It’s the dead of night and I’m investigating a murder.
I’m in someone’s dream, in a crumbled cathedral with a shattered grasp on reality. Sucking in the flame from a torch could blow it out instead. I tiptoe around Indiana Jones-style, careful not to upset a hidden trap. Suddenly, I’m sucked into a memory of an empty apartment with a bowl of soup on the table.
A big question drops from an omniscient voice. Do you know the culprit? That all depends on how many alternate timelines you’ve explored already.
AI: The Somnium Files - nirvanA Initiative tasks you with solving a mystery across multiple timelines, each route holding an important piece of evidence waiting at the end. Director and Scenario Writer Kotaro Uchikoshi has done this time and time again with the Zero Escape series. This one’s just his latest absurd, yet thought-provoking masterpiece. It’s also the sequel to 2019’s equally entertaining AI: The Somnium Files.
It’s the kind of story that sticks in your mind like a song on repeat. Even now, I’m reflecting on the twists and thinking about which characters should smooch. It’s a must-play for visual novel and anime fans, especially those who love a complicated story that knows how to laugh at itself.
A page-turning mystery
AI Nirvana stars special agents Mizuki and Ryuki, who work for a special police force called ABIS (Advanced Brain Investigation Squad). Both are investigating the Half-Body Killings, a case where victims were killed after being vertically sliced in half and displayed around town. Just when it seemed like a dead-end, another victim appears at the city stadium six years later. Mizuki and Ryuki have to collect clues from crime scenes and scour the dreams of suspects to solve the case. Thankfully, they have the help of their AI eyeball partners, Aiba and Tama, to aid them with technologically advanced investigation tools.
AI Nirvana’s visual novel format makes it easier to binge than the typical story-driven game. It’s like a book you don’t want to put down. Each interaction progresses the story or offers a clue, which makes it enticing to keep exploring and talking to people. It’s easy to cruise through dialogue because clicking through only takes the press of a button. Most actions prompt you with an icon of the exact button to use. Sometimes, you need to press buttons in real-time for fight sequences, which is a little bit harder than the typical “point-and-click” investigation. However, you get unlimited moments to try again if you mess up. (I know I did.)
Most of the gameplay revolves around examining the environment and solving puzzles. As the protagonist, you click on items to inspect them and talk to others to gather clues. Eventually, you need to Psync with some characters – a.k.a. dive into their dreams using a special machine to find information they might not share in real life.
Psycncing with a person immerses the Psyncer in a dream-like environment called a “Somnium.” Somniums include interactable items and unique logic that players need to find out to proceed. Some are more difficult than others, but they make sense based on the person you’re investigating. An incredibly suspicious culprit would likely have a more complicated dream than a pure-hearted loverboy. If you chose all the wrong answers, no worries. You could restart from the beginning or retry from a specific checkpoint.
AI Nirvana lays itself belly-up for newcomers, with plenty of options to make clue-hunting easier. If you get stuck, you can re-consult items in the Somnium with “think harder” and “epiphany” actions. Your AI partner might even offer to step in to help. These are all optional, though, which is a nice addition for players looking for a meatier challenge. In another thoughtful addition, AI Nirvana gives players the option to turn off spoilers from the first game, in case you haven’t played it but plan to.
These puzzles are no joke. They often require a paper and pencil to keep track of. I enjoyed tracking numbers and drawing diagrams to unlock the next level, even if some of them kept me on hold for longer than expected. Items in Somniums will prompt the player with different options of what to do to unlock “Mental Locks” and uncover the person’s deepest secrets. What you learn from Somniums can change how the story plays out in a particular route, though that’s not always the case. You can revisit any moment in the timeline from the flow chart after you finish it. There are five routes and one hidden bonus route after finding the “true ending.”
The five routes aren’t meant to be standalone endings, though. Finishing most of them without the context of others would leave many questions unanswered. It’s only after completing all of them except the true ending that the overall picture comes together. Some routes are locked until you complete others, which forces you to play through the rest to learn the full story. The true ending needs the context from other timelines to pull off the grand finale.
Admittedly, it isn’t an artistic masterpiece. AI Nirvana might even come across as clunky for those used to the polished graphics in Elden Ring, Final Fantasy VII Remake, and other recent big-budget Japanese games. It’s a VN, so most of the emotion comes from the facial expressions in dialogue boxes and voice acting.
The expressive character models and portraits are an improvement over the original game. However, there were still a few hiccups like floating strands of hair every now and then. Also, the running animation is awkwardly slow, even if the combat sequences hit the mark. There were also some annoying technical issues that popped up on the PlayStation 4 version. My game abruptly shut off twice during my playthrough, and I needed to restart the entire console instead of just restarting the application.
Pervy yet emotionally compelling
AI Nirvana proves once again that Uchikoshi is a pro at setting up detective stories. Some twists caught me off guard, even if I was also able to catch some clues before the big reveal. I was as shocked as the main character at the final twist. Another plot twist turned me off at first but eventually grew on me because of how well it was woven into the plot. Yet another left me scratching my head, but I moved on quickly because I was already too invested to care.
The story of AI Nirvana confused me at times but ultimately left me satisfied. Even though it focuses on occult and sci-fi concepts, it also picks your brain with thought-provoking philosophical questions grounded in real life. Its feelsy moments hit hard, especially with the stellar soundtrack and voice acting. Steady pacing lets you bond with AI Nirvana’s charming characters before the biggest reveals. However, you have to be okay with big “movie magic” moments to enjoy the journey to the fullest.
It’s full of pervy jokes too, so those unfamiliar with anime humor will likely be thrown off by the tone shifts. It’s like a friend nudging you every few minutes, asking “Hey, wanna hear a penis joke? What about a boob joke?” But somehow, it works. It’s the only sex joke-filled series that can get me emotionally invested between the lighthearted banter and porno-mag gags.
AI Nirvana is ridiculous, but not to the point of someone’s tits falling out during a climactic moment. It knows when to turn off the jokes and when to lean into them. Never have I been as attached to a game as absurd as this one.
It’s not perfect, but it is memorable in a way that’ll have me playing its ending song on repeat for weeks. This game gave me such an adrenaline rush that I was able to pull my first all-nighter in months without an issue. If Special Agent Date’s powerup is a porno mag, this is mine.
AI Nirvana is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Inverse reviewed the PS4 version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.