Are you familiar with other games by screenwriter Kotaro Uchikoshi, the Nonary Games and several other notable visual novel/puzzle games? If so, yes, it’s exactly one of his games and probably what you want. It’s a bit linear, but otherwise it could be his best work – with the caveat that my favorite of his games so far was Zero-time dilemma† Go play it, you won’t be disappointed.
Okay, now the nerds have gone to pick it up, hello everyone else. How to rate a story-heavy, choice-light visual novel for those who may have never picked one up? Good question, so maybe I’ll start with this. There is a central dichotomy in almost everything Uchikoshi writes – and shared by many of his contemporaries, such as danganronpa‘s Kazutaka Kodaka, Kidney‘s Yoko Taro, en Death StrandingHideo Kojima.
They all have such beautiful stories to tell. The ones of hope, defeat, trauma, consequences, realistic depictions of grief, the dangers of fundamentalism and much more. They are also all terminally, indescribably horny. It is now so common in so many works to come from Japan that it is partly expected, often desired, and the communities growing around them expect it. As the average bisexual guy who might lean a little prude, I find it a mix of entertaining, amusing, and obnoxious depending on the context.
The same goes for what are often one-dimensional character intros or traits designed to provide immediate understanding or knowledge of a cast member, which is expanded upon later. These often don’t make me really like them. One of Nirvana’s first character intros is Lien, who encounters a scene and declares his undying love to a woman who has no interest in him, then harasses her for the next several hours.
He eventually becomes one of the most lovable, genuine characters with an excellent bow (much like his reluctant muse), but the game has no interest whatsoever in criticizing the strange, obsessive nature of his original relationship. It was also not very worthwhile as a subject in the original game, or the continuation of those stories in this sequel, where they appear.
That’s all to say that’s about all I have to complain about. Nirvana Initiative is truly a triumph of storytelling and puzzle/investigation gameplay. It’s a game considering the time and space it takes to properly set up a story and offer an incredible array of payouts that will keep you guessing but enjoying every minute of it to the end.
Perhaps most surprising are the actual gameplay portions of that journey. I went in assuming a well-written game with a combination of ridiculous, over-the-top, tear-jerking emotional moments. I am much more impressed with the innovations made to the simple research formulas of the original AI: The Somnium Files, and even the complexity and integration of some fast events. This is especially true when you consider: the quarry as the most recent triple-A and western attempt to do something similar.
Clearly a lot of time has gone into improving and working on the exploration of the dreamscape that debuted in AI† The first game had a high level of variation from moment to moment with lots of options for using each item in each space – this reduces that to make each scenario unique, with its own mechanics, objectives and quirks. This is more like previous Uchikoshi games, where individual puzzles would have their own themes.
This gives a much more varied journey, accompanied by many more interactive elements outside of the game’s eponymous series. These are more engaged conversations with more options to explore, plus new sequences that investigate and then re-enact crime scenes or other events. Make no mistake, this is still a game where you occasionally spend an hour reading the dialogue, analyzing locations and switching locations. However, there will always be something new to do when the interaction spins around.
Writing has also improved significantly. AI had an offbeat comedy that didn’t always land, and the sequel is much funnier and smarter, from lines of dialogue to visual jokes. If it’s not trying to make you laugh, it’s much better to quickly flesh out characters into people you care about and speed them up to the overarching plot and many subthreads. It touches hearts as effectively as it creates exciting confrontations or delivers action scenes.
The overall plot is a slow burn that leaves many more questions than answers for a long, long time. At some point in the game, I was absolutely sure that I had either critically misunderstood or the writing team messed it up in the worst possible way – or, well, it could just be brilliant and have a great spin. . Fortunately it was the latter.
There’s also quite a bit of what you might call bonus content – little bits and pieces to keep you entertained with surprises. There are a ton of little collectibles to find, secrets to uncover with achievements attached, every time you go back to the menu there’s a chance your AI companion will invite you for a short question-and-answer session, and you’ll unlock all sorts outfits to dress them up in. There’s even a tamagotchi minigame for some reason. Nothing stands in the way, but everything feels like it adds to the experience as a whole.
A game like this, where characters take center stage and the setting and the world have to be brought to life, relies heavily on design, voice acting and music. All three are almost unmatched. Characters are distinctive without being parodies, with perhaps one notable exception in the ridiculously proportioned BDSM fanatic Tama, and have unique outfits, weapons, motifs – anything to make them pop.
The voice acting is another level, with a mammoth number of lines delivered by a massive cast nailing everyone from the most central protagonists to the tiniest bits. There are some big names scattered around, but also a lot of people taking another huge leap in video game acting, even if they’ve already made a name for themselves in anime or elsewhere. A special word has to go to Anairis Quiñones, who lends Tama’s voice and delivers some of the most ridiculous lines you’ve ever heard with the good-natured humor but the requisite sincerity they deserve.
Finally the music should be on the pantheon next to people like persona 5† Kidney: vending machines, and whatever ’90s JRPGs and shooters you prefer. It’s not only brilliant, but also incredibly varied, from funky guitar tracks to electronic beats boss music to riveting choral tracks. The worst thing about getting games for rating, as it turns out, is you can’t write with a YouTube playlist with the soundtrack.
So back to the question: why this visual novel, if you’ve never touched one? Because it will entertain, probably more than almost anything in its genre. It’s varied and fun, an adventure that makes you smile one minute and sniff the next. The linearity makes the story flow more than previous, more branch-heavy games, and that makes the surprises, as they are, hit harder. It even tries, almost too hard, not to spoil the previous game in the series if it can.
Yes, it’s crazy through and through and almost uncomfortably horny, especially in the early stages. No, it doesn’t have the budget or motion capture of the quarry or Detroit† You don’t need it, anything you can play those games for is better here – better characters, stronger storylines, funnier jokes, a more satisfying ending, a better universe.
When the Nirvana Initiative is good, it’s ridiculously, almost unbeatably good.
Written by Ben Barrett on behalf of GLHF†