AI: The Somnium Files - Nirvana Initiative

released on Jun 23, 2022

Newly-appointed Special Agent Mizuki and her AI partner Aiba are tasked to solve the bizarre Half Body serial killings in this sequel to the critically acclaimed AI: The Somnium Files.

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Step aside World's End Club, there's a new sheriff in town.
Let me preface this by saying that I'm not surprised that I ended up really enjoying my time with Nirvana Initiative; I already enjoyed the original AI: Somnium Files three years ago and the sequel was probably my most anticipated release of this year. Having said that, I don't think it's anywhere close to perfect and it does carry a lot of the same quirks as the original, for better or for worse, so if you didn't like the original due to the absurdity of it all or the constant dumb jokes between characters as well as the often horny humor, this is not going to convince you and you should take everything I'm saying here with a grain of salt. But nevertheless, Nirvana Initiative feels like a much more polished successor, and in similar fashion to when I was playing the original, I could not put this down as soon as I was a few hours deep.
Two things stand out to me in particular as very noticeable improvements. The first is the improved gameplay; a lot more thought has been put into the interactive aspects of the game. The easiest aspect to explain here is the quick time events (QTEs) that make up the action sequences, and it's improved in a pretty simple fashion thanks to more rigorous inputs that require the joysticks, the letter buttons, and the triggers, sometimes in quick succession to add a bit more complexity when compared to the original. Also, Date's not the main protagonist anymore, so the porno mag gag is almost entirely absent! Huzzah! It's not perfect, because there are times where you have to watch a few minutes of cutscenes before they'll throw some required inputs at you if you get too complacent, but I'll take what I can get.
Somniums are improved a ton as well, thanks to better thought-out scenarios building upon the original formula. It's of a similar structure to the original, where you have to interact with items within the Somnium to get past mental locks and occasionally use Timies to limit the amount of time spent, but now the writers have elaborated upon the scenarios utilizing the same base structure by varying objectives and strategies involved. For instance, one Somnium is a straight parody of Pokemon Go, and requires you to find PokeStop lookalikes to "catch" characters from the game to defeat evil assassins and overlords. Another Somnium acts like a quiz show, and you have to correctly answer questions while figuring out the gimmicks on the fly to stay ahead of the opponent's score. And finally, there's a Somnium that takes some inspiration from Ace Attorney, in that you can present "evidence" in the form of what you know and have found out to force objects and characters to reveal their true nature. It's a huge improvement mechanically over the previous game's Somniums, which felt less like puzzles and more like trial and error with hopefully picking the correct choices with the correct Timies on hand while walking around mysterious landscapes with few, if any, knowledge or execution tests to be found. The Somniums are further aided by the addition of the Keys system, which by providing helpful descriptions, can help lead you to the correct choice/interaction by using up time here and there on "throwaway" observation interactions to better understand both the nature of the person whose Somnium you're in as well as make a more informed decision on how to progress. There's definitely a lot more depth and a lot less hassle here, and even though one could argue that there's still a degree of trial and error due to the need to collect Timies and waste negative Timies on minute throwaway interactions (since they force you to commit to an interaction with the time multiplier), you can even bypass this aspect entirely with Story mode Somnium difficulty if you choose to do so, a setting that I very much appreciated.
Speaking of detective game influence, Nirvana Initiative leans into the detective aspect a lot more than the original, thanks to its third major improved aspect of interaction: the VR segments. Throughout the story, the AI Balls will recreate the scenes of the crimes committed in a VR environment, and it's up to the protagonist to examine every bit of data as preserved through the three scans (the standard environment mode, X-ray mode, and Thermo mode) to dig up every related clue not easily detected by the naked eye. The cherry on top here is that it's played straight and typical of what you'd expect from the series, in the form of an exaggerated "reenactment" demanded by the AI-Balls that let you put your knowledge to the test while rewarding that newfound knowledge with more silly shenanigans as a satirical interpretation for how the crime played out. Seriously though, Ryuki's shrilly caricature of the voice of the victim while constantly protesting the snarky comments of the director kills me every time.
While I understand that the humor of the series is not everyone's cup of tea, there's definitely a part of me that just likes dumb dad jokes or over the top and batshit crazy plots and effects, and Nirvana Initiative had me grinning and chuckling throughout its runtime. The banter between Mizuki and Aiba as Mizuki attempts to assert herself as someone to be taken seriously or Aiba going crazy every time a bug got spotted in a houseplant or a fish got spotted in a pond, really helped uplift my spirits, especially in a murder mystery thriller, a genre that can often get pretty dark due to all the death involved. It also provided an incentive to constantly click on all the interactable objects of notability whenever I was in a new environment, just so I could get more dumb sofa jokes or flavor text of the whiteboard at the yakuza office with a totally unrelated "principle" that changed every time I visited. I get that the quirky humor can easily be written off as overused running gags and that there are definitely plenty of thinly veiled dirty jokes that might spoil the whole package, but ultimately, I came to really appreciate these light moments in an otherwise pretty dismal time of these characters' lives. And I'll give the writers the benefit of the doubt here; they're able to hold back the jokes when the going gets very rough and they just want you to focus exactly on understanding the harrowing plot details or talking with characters when they've let their guard down as to not take attention away from their intimate moments. Nirvana Initiative often doesn't take itself very seriously, but it's a more mature and aware product that knows when it's time to move on as well.
