Thu. Oct 6th, 2022

Franchises often reach their peak during their second outing. Not only are these sequels a chance to improve upon what worked during the first go-around, but they also serve as an opportunity to be even more ambitious and bring in new talent for a fresh perspective on the project. AI: The Somnium Files – Nirvana Initiative is another example of a series refining its core and achieving greater success as designer Akira Okada has stepped up to direct the follow-up to 2019’s cult classic, while original director Kotaro Uchikoshi has returned to write an incredible script that has all of his signature touches.

It is worth noting that while playing the initial detective tale isn’t required, as this tells its own stand-alone story and case that is unrelated to the first game, returning fans will get much more out of Spike Chunsoft’s adventure game. The eccentric cast of characters, at least those that survived the first game, largely return and it’s interesting fan service for series veterans to see how their futures have panned out. The game also adds in some character backstories that help explain some questions raised within the first title, as well, so it’s recommended to play AI: The Somnium Files before the sequel in order to get the most out of Nirvana Initiative (plus, it rocks).

Nirvana Initiative is brilliant in its subversion of the genre's normal story flow and cements the architect behind the Zero Escape series as gaming's best writer.

The protagonist from the first game, the lovable pervert secret agent Date, takes a backseat role here as his adopted daughter Mizuki and his budding disciple Ryuki take over the playable roles. While Date’s adventure focused on a bunch of grisly murders that saw people getting their left eye removed, the sequel features an even grislier case as multiple halves of bodies have been discovered, spliced exactly down the middle on a molecular level. The “half body” case is solved over the course of two timelines set six years apart, which leads to one of the wildest stories in gaming history.

Uchikoshi’s games have a habit of having tremendous twists, alternate paths, distinctive characters, and plenty of juvenile humor. All of those boxes are checked here as Uchikoshi pens an incredible script that features a brilliant and well-constructed reveal, one that plays upon the player’s own assumptions as the story continues. Like the rest of his games, everything, as mind-boggling as it may seem, eventually locks into place and winds up being a tremendous ride. Coming up with these kinds of wild ideas is already impressive, but managing to tie them together in a way like this is doubly impressive. Nirvana Initiative is brilliant in its subversion of the genre’s normal story flow and cements the architect behind the Zero Escape series as gaming’s best writer.

And while the writing was also one of the strengths of 2019’s The Somnium Files, its multiple unique puzzle sections were slightly lacking. These parts took place in the subconscious thoughts of the detained called a Somnium (that are not totally unlike the dream sequences in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception), were quite difficult due to its time limit and the trial-and-error nature that it took to break said character’s mental locks. Without a walkthrough, these sections could potentially take multiple attempts, as they punished careless actions. Thankfully, there are additional difficulty settings this time around that allow players to enjoy the goofy incorrect actions and go at a less stressful pace. These added options really open up the puzzle areas and make them a definitive highlight rather than a burden.

Okada is also more confident with his game design this time around, as evidenced by the more inventive Somnium sections. One highlight is a parody of Pokémon Go, which has the player doing RPG-like battles and recruiting party members, while another is a chef cooking show that focuses on the insecurities of its participant. The gameplay is full of just as many surprises as the script itself, which makes reading through this detective story a delight from start to finish for the 25 or so hours it takes to complete.

Fans of older conspiracy theories and urban legends will find a lot to like within Nirvana Initiative since its story revolves around secret societies, real-life history, and the theory that the world is a simulation. It uses those out-there ideas topped with a grand helping of pseudoscience to create its one-of-a-kind narrative and fuel its ability to continually dole out surprises. Unafraid to break the fourth wall in ridiculous and serious ways, AI: The Somnium Files is a thematically consistent rollercoaster that will leave players thinking about its cast of characters and explored topics for long after the credits roll (with a wonderful musical number and dance routine, of course).

There are always high expectations going into a game penned by Uchikoshi, but AI: The Somnium Files – Nirvana Initiative fully lives up to the incredible potential of the original by delivering an unforgettable experience. With stellar puzzles that will test your deductive reasoning and a story that will leave you constantly amazed by both its reveals and the utter ridiculousness of its universe, this is one of the greatest video game stories ever crafted and is just as polished as the narratives seen in Zero Escape and Steins;Gate.

SCORE: 10/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 10 equates to a “Masterpiece.”  This is the rare release that transcends genre and must be experienced by all fans of the medium.

Disclosure: The critic received a PlayStation 4 review copy from the publisher for our AI: The Sominum Files – Nirvana Initiative review. Reviewed on version 1.01.

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