THREE years out from the release of AI: The Somnium Files, Spike Chunsoft have come to deliver us a brand new entry with AI: The Somnium Files – NirvanA Initiative.
When I had played the original game, I was satisfied with it as a stand-alone story. It is a self-contained mystery with a satisfying ending for the entire cast. So, I’ve been cautious from the very beginning. Would the NirvanA Initiative be a cheap attempt to milk the fans and their love for a cult classic? Or would we see a sincere continuation of the world and story established in the original game?
NirvanA Initiative starts on a unique premise that is similar to the previous game. The player is dropped into the shoes of Kuruto Ryuki – a young and promising detective. Through him, we are introduced to this game’s mystery: the Half Body killings. A man has been split in half, and then his body has exploded. Six years into the future, Mizuki Date finds the other half.
The game shows the murders from these two perspectives. As bodies appear in the past, they start to appear in the future too. To make matters worse, a cult is preaching about how the world is a simulation – a game meant to be broken. As the stories expand out, a colourful cast of characters are shown from the perspectives of two wildly different people. These two perspectives are fresh and creative.
Ryuki and Tama have a fascinating dynamic. Ryuki is mentally unstable. He suffers from delusions and near-crippling depression. Tama, his digital eyeball partner, is a snarky big sister kind of character – but she also expresses serious concerns for Ryuki, and tries to force him to get help. The game locks you into playing as Ryuki first, and he becomes an effective stand-in for the audience. By playing as the new character first, NirvanA Initiative is able to lay the groundwork for a new mystery while also creating intrigue around what happened to the unstable main character.
On the other hand, Mizuki is a bundle of joy. In the first game, Mizuki was only twelve years old. Now, we see her all grown up. Mizuki is a wonderful contrast to the struggles of Ryuki. She has her own problems relating to their conflicted past – but she is considerably more stable than Ryuki, and approaches situations with a level of enthusiasm that he doesn’t. Aiba, her partner, has years of experience under her belt, meaning that her investigations with Mizuki are much more productive and interesting.
This premise is great, and I think it’s the perfect setup for the sequel to AI: The Somnium Files. A mysterious new protagonist and a seemingly nonsensical mystery featuring returning characters to keep the old time fans happy sounds like a recipe for success.
However – it’s hard to say that NirvanA Initiative is always putting its best foot forward.
NirvanA Initiative has a consistency problem when it comes to its writing. At times, NirvanA Initiative has me in tears with how poignant it can be. Confronting portrayals of broken homes, emotional trauma and mental health problems are written perfectly in this game. Watching Tama try and support Ryuki as his mental health slips away becomes harder and harder to watch as it gets more intense.
On the other hand, NirvanA Initiative consistently takes deep dives into the obscene and ridiculous. Sometimes, an intense emotional scene will be followed up with a comical, goofy action scene that just… doesn’t land? They feel inappropriate and repetitive. The worst example is in the final fight scene. It is stupidly over-the-top and consistently utilises stupid gimmicks to push the plot forward. Placing this after an emotional low-point just feels wrong.
The inconsistency also comes in with how strangely the returning cast is treated. The main cast of the first game regularly show up in this game – but it feels like their development has been completely reversed or forgotten. Why even bring them back at that point?
So you end up with two halves of a game: new characters with fun and interesting dynamics with returning characters in a heart-wrenching and thought provoking mystery on one side – and on the other side, a weird mess of poor action scenes and goofy fan-service.
But the upgrades present in NirvanA Initiative from the original game cannot be understated.
New characters such as Ryuki are blessed with phenomenal character design from Yusuke Kozaki, and they are translated into the game perfectly. Returning characters are given a facelift, too. Each character is expressive and well modelled. I played the game in English, and was satisfied with every single performance.
The gameplay is not something that many people would choose to talk about in a visual novel, but I think the gameplay sections in this game are just wonderful. Each gameplay section, known as a Somnium, takes place inside the dreams of someone you’re trying to extract information from. However, to proceed through a dream, you have to unlock the mental locks that hide away important information. Breaking the mental locks through critical thinking becomes the name of the game.
On every level, these parts of the game stood out. Aesthetically, they are gorgeous with wonderful music. Each Somnium has an emotional core or an importance to the story that stick with the viewer. To top it off, each Somnium had a puzzle that was satisfying to figure out. By building on the concepts presented from the first game so excellently, NirvanA Initiative shows its true colors as a sequel built on love for the source material.
Need to be Whole
So, does NirvanA Initiative keep the soul of the original intact?
I would argue that it does – with a few caveats.
At the core of the NirvanA Initiative is all the same things that made The Somnium Files such a darling game. It’s a creative and enticing mystery with phenomenally well written characters and a tour-de-force of aesthetic genius that knows when to make you either laugh ‘till it hurts or cry your eyes out.
But surrounding that core is a lot of… nonsense. Terrible fight scenes that routinely kill the pacing, overuse of reference humor and just questionable creative choices surrounding major characters leave me conflicted on the whole experience.
Despite this messy inconsistency, I can’t say I didn’t love my time with the game. It is an enjoyable experience through and through. NirvanA Initiative may be messy, but it is compelling and emotional. Maybe that is all it needs to be.
If anything I’ve said so far sounds appealing to you then I urge you to give this one a try. I don’t think you’ll regret it.