Kaname Date is a special agent of a futuristic police department, Advanced Brain Investigation Squad, specializing in exploring people’s subconscious in the course of their investigations. A murder case isn’t necessarily his normal assignment, but …
9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors remains one of my favorite games of all time. Virtue’s Last Reward and Zero Time Dilemma were solid follow ups to round out the Zero Escape trilogy and quite good in their own right (although they did start to collapse a bit under their own weight as the stories became more involved and grew in scope).
So a fresh start of a brand new mystery game by the same director was something I was extremely excited for. And AI is every bit as fantastic as I hoped.
The gameplay is divided between visual novel-like sections of gathering information and investigating crime scenes, and Somnium sections in which the player explores the subconscious of reluctant persons of interest in a dream-like setting.
It boasts a layered, subtly constructed story that unfolds in pieces across branching paths. Each branch feels solid and satisfying as a self-contained narrative, while giving carefully rationed hints about the big picture that only fully come together as all the branches are played. Using the Somnium sections as the branching points is a great choice, as there’s natural splitting opportunities narratively and gameplay-wise no need for the player to hunt around aimlessly to find the different story paths. The gameplay is top notch overall and brings some nice innovations to the genre.
The technology and sci-fi elements, which are extremely important to AI’s tale, are well used and explained in pieces as needed to avoid too much info dumping.
It’s really amazing how well balanced and executed everything is here. There’s just enough branching, and the way pieces of the puzzle are interspersed between the different tracks is excellently done. The complex story is explored just right, avoids straining to contain its own weight like VLR and ZTD. It strikes me as accessible either by playing down a single path until finished (or temporarily blocked by the need for information from other parts) or by jumping around a bit (which is how I chose to approach it). That’s really difficult to get just right, and an impressive achievement.
The characterizations, twists, general atmosphere and ever increasing feeling of tension all combined to create a tangible “can’t stop playing” feeling, gripping me unlike any other game in quite some time.
The valid possible solutions, suspects, and theories are great and make this an incredibly compelling experience. In fact the red herrings almost too good, as some false leads felt just a touch more interesting than the actual developments. Small criticism though, as the overall tapestry of AI’s tale is still excellent and incredibly well woven.
The limited turn mechanic in the Somnium sections can be a little frustrating mid-game when the difficulty ramps up. But if approached with the perspective of needing to gather information on the first couple of tries to “solve” it and enjoying the additional context exploring “wrong” choices gives this slight negative can be rapidly eliminated.
Certain aspects are also a bit overdone, and an argument can be made that scaling them back touch would enhance the tone and impact of the larger story. But overall it’s all within tolerable limits and the vast majority of the game is pitch perfect.
AI: The Somnium Files is a truly creative game boasting an imaginative story, solid and engrossing gameplay, and satisfying, captivating mysteries. This really covered all the bases for me and is easily my game of the year, something I honestly didn’t expect in competition with things like (the also great) Fire Emblem: Three Houses in the conversation. Simply fantastic.