Honestly, the news that 2019’s AI: The Somnium Files was getting a sequel completely caught me off-guard. The ending was clear-cut and wrapped up with a nice little bow, leaving the player wanting naught. On top of that, besides being praised by the usual Kotaro Uchikoshi fans who love his unique writing and characters, it received little traction outside of that niche group, having become a definitive cult classic among the few who did end up playing it. Despite all of that, AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative does exist, and it came out blazing with its heart on its sleeve and fans wouldn’t be happier with how engaging it is from beginning to end.
NirvanA Initiative, directed by Akira Okada and written by the aforementioned Kotaro Uchikoshi, takes place between two different points in time; six months after the end of the first game and six whole years after that. You play as two new rookie members of ABIS for the time, Ryuki six months after the first game and Mizuki six years later, and going back and forth between the both of them the player gets to piece together the mystery of the Half Body Serial Killingsthat spans those six years. Like the first game, both main characters have an AI companion in their eye that gives them information, X-Ray vision, general thoughts about any given situation, and of course snarky remarks and rebuttals.
Characters in nirvanA Initiative are just as human as in the first game, which is really what its strongest point is. Despite the murder mystery-mixed comedy investigation game you’re playing, it’s the characters’ complete and unabashed sense of realness that really hits home. Even if you’re not moving the plot forward, you’ll always be wanting to know more about them, or wanting for more absurd and heartfelt interactions between them. Along with that, for fans of the last game, you’ll see some characters exactly as they were on Ryuki’s side, but you’ll also see those familiar faces matured and looking different on Mizuki’s side which is a treat. In both cases, it’ll be a joy for fans to interact and see old characters, just as much as it is to get to know and discover things about the new ones.
All that being said, nirvanA Initiative absolutely does not require you to have played it. It makes sure that it’s accessible to both new and returning plates, with an entire segment that’s catered to letting you know that even if you didn’t play the original AI: The Somnium Files, you can play nirvanA Initiative without feeling left out or spoiled on the mystery of that one. As previously stated old characters do show up, but nirvanA Initiative is its own beast and ultimately is unconnected to the first game.
The budget of this title has clearly been improved, as the characters and backgrounds are much more expressive. Somnium sections in particular are a joy to behold, it really feels as if you got to experience how Uchikoshi wanted things to look and how he wanted characters to animate. While some stiff-ness is played up for jokes or to make a point in Somniums, for the most part, everything just feels much more fluid and was a sight to behold.
The core gameplay in nirvanA Initiative is similar to the first game, except it’s refined. What was essentially split between two sections is now much more. In nirvanA Initiative, you still have your Ace Attorney-styled point-and-click investigation scenes, however, you get to actually do crime scene segments in the third person in a created space by your AI partner, something the previous game saved only for Somniums before. Due to that, there is definitely a bigger emphasis on puzzle-solving along with the more traditional puzzles that fans of Uchikoshi’s Zero Escape games will enjoy. These sections were some of the more memorable moments because the player actually gets to move around and interact with the world rather than looking at a panorama. Of course, Psyncing, where you enter the dream of another person called Somniums, is still the core part of the game. Somniums play out similarly to escape room games, however instead of trying to find the right piece of a puzzle you’re trying to understand and get into the mindset of the dreamer to get information within a time limit of six minutes. These portions have largely been improved. Where before it could almost feel random which choices led to progression in the previous game, this time around the game gives clues as to what a character is looking for or thinking, which leads to branching paths in the story that unlock new tidbits for you to learn.
The audio in nirvanA Initiative is stellar. While the returning characters, such as Mizuki, Aibi, and Iris, retain their original voice actors, many new voices join the world of AI, such as SungWon Cho (Borderlands 3, Yakuza series, etc.). Their performances bring every character to life in an endearing and natural way, making it nearly impossible not to care about them, or at the very least hope, they don’t die. As for the composition and sound design, Keisuke Ito, known for working on Nirvana Initiative’s predecessor as well as Yakuza 3, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and select Pokémon titles, absolutely knocks it out of the park. The tracks in this game suit every situation they are used in perfectly, from the chill yet inquisitive investigation sequence tracks to the uncaged and intense tracks used in chase and QTE segments.
The replayability of nirvanA Initiative honestly depends on your style of play. If you’re the type of person to check every dialogue option and choice as you go, the replayability lies within whether you want to see how things were foreshadowed or not. Going back to see how well things eventually connect is incredibly fun, but can be a bit mundane for some. If you’re the type of player to stick with every choice made until the very end, there are many things that can be missed within other choices and dialogue options. The game could be considered instantly replayable in and of itself, as it requires achieving certain endings in order to reach locked branches of the timeline.
AI’s controls are simple, going between first-person investigations with a (typically) locked camera and third-person dream-like sequences with a unique twist on puzzles. In both sequences, choices are selected with the d-pad and the occasional extra button such as L3. The only con can be found within the investigation segments, whereas certain items that can be examined have too small of a hitbox or do not immediately come off as something to be investigated. The former is resolved in most situations, as this usually happens with items that are typically only able to be examined for flavor text. In one instance, a houseplant was both on a shelf and hidden behind a table. Examining one takes care of the other, so if the more obvious houseplant is seen first this isn’t an issue. However, it can feel incredibly frustrating seeing an item yet to be examined that is difficult to target, especially with a controller instead of a mouse.