not only use X-ray vision to see under a suspect’s skin, they can also ‘psyncate’ with their subconscious: a terrible contraction of a word, but one that at least has the decency of a silent one. P. Psyncing is essentially entering dreams, a la Inception. You can do a quick ‘wink psync’ when interviewing suspects, and get a brief glimpse of their ghosts if the game allows it. But the game’s tent poles are full-fledged synchronizations performed in the lab, where both detective and subject are connected to a special machine.
Psync or pswim
While much of the game takes place like a traditional visual novel with lots of dialogue, or a light adventure game as you explore scenes, psyncs are more reminiscent of JRPG dungeons. As you control your character in the third person, you explore environments drawn from the subject’s subconscious, manifesting their innermost thoughts and feelings. For example, one character’s dream takes the form of a crazy quiz show, while the other is a fun and lively Pokémon parody. In fact, they’re quite similar to Persona 5’s mental dungeons, but with a focus on puzzles and a strict time limit, which is exceeded with every action you take.
You try to open mental locks to eventually reveal a hidden truth and hopefully a clue to the murder case. However, every action, even walking, costs precious seconds. Standing still effectively stops time, giving you time to think and weigh your options. How will swinging this briefcase, or hitting the subject, or putting a shoe in this box, open the next mental lock? But as random as the actions sometimes seem, the game justifies their connection to the subject’s mind. Take a moment to think things over, or risk wasting so much time that you have to start over from an earlier checkpoint – and on the default difficulty, you only get three tries to try again.
I’ve enjoyed the thrill while syncing, but there are ways to get around it if time limits bother you. You can tinker with the difficulty, or just reload from a manual save if you run out of time. Still, I’d suggest you try it as it is, because it’s a smart way to ask the player for think about the puzzles, rather than working my way to the solution through repeated trial and error, as I do in pretty much every adventure game.
These mind-exploring dungeons may be Nirvana Initiative’s focal points, but my favorite parts of the game are more subdued. After each new murder – and there are quite a few – you’ll plop down in a swishy VR version of the crime scene. It’s here where you feel most like a real detective, running for the evidence and examining it directly (your X-ray/thermal vision helps) while chatting theories with the AI nestled in your eyehole.
Those are arguably the best bits of traditional murder mysteries: the moments when the sidekick posits fanciful theories — theories readers will no doubt come up with — before the great detective shoots them with a bowed eyebrow. Well, in Nirvana’s VR crime scenes, those moments are recreated here, with the player taking on the role of sidekick and the great detective being played by the AI.
But as happy as I was about investigating the crime scene, they are quite limited in scope, both small and annoyingly inflexible in their conclusions. At the end, you’re questioned about what you learned from each scene – basically what the AI hinted to you – and you can’t progress, or do anything else at all, until you give your AI friend the correct answers. I know this is a (largely linear) visual novel, not a freer detective game where you are allowed to jump to wrong conclusions, but it’s still an annoying way of presenting puzzles.
Not that I skip the visual novel sections – these were the moments that gradually sucked me into the game, acclimating me to its bizarre cast. Nirvana Initiative treats its suspects very differently from traditional murder mysteries, which typically keep their seedy cast at bay. After all, Poirot is an unwelcome outsider in whatever mansion he investigates – as a detective, it’s his duty to fumble with feathers and shake hornets’ nests. Here, on the other hand, you are one of the gangs. Many of the suspects become friends in the course of your investigation, if not already at the start of the game, and detectives Riyuki and Mizuki are the glue that holds them all together. The interviews don’t usually feel like interrogations, but more like friends hanging out and talking about the case.
Rather than suspects, they feel like party members in a JRPG, bringing memorable characters to life with a sharp script and excellent voice acting. I wouldn’t say I Like it most of them – about half of the cast are either annoying or creepy (although at least the script acknowledges this), and I remain frustrated by a character’s inexplicable cubic head. But as the hours passed, I began to enjoy being in their company.
Now, that may be the Stockholm Syndrome talking, but I think it’s due to the quality of the writing, which walks a fine line between scruffy and straightforward, silly and emotional. As much as that cube-headed dude frustrated me, the subplot involving his introverted son is beautifully told.
Sometimes you forget you’re playing a murder mystery – a nastier word for it might be “padding” – but there’s benefits in letting this group of suspects care for you. These emotional subplots only make it more effective when the killer knocks again.
I said it was game largely linear, and that’s because of the multiple endings, which branch off erratic redirects made during sync. There aren’t that many branches, but they are used in fascinating ways, bringing certain subplots to an end without allowing you to determine the killer’s identity.
In any other game, those would be the bad endings, but they can be bizarrely happy here, providing NPCs with satisfying endings at the expense of the overarching mystery. Return to a previous chapter to stray from the “true” path, and those touching conclusions may never happen. Sure, as a result, you’ve solved the mystery of the Half Body Serial Killings, but at what cost?
However, with its branching paths and its two time periods, the game feels drawn out. I ended up moaning when I knew there was going to be a psync because that would be another added half hour for no good reason. Oh, lame excuses have been made for the subjects’ refusal to share information, but this is a story that feels baggy and too long at times.
I didn’t mind that much, though, in a game that mixes genres with confidence, and that holds on to its central mystery even as it indulges in conspiracy theories and dream-state craziness. It’s a philosophical science fiction story, but with clear limits to future technology and ultimately reasonable explanations for the impossible crimes. Above all, this is a game that respects the art of the detective story, and can present its own work well.