nirvanA Initiative Review - An Enlightened Sequel (no spoilers)
Updated: Jul 7
AI: The Somnium Files: nirvanA Initiative
nirvanA Initiative - hereafter AI2 - is the sequel to 2019's AI: The Somnium Files. That was a very good detective game that was nonetheless slightly disappointing because, with Uchikoshi and team having previously made three of my six favorite games ever in the Zero Escape series, the bar for his work had been drawn a lot higher than "very good." AI had largely solid characters and some standout comedic moments, but the mystery at the core of it all wasn't nearly as deep as even 999's. It was also held back by a grating protagonist and dream sequences that, while cool, were sometimes so illogical that they defied description as puzzles. AI2 has, thankfully, taken all those criticisms to heart.
Start with the protagonist. While our old friend Date is still in the game, his role is far smaller and his personality has been dialed back to something more reasonable. Instead, we get a protagonist for each half of the game. The new character Ryuki takes over for the first part and strikes does a good job of getting players introduced to the new characters, changes to old ones, and the foundation of the game's mystery. Then we swap to playing as Mizuki, probably the first game's most popular character, and everything is unsurprisingly much better for her increased screen time. Aside from the other members of ABIS and AI-assistant Aiba, nearly every other character with significant screen time is brand new and nails their role. No one feels like a hanger-on or as if they exist for one part of the plot, and everyone is likable by the end.
The dream sequences have been similarly improved. Most no longer branch the plot, which sounds like a negative but actually allows them to be more narratively cohesive and for more to be in the game without exponentially growing the number of endings required. More importantly, dreams are now far more clearly tied to the character in question and often have their own unique (but logical) gameplay to progress the scene. You're still choosing actions and trying to reach the end in under six minutes, but those actions now usually have predictable consequences and are more interesting. Silly stuff is present, but it's almost always obvious. Instead of just being visually interesting spaces for trial and error, dreams are now home to some of the best story beats, humor, and even gameplay and haven't even had to sacrifice any of the visuals. It's one of the biggest improvements in a gameplay mechanism I've seen between a game and its sequel.
That just leaves the mystery itself, which is the core of the game. I'll say right away that it's still a long way from being as captivating as Virtue's Last Reward, but this time I don't mind. No, I wasn't constantly thinking about whodunnit even when I wasn't playing and yes, I'd figured out all but one or two of the major plot beats before they were revealed, but AI2 isn't really trying to be the next VLR. This is a story that's far more about the characters and themes than the mystery. It's fun trying to figure out who the big bad is, of course, but it was the interactions and relationships of the cast that kept me going. There were a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and even though AI's credits sequence set a high bar, AI2 does not disappoint. I also love how many ways the theme of halves is used in the story and even the structure of the game, but that's impossible to discuss without spoilers.
The last thing of note is that even though the game encourages players who haven't played AI, I personally would not recommend jumping right to this one. The story is mostly unrelated beyond the presence of some identical characters, but you'd still be losing a lot about their personalities and would miss out on quite a few easter eggs and jokes. Besides, as much as this may have sounded like I disliked the first game, it's very much worth playing for its own sake.
I played almost entirely on Steam Deck and had no issues other than the aspect ratio being slightly off. I could see some things on the edges of the screen that I wasn't supposed to, but nothing broke.
Time to beat: 35 hours.
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