I resolved a while back to only ever write positive reviews from now on, to use my energy for things that have a realistic shot of getting on a list of my favourite things of the year or in a particular field or genre. I've been sticking to this for over eighteen months now, and AI: The Somnium Files
poses as much of a challenge to that as anything I've come across yet - I have to write something about it because it is going to turn up on my 2019 list, but holy cow is there ever a lot wrong with it. The sense of humour is childish, base, and basically never funny; there's a fair bit of really dodgy fanservice; the dialogue has a habit of repeating itself a lot, as though the writers don't trust the player to keep up with what's going on; there's one really lazily stereotyped character that may be a drag queen or may be a trans woman, and the fact that the game never seems clear on which suggests that the people who designed it don't actually know that there's a difference; the puzzle sections are never quite able to reproduce the dream-like state they aim for, and their logic is essentially random, forcing you into blind trial and error hitting and hoping most of the time; the end game feels tortuously long and entirely too pleased with itself, as it gives you enough information to work everything out for yourself and then spends about forty minutes battering you about the head with it, explaining every single bit of it in excruciating detail, making sure you're impressed with just how clever it is; the loading times (on the Switch version, at least) are weirdly long, often pausing for six or seven seconds at a time right in the middle of a character's dialogue; a lot of the animation looks quite stiff; a couple of the characters are very annoying; the concept gives the designers plenty of scope to get very surreal and it's disappointing that they don't capitalise on that potential; the quick-time events don't really contribute anything and feel like they're there just for the sake of it; the investigation sequences tend to feel like box-ticking exercises, just clicking on things to move the story along, never really taxing you mentally or giving you the thrill of figuring something out that the best crime investigation games do; it reserves its biggest emotional character moment for one of the characters least suited to it; and for a game with branching timelines, it really does feel like it's railroading you down a set path most of the time. I can't all overlook that. It is a deeply flawed game. The over-riding thought I couldn't get away from throughout is that the team involved in this wanted to make a game that was a total and clean break from the Zero Escape [極限脱出]
franchise, and maybe they were trying just a little too hard with the earthy, lighthearted tone and the dive into detective fiction and murder mystery.
And yet, for all that.....boy, does Kotaro Uchikoshi ever know how to write a story. AI: The Somnium Files
could have been executed a hell of a lot better, but it's still worth playing through just to experience this fabulously bizarre, delirious plot, to be strung along as crucial pieces of information are fed to you drip by drip, to try to second-guess where exactly this story is going and to always be wrong about it, to be desperate to know what the hell is happening and how all these disparate threads fit together. From a purely narrative perspective, this is a very high-concept story, and a hugely ambitious one when told in this way, and the way Uchikoshi controls its development, feeding the player just enough to keep them hooked throughout some weak window dressing, is evidence of a master in action. That his gift for this hasn't diminished means that this is one of the more memorable and distinctive worlds anybody has conjured in 2019, that it remains a great game despite its shortcomings, and that hopes should remain high that he has plenty more great games in his locker in the future. I can't help but feel like there's a sense of the difficult third album about this, and I suspect that in the future it'll become a minor cult classic amongst visual novel fans, while being remembered more widely as a game defined by growing pains, as Uchikoshi's first steps toward a post-Zero Escape
world. (Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him returns to the concept of dreams with a more polished and well-rounded game later in his career.) My advice is: go into this game knowing as little as possible about it, make sure you have a walkthrough for the Somnium sections to hand in case you fail one of them three times and have to restart it entirely, be prepared for a few dull moments and a little bit of cringeworthy dialogue, and allow yourself to get gradually sucked in to this as Uchikoshi plays your expectations like a fiddle. When all is said and done, it is absolutely worth it.