My Other Half Has a Split Personality

HIGH Tama. Tama, Tama, Tama. Also Tama.

LOW Some of the Somniums feel like little more than pointless filler.

WTF The unex遐エ繝ャ邯サ繝吶ご閼ア繧サ繝ィ繧ウ繧ウ繧剰劒…

For those who’ve yet to play the original game, the entries in the Somnium series are Visual Novels that focus on murder mysteries investigated by a government agency known as ABIS, a secretive organization who use agents called ‘Psyncers’. These elite field agents can legally apprehend and hook suspects up to a brain scanning device to delve into their dreams and unlock information that would otherwise be unobtainable.

However, it’s not quite that simple.

Since these are dreams, everything follows the rules created by the psyche of the person under investigation, and players only have six minutes to get in and find out what they’re hiding before the suspect’s mind absorbs them. Add in some unique AI avatars with absurd personalities and a malleable sense of time that can be manipulated from within, and things definitely get a little more complicated.

In this sequel, the story focuses on the ‘Half-Body Killings’ — a puzzling series of murders in which the bodies of the victims are cut cleanly in half at the molecular level… and then the other halves are found six years later with no signs of degradation. As a result, Nirvana Initiative takes place between two time periods and two ABIS agents set six years apart as they both try to uncover the truth and get closer to bringing down the killer.

While Date (the excellent protagonist of the first title) isn’t the leading man any more, he’s replaced by his protégé Ryuki, a hotshot operative brimming with a strong sense of justice, limitless enthusiasm and an unfortunate tendency to suffer near-complete mental breakdowns mid-case. Fortunately, he’s got a partially-clothed dominatrix AI named Tama to help him out.

When Ryuji’s not playable, Date’s adopted daughter Mizuki takes over. She’s less interesting than our troubled homeboy and her cocky, holier than thou, know-it-all attitude is borderline insufferable at times, but she’s not too bad for the most part. Her AI partner is Aiba from the previous game and she is, yet again, an absolute joy to behold. She’s spunky, amusing and often utterly demented.

Writing for Visual Novels is always key, and fortunately the writing throughout Nirvana Initiative is typically of high quality, lending life to the cast. The dialogue treads a fine line between amusing banter and the specifics of a serious murder investigation, and this mix ensures that it never becomes too dry to remain invested in the details of the case. There’s also a lot of slightly horny comedy laced in, and while it usually hits, it does occasionally seem like they throw a punchline in without remembering to set the joke up first.

As in the best Visual Novels, there are a number of gameplay elements to contend with apart from simply reading text.

Typically, there’s a lot of moving from location to location while yakking to persons of interest, although the pacing could have been better — it’s often done in a clump and isn’t spaced out enough.

There are also VR recreations of important events where Ryuji or Mizuki can digitally examine what happened in a location without messing up the actual the crime scene in real life. Objects can be examined through different means such as X-ray and thermal modes to obtain evidence not obvious in real life, and it allows characters to recreate events as they likely happened.

While these elements are fairly par for the course in the Visual Novel genre, there’s one more twist — the dream-dives themselves, called Somniums.

The Somniums are puzzle sequences based on the subject’s experiences. Players will wander around their psyche while interacting with objects to find out what they need to further the case, often manipulating their mental state as they go. It would be an unforgivable invasion of privacy and autonomy if we weren’t saving lives here!

However, things can be weird inside these dreams, and each interaction has a time cost associated with it. Picking a dream lock may take twenty seconds, whereas busting it open may take ten. Inhaling nerve gas might eat up seven seconds, while hurling a missile may require twelve, and so on. Items can be used to manipulate the time cost of things, and ultimately progression involves breaking mental barriers — strike enough of them down and the characters will arrive at the truth, though a few Somniums feature diverging paths that can shape the flow of the story.

Some of these dreamlike sequences are excellent — there’s a retro-themed, neon-tinted CG world filled with statues that can enhance Tama’s abilities, or the memories of a test subject doing their best to avoid being experimented on in repulsive ways. There’s a good mix of whimsy and mystery to most Somniums, with many comedic moments littered throughout, from eating a recently-activated time bomb to checking an unconscious subject’s health by poking them in the ear, it’s definitely not all murder-tinged doom and gloom.

Unfortunately, not all Somniums are created equal. Specifically, it’s hard to care about sequences that focus on how certain characters feel about one another when it’s already blatantly obvious, so these end up feeling like filler. One featuring the oddly box-headed Komeji just about manages to get away with it because he’s a lovable mess of a man, but others feel like they could have been excised completely without sacrificing anything of import. This is a big game regardless, so filler isn’t only unnecessary, it detracts from the experience as a whole.

The quick time events (QTEs) are also a weak area. Somnium looks good when focusing on its well-designed characters and their expressive facial animations, but it clearly doesn’t have the budget for convincing action scenes. Characters stiffly pirouette around the battlefield, the laws of physics cease to exist and It’s generally hard to take these bits seriously, which is unfortunate as they’re usually illustrating key events.

In summation, nirvanA Initiative‘s a good time. It does get a little long in the tooth during certain sequences and the pacing’s not as tight as it should be, but it’s a well-written and amusing murder mystery that should scratch the itch of any Visual Novel fan in the market for solving some of the craziest homicides in videogames.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by and published by Spike Chunsoft. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4/PS5, Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 35 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes and Violence. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is an adventure game in which players help special agents investigate serial killings in a futuristic Tokyo. Players use an AI helper to investigate crime scenes and gain information through character interactions. Players can also engage in combat sequences against enemies, as on-screen prompts allow players to perform various actions (e.g., strikes, dodge attacks, targeting enemies) with laser pistols and pipes. Battles are highlighted by impact sounds, gunfire, and cries of pain. Some sequences depict additional acts of violence: a bound character tortured by a vice grip and electricity; enemies riddled by gunfire. A handful of sequences depict characters lying in pools of blood. Some female characters are designed with revealing outfits (e.g., deep cleavage) and jiggling breasts. The dialogue also references suggestive material (e.g., “Let’s get groping,” “I have more of a chest than you”; “Yes, these are my big, milky balls.”). In one sequence, a character powers up with the words “porn mag power” after viewing an adult magazine. The words “f**k,” “sh*t,” and “a*shole” appear in the game.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles can be altered and/ or resized. (See examples above.) The game is completely playable without sound, as there are no relevant audio cues needed for gameplay. Overall, this is fully accessible.

Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Darren Forman
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