And speaking of awareness, that's the other main aspect that really stood out to me while playing Nirvana Initiative; the game is acutely aware that you are an active participant in all of this, and is not afraid to make itself known that it is aware of this. I'm not just talking about the fourth wall breaks that Uchikoshi's works are known for of course, that's to be expected at this point. Rather, the game draws you in by actively involving you with the central mystery, and not just by piquing your curiosity with a bunch of batshit crazy conspiracy theories, happenings, occult leanings, and so on. The game presents itself as a flowchart of related, sequential events, and oftentimes you will need to learn necessary information to progress forward through previously misunderstood locks that you once had no idea on how to approach (something that I very much appreciated as an organic way to both hide linearity while creating additional linkages between all the scattered and strange events of the game). And it's very good at testing your ability to maintain focus while keeping an eye on the bigger picture at hand, in a way that I don't think the original quite captured.
To put it another way: video games distinguish themselves from many other forms of traditional media by serving as an interactive form, and beyond that, a contest. While playing a video game, you're actively competing with something, whether that be another human/computer player or the game itself; the game would lose much of its meaning without another entity to interact with the work, and it's this inherent push & pull present in video games that marks the potential for games as a meaningful art form. When this idea was first presented to me by TotalBiscuit many years ago, I originally took it at face value as execution tests and knowledge tests... but now I want to expand upon that a bit more with this example. Nirvana Initiative is aware that you, as the player, handle a very specific role outside of just controlling the protagonist characters and interacting with the mechanics to progress the plot. It is constantly making its mark known that you are both an active participant and an observer, traversing the game's structure and environments while struggling to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical things that are going on in the in-game universe. And as a result, Nirvana Initiative is constantly fucking with your sense of perspective and perception. It throws every trick in the book at you, from execution & knowledge tests to keep you honest, to unreliable narrators and seemingly dangling plot threads, to subverting controls and manipulating the game's presentation while introducing new concepts here and there into the fold, and so on so forth. More realized than the original is this idea that the game has a mind of its own and knows that you want to solve the inherent mystery after getting invested, and it wants you to too... but not without a meaningful endeavor so you grasp every detail that is left in the shadows.
As a related side note, I found myself so invested at this point, that after the central "plot twist" was revealed, I tried to metagame back and scour the past events of the game to see if there were any gaping plot holes present as a result of the main reveal. Yet, after playing further with additional in-universe explanations and spending a bit more time analyzing the gritty details, I couldn't actually find any major plotholes, or at least no loose ends that didn't have some degree of a reasonable explanation attached. To go into further detail beyond what I have just written would be spoiling a crucial part of the experience, but I do have some draft notes regarding some of the more notable things contributing to the game's continuity that I'd be more than happy to discuss with others if prompted to do so. Needless to say, the game's attention to detail (both inside the narrative and outside in the meta-narrative) really impressed me.
Like I said before, I'm not going to pretend Nirvana Initiative is without its shortcomings; there's some dry characters here and there that could have their backstories and personalities expanded a bit (the relationships between a couple of the characters are some of the more egregious examples), there are some mechanical issues such as excessive downtime during QTEs or the trial and error of Timies, and the dumb running gags + seemingly pubescent one-liners are definitely going to drive away a lot of potential players. And that's not even mentioning some of the excess flavor mechanics like the optional Tamogachi pet minigame included for a few quick laughs and eyeballs to buy concept art and costumes, or the occasional technical issues like bugged character models or sudden frame dips when switching between characters in dialogue. But having said that, I'm more than happy to overlook almost all of this, because it just happened to strike the right flavor of what I'm looking for in the medium while improving upon the original in leaps and bounds. And even despite its dark and twisted plot or various layers of irony and fourth wall breaking, and the many other little details or irregularities I could point out, there's a certain earnestness to it all.
Without speaking too greatly on potential spoilers, there's a speech by Mizuki near the end of the game where she comforts a drunk by telling him that there's no need to be afraid of weakness, for it forces us to support each other and put aside our differences.. As she put it, with the cheesiness and triumphant vigor of any classic locker room speech (a perfect fit for this game, as it stands), "Humanity is rooted in weakness... to deny that is like denying humanity as a whole!"
And I wouldn't have it any other way.

