AI: The Somnium Files (2019): 6 out of 10: A visual novel by Kotaro Uchikoshi (Zero Escape series) mixes police procedural with dream inspired puzzling and lots of dialogue in this expansive story.
The Good: I loved the main characters in this game. The game got some criticism for juvenile and inappropriate humor. Thank god it is there though. As eye rolling as it could be, it often got a sensible chuckle out of myself.
Speaking of eye-rolling, that seems to be a theme here. The first victim, who is stabbed and tied to a carousel horse, is missing her left eye. Our police hero Kaname Date is also missing his left eye. In its place is an AI called Aiba who appears as both a cybernetic eyeball and a sexy woman because of course she does. (Think Cortana)
The cast is fairly limited, but they are universally well voiced and very well written. There is something to be said for a limited, well-written cast rather than a cast of hundreds that are just shallow tropes with one or two lines.
I would be remiss to also not point out that the music (Keisuke Ito) is also excellent and complements the voice acting and overall soundscape. The visuals of Future Tokyo are unfortunately limited. More like what one would find in a Hidden Object Game. Very attractive but static. The puzzle sections (dreamscapes) are quite creative.
The Bad: One problem with a limited cast, however, is as the story continues, it suffers from that everyone knows everyone else syndrome. (The bad guy isn’t just a bad guy, he is secretly James Bond’s unknown brother is a recent cinematic version of this lazy trope). At one point one of the main character’s mother is revealed to have been dating a famous assassin who just escaped prison. I mean, what are the odds?
The other issue I have is that for a game that seemingly has limited choice, it takes an awfully long time to get anywhere. (The choices you make in the dream world can transform the story. In fact, the game has a map included in the menu that allows you to chart where in the story and which path you are on. During actual gameplay, however, this is not clear.)
I, chart or no chart, was often unsure when I was making choices (Unlike say in a Telltale game or even Dragon Age: Origins). What ends up happening is one spends endless hours at the same locations with the same characters having well written conversations that honestly seem to go nowhere. (And leave out major information such as my mother is friends with the big bad and used to date that guy who just escaped your custody and tried to kill you.)
AI: The Somnium Files is very much on rails. It is a visual novel, after all. This is not necessarily a deal breaker in a game. I just played The Artful Escape in which you just move the character left for the entire game with some of the most forgiving platform sequences and Simon puzzles you will find outside of a Barbie game. Yet it was fascinating, visually incredible, with a good story that (and I cannot emphasise this enough) did not overstay its welcome.
AI: The Somnium Files overstayed its welcome.
The Ugly: AI: The Somnium Files made me think a lot about Catherine. And not to its benefit. The puzzle sections in AI: The Somnium Files start out a bit difficult with endless trial and error. (Very strict timer) and get harder as the game progresses. They are more frustrating than fun. They remind me of the puzzles in an old LucasArts adventure game. (And yes, there are plenty of people who view those old puzzle games with rose-tinted glasses. But for my money, most of them were more tedious than fun.)
Catherine had a weird Q*bert style puzzle that was challenging (Chainsaw wielding giant mutant baby anyone) and with surprisingly deep gameplay. Catherine allowed me to power through those sequences through tenacity and gained skill. More importantly, Catherine’s story gave me the impetus to power through them.
In AI: The Somnium Files one of the dream puzzles finally broke me. I simply was not having enough fun to continue the trial and error. And as hours had turned into days, the story was simply not engaging enough for me to care. Unlike Catherine, I had no skin in the game. If I had made choices, it was by accident. I have clicked on every hot spot, read every description, engaged in every dialogue and rolled my one eye more than once. But at no point did I feel in charge of protagonist Date. I was playing as Date but I never felt I was Date.
In Conclusion: AI: The Somnium Files is a well-made game. I can certainly appreciate the appeal and parts of it were quite entertaining. The characters were fun, and I enjoyed much of my time with them. I never, however, felt in control. It was never my story. Nothing seemed to be my decision. That is fine for a two-hour movie, but after so many hours, it simply wore on me. I simply had no ownership interest.