AI: The Somnium Files
What a strange, flawed, wonderful game. I was just in the mood for another slow-paced visual novel in the spirit of Zero Escape or Ace Attorney and this one really hit the spot for me.
First things first: The plot is excellent overall. It's less focused on Uchikoshi's go-to tropes and signature twists than most of his previous work, which is a good thing in my opinion. You can definitely tell it's the same writer who is behind 999 & VLR (especially towards the end), but this is a more subdued and grounded story with more of a focus on character relationships than on raw twist shock value. It starts off pretty slowly, almost like a standard police procedural mystery thriller of sorts, before drastically ramping everything up towards the end. A lot of the character arcs took me by surprise, too. Uchikoshi is really talented at taking established archetypes that would remain completely one-note in most stories and going out of his way to humanize and flesh them out. The game has multiple endings, most of which serve as the resolution to a specific character dynamic rather than dealing with the "main plot", and two of those secondary endings definitely struck a chord with me. I won't go into further details so as to not spoil it for anyone else, but let's just say this game goes to places I didn't expect.
Overall, it doesn't quite hit the same highs as something like VLR, but this is probably more consistently good throughout if the frequent tonal whiplash isn't too much of a deal-breaker. Namely, the game relies quite heavily on sarcastic sexual humor that may not be to everyone's taste. And the occasional action scenes are also treated as a bit of a running joke in which all rules of logic and dramatic tension instantly fly out of the window. It's certainly intentional (and I haven't really made up my mind as to how I feel about it for now) but it's an acquired taste, let's put it that way.
I suppose the switch between absurdist comedy and tragedy was meant to underline some of the game's themes and message (?), but it doesn't help that many of the puns fall completely flat. I honestly can't blame the localization team here considering how difficult it can be to translate this sort of thing across language barriers, so I'm inclined to give everybody involved the benefit of the doubt. The english voice acting is excellent, however. Whoever voiced Mizuki in particular is absolutely spot-on and manages to convey a lot through her delivery alone.
You can definitely tell this is a mid-budget game, though. Thankfully it's not as bare-boned as ZTD (urgh), but the limited amount of locations and re-used animations / pieces of music are painting a very clear picture as to where the priorities lay during development.
Gameplay is arguably the game's main weakness. The escape-the-room sequences found in Zero Escape have been replaced by puzzle-ish "Somnium" sequences which consist of entering a character's subconscious and tinkering with various elements until you open various "Mental Locks". Think Inception x Monkey Island with a bit of Silent Hill powder sprinkled on top. The concept itself is pretty cool, in fact there are a lot of interesting imagery and subtle visual hints that tie very neatly into the overarching plot, but the mechanical aspect is opaque and frustrating since it's almost impossible to know ahead of time what exactly the game expects of you. Add to that an arbitrary resource and time management element that almost forces retries of some of the more difficult latter sections. It's not unplayable or anything, and thankfully there's a nice fast-forward feature for those aforementioned retries, but it doesn't hold a candle to the tight structure of 999's escape rooms or the panache of Ace Attorney's courtroom sections.
While not perfect by any means, this is nevertheless a great game that is both very reminiscent and very different from Uchikoshi's previous works. Occasionally awkward, often genuinely touching but always captivating, I'm glad this game exists. The price tag might be too much for some people, but I was glad to support the new project of one of the more idiosyncratic game directors working in the industry.
As an aside, and this isn't me picking a fight with anybody in particular, but I can't help but be disappointed at how little interest and excitement there appears to be for the Uchikoshi games in comparison to other branching narrative experiences like the Quantic Dream games for example. Do the AAA production values and aggressive marketing with Hollywood superstars make such a big difference?
PS: I'm under the weather and I find it really hard to formulate my thoughts at the moment. I've been staring at this post for an hour and even though I'm pretty sure my syntax is complete garbage today, this is the best I can do. Hopefully somebody will get something out of it anyway!