This review contains spoilers

Where to begin with this...
I loved the first game, it was a very interesting proposal for a new saga, the mysteries it had were great, the characters were cool, the story was engaging. It had its issues, of course, but I still enjoyed it very much.
Nirvana Initiative, on the other hand, is very conflictive for me. Aspects like music and graphics are excellent, I have no comments there, so let's focus on the story, characters, pacing, etc.
My main issue with this game is as follows: while the big plot twist was amazing and I was very surprised by it, its very nature leads to the first half (ha) of the game having bad pacing, confusing story, and weird character interactions.
Ryuki being an unreliable narrator is not bad, but then they barely do anything else with him after Mizuki takes over, I felt disappointed with that. The main villain, Tearer, has his identity revealed in the first half and that's it, there's not much else to do with him and then you realize he is actually dead already, so there's not even a confrontation with him. Then there's the no spoiler policy, this reeeeeeally hurt the game, especially with the interactions between the old cast and the new one.
I felt like many of the games moments weren't earned, but rather, shoehorned, for example, Komeji and Shoma having an ending for the sake of having one like Ota and his mom in the first game, or everything about Lien and Kizuna's relationship.
Finally, the Somniums. I'm afraid to say that they are mostly a big step down from what Somniums were in the first game. In the first game they were these dreamy sequences that had lots of options and ways to interact, but here they (not all of them) are very linear or have no room for diversion. The very second Somnium is easily the worst Somnium in both games by far, it literally has basically nothing that makes a Somnium, it instead is a linear sequence that drags and drags.
All in all, I feel like in the quest for explaining the twist, many of the game's elements HAD to suffer, and I don't know if it was worth it in the end. Not all is bad though, it does have its great moments, emotional moments, funny moments, but they aren't enough to "justify" the bad moments it does have.

the statue of liberty is on liberty island, not ellis island.

This review contains spoilers

This is another entry into the insane twisty stories of Spike Chunsoft. I continue to really enjoy these games, despite how unhinged the stories are. I like the big endgame twists in this game more than the last time, but I didn't like the side characters quite as much. The whole intertwined timeline thing didn't sit well with me at first, but the more I think back on it, the more I like it. It seems like it would be cool in a second playthrough when you know how it works. The side stories with Andes and Shoma, Mame and Gen, and Kizzy and Lien are still very good and well developed, but I feel like they weren't as emotionally impactful as the ones in the first game. I do like the design for the somnia overall for this gam more. They seem like they're a lot more well thought out and have more variety. However, I do feel like the first gam had higher highs when it came to individual somnia. The action scenes might be even goofier than the first game, somehow. I also think I like Mizuki and Ryuki as protagonists more than Date.
Overall this game is better in some aspects and worse in others compared to the first game, for overall the same score.

A similarly wild ride to the first entry, but this time it feels like a little bit of acid was involved... and that made it better.
I'll get the biggest weaknesses it had out of the way first. Just like the first game, this one sometimes just gets too goofy. Generally, in the dialogue and character scenes the absurdity is great and well appreciated... but sometimes the game would build up a nice, heavy mood then shoot itself in the foot — usually with the guns on-screen.
The action scenes were really not great. I'm normally fine with over the top anime action, but it doesn't work when you're trying to tell a story where murder and violence are so integral to the details of the narrative. Thankfully it wasn't often enough to derail the story, but it did hurt the finale.
Putting that sizable asterisk aside, the plot here was even cooler and darker than the last one, and had one of the most creative uses of branching path narrative that I've seen in a while. It's a story that doesn't spoon feed you every interesting detail, but it presents them well regardless. Beyond the plot, the overall tone and mood of the game will stick with you even longer. Definitely worth the time.
Oh, and the actual game part of the game is really fun, too. The Somnium puzzles aren't the hardest around, but unraveling their dream logic is entertaining and rewarding even when you're getting things wrong as you'll still get charming commentary between the characters.