AI: The Somnium Files is an insanely tough act to follow. I consider it to have one of the best narratives in all of gaming. I honestly didn’t expect its sequel, nirvanA Initiative, to be able to catch that lightning in a bottle again. Truth be told, I wasn’t completely sold on it even after putting a substantial amount of time in. Kotaro Uchikoshi (the writer for both games) is as fallible as the rest of us, after all. He can’t keep surprising us forever. Or maybe he can, as this game seems to demonstrate the further into it you get. It might not equal the story of its predecessor, but AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative at least comes very close.
NirvanA Initiative picks up shortly after the first game’s epilogue. This creates some plot discrepancies, but they’re not a big deal. You don’t have to have completed the first game to play and enjoy the sequel, surprisingly, although I’d certainly recommend it. In the very first scene, the game forces you to prove you’ve played the last game to even have spoilers present in the story, which I thought was interesting. The premise is that a CEO named Jin Furue has been murdered, and one half of his corpse has been dropped into the middle of a livestreamed game show.
The plot jumps ahead six years to show the other half of his body being found, not at all decomposed. Thus begins the Half Body serial killings. NirvanA Initiative‘s plot didn’t grab me as much as the other game’s did, but I was still thoroughly interested for the duration. The new characters aren’t quite as lovable as the older ones, the story’s beats are slower and less revelation-heavy. There are long stretches of time where seemingly little of note happens. But it’s wrong to doubt Uchikoshi, who weaves everything into a mind-blowing tapestry of plot details that left me reeling once all the pieces were assembled.
Some of the reveals are so out there that I wasn’t able to fully process what had happened for minutes. I did miss how focused and exact the first game was, as that one had almost no fat to trim. nirvanA Initiative, however, is more than happy to spend considerable amounts of time having you visit with the game’s lively cast of characters. But not only is there more talking, there’s also considerably more to both somnia and investigations. Any vestige of challenge in the last game saw you walking through a somnium (a construct where a Psyncer is able to dive into someone else’s dreams) and randomly interact with things to find the way forward.
That still happens in nirvanA Initiative to be sure, but the somnia here are far more varied and interesting. One sees you building a Pokémon-styled RPG team of the game’s cast in a mock video game. Another is a quiz show. There’s even one themed around escape rooms, complete with a clear nod to the first of the Zero Escape games. These areas are more vibrant and varied than they were last time as well, making for more satisfying gameplay segments.
As if that wasn’t enough, you’ll now conduct investigations into AI-scanned virtual reality areas where you reconstruct crimes. It made me feel so much more connected to the proceedings, as opposed to just watching them. And while the first game might have been completely devoid of headscratchers, nirvanA Initiative has some legit puzzles. Some of which are so challenging that I had to BS my way through them. Many of them are very reminiscent of ones from the Zero Escape games, with number-based cyphers and clever uses of the game’s systems. This is definitely more of a bonafide game this time around.
3.4 times stronger
Kaname Date is no longer the main character, but a supporting cast member in the sequel. One of the things I most disliked about nirvanA Initiative is that much of his character development is kind of thrown out the window, which doesn’t sit right with me. In his place, we have newcomer Ryuki with his AI partner Tama, as well as Date’s adopted daughter Mizuki who is now partnered with Aiba. The story is primarily divided into two routes, split between Ryuki and Mizuki, each with other subroutes. To unlock the ending, you need to have seen all the other routes. They’re often blocked, however, by requiring you to type in information you learned from routes you’re meant to have cleared first. You can pretty much skip Ryuki’s entire route if you do an online search for the first somnium divergence.
Those somnium divergences are still the way that nirvanA Initiative handles routes in the flowchart splitting off, though. Occasionally, these somnia will split and you’re presented with two choices which change the direction of the story. The routes here aren’t technically as varied as the previous game, but this has its own thing going on. The story is so involved that there are legitimate reasons to replay the game after beating it to try and make better sense of its labyrinthine narrative.
To be clear, the story here is still fantastic. It may not equal or best what came before, but everything here stands on its own merits, while the game is shored up by gameplay improvements and puzzles. This is a notably longer game, too. The first one is about 25 hours to get through, while this one took me about 35 hours. It’s possibly the biggest game Uchikoshi has made yet.
The hard facts
Additionally, there are bonuses. Finding eyeballs and completing somnia with time remaining grants bonuses such as costumes for characters to wear. You can also talk to Aiba and Tama in their rooms, raise AI ball pets that ask you questions every 20 minutes, and earn currency called Eyeballies to purchase said bonuses.
AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative takes some time to get going, but it emerges as one of the best of its ilk. The story is wonderful, the game elements are highly improved, and even the action sequences are more impressive (and ridiculous) than they were before. Any fan of narrative games, murder mysteries, or, hell, anime should really consider giving the game a go. Preferably after playing the first one, though. And if you played the first one, yeah, you’re going to need to play this.