Detective Pikachu is a spin-off of the Pokémon series, starring the adorable mascot as he works to solve mysteries. Since its debut on the 3DS, it’s even gotten a movie adaptation and finally a sequel on Nintendo Switch. It’s time to sleuth and put on our thinking caps with Detective Pikachu Returns.
Elementary, My Dear Goodman
Picking up two years after the events of the first game, Detective Pikachu Returns once again puts us in the shoes of Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu. After solving the “R” Case, the two have made a name for themselves in Ryme City for their deductive skills. They also represent an important goal for Ryme City, which is the coexistence of Pokémon.
Detective Pikachu isn’t like any ordinary Pikachu, though. He can communicate in perfect human tongue, but only to Tim. This allows him to act as a communication bridge of sorts between people and Pokémon, since he can perfectly interpret both. He also loves coffee and has a comically deep voice. With this and Tim’s own investigative skills, they’re able to solve the many issues of Ryme City and find clues relating to Tim’s missing father.
What I like most about Detective Pikachu Returns’ writing is how mature it all feels. It’s still Pokémon, so it’s plenty silly and whimsical too, but there’s a sophisticated undercurrent to it all. Character motivations that seem simple are more emotionally complex than they might at first appear, and the overall writing of the mysteries throughout the game are good. Narrative twists are laid out well, and the game always leaves just enough information in there for things to not feel cheap or unearned.
What helps this fresh perspective is Tim himself. Not only is he a rare Pokémon protagonist with a voice, he’s also a young adult who goes to college. The issues he deals with and his wants all speak to that, and he provides the game with a lens that feels so unique from how Pokémon normally does. It helps that his interactions with Detective Pikachu are generally always pretty sharp.
Despite my earlier compliments to the game’s story, I have mixed feelings about the overall progression of the narrative. Most notably, how it handles its tone. To be clear, I have absolutely no issue with a seemingly silly premise taking itself dead seriously. As long as it’s earnest and well-written, that’s all that matters. Detective Pikachu Returns’ story is earnest, but there are many parts of it that feel unearned, too.
The biggest issue with the story is that many of the most important plot elements are directly lifted from the film adaptation. I won’t spoil what those elements are in case you haven’t seen it, but I was disappointed that the sequel is essentially a retread of a story I’d already experienced once before. Worse still is that this retread is inferior in many ways to the film. A lot of what goes on in Returns has little to do with the prior game, yet before I know it, I’m suddenly thrust into the drama related to it at random intervals. That’s mostly what I mean when I say that things feel unearned.
Detective Pikachu Returns can’t really make up its mind on whether it wants to be a direct sequel or a standalone game set in that same world. As a result, it can’t do either very well. All told, there’s a lot to like about the writing, but the main story leaves something to be desired despite that.
Let’s Get Deducing
Detective Pikachu Returns dares to ask a bold question: what happens in a mystery game where you’re not allowed to piece the puzzles yourself? Boredom, that’s what. Detective Pikachu feels like a game aimed at children who’ve never touched a controller in their lives, and I don’t mean that positively. Despite the mystery slant, the player isn’t actually asked to solve anything for themselves. Lateral thinking, intellect, and intuition need not apply when the game is insistent on railroading you into every answer.
For example, when investigating crime scenes, it’s impossible to not look at every detail at the scene. If you try to leave or run the risk of accidentally missing a detail, the game will stop you in your tracks to make sure that’s completely impossible. Give a wrong answer during a deduction and Detective Pikachu will gently remind you of what’s what. The idea of a “failure state” just doesn’t exist in this game, and so it feels like I’m robbed of that coveted “eureka” moment when I finally piece things together. It’s hard to feel that when it’s as if the game is doing all of that work for me. This wouldn’t be that bad if not for the game’s rather obnoxious and long-winded structure.
The best example of this structure has to be with the Pokémon Quiz Master, a recurring side character. She’ll dole out quizzes that test your knowledge on the characteristics of Pokémon. That’s fine and even good on paper, but the problems start with its execution, however. It’s not enough to just know the answers based on your knowledge of the series or by having interacted with the Pokémon earlier. You have to run to the Pokémon you’re being quizzed on and then run back to the Quiz Master to actually give an answer and make progress. This is as deep as the entirety of the gameplay loop gets, and it’s never once all that fun.
The answers to mysteries and quizzes being easy is boring. But having to tediously move back and forth to “solve” those mysteries isn’t just boring, it’s dreadful. It eventually reached a point where I stopped engaging in the side activities and solely focused on the main story. When it became apparent that I’d seen all that the game had to offer in terms of surprise and engagement, I wanted to be done with it as soon as possible. There’s no extrinsic reward for doing any of this, and the act of “solving” them certainly doesn’t feel rewarding either.
The Pokemon-Human Duo
The big draw of gameplay and what sets this mystery apart from others in the genre is the presence of Pokémon. Considering how colorful and unpredictable Pokémon are, they offer up a nice degree of color and whimsy to the game’s many mysteries. The Pokémon roster in this game features a mixture across nearly the entire series, minus Legends: Arceus and Scarlet/Violet. The best part of the game is seeing how the Pokémon interact with and further inform its cases.
As a human, Tim interacts with other humans and handles most of the deductions. He’s the one you’re controlling for most of the game, but you’ll sometimes also be asked to control Detective Pikachu as well. Detective Pikachu can talk to other Pokémon to help piece together cases and sometimes employ their abilities to help get things done. This includes using Growlithe to sniff out a Pokémon’s trail or using Pangoro to push boulders around. These moments would be nice, but they require no thought at all. As a result, it’s really no different from what the rest of the game is like.
Detective Pikachu Returns has a presentation that feels half-baked. The main attraction of the game, the Pokémon, are very lovingly rendered. They’re true to their scale while also being modeled and animated in a way that breathes a ton of life into them. If the goal was to make the Pokémon feel like a convincing part of a living world, then that was a total success. So then what’s the issue? It’s everything else about how the game looks.
The first problem is with the human characters. Some, like Tim Goodman and most major characters, are modeled and animated quite well. The character design for humans feels like a mixture of mainline Pokémon and what you see out of a Disney Pixar film like Toy Story. For these characters in particular, the style works well. But the model quality across human characters is just not consistent in the slightest. Many of them look flat-out ugly, especially next to their Pokémon companions. They animate rather robotically and have no emotion in their faces or gestures.
Really, the presentation is kind of all over the place. Environments sometimes look great and other times they look quite poor. Animations look lively a lot of the time, but there are also many instances where the game will conspicuously fade to black in place of showing motion. I couldn’t count the number of times where the screen would fade out, just to not show a Pokemon moving a couple of feet in a different direction.
Then there’s the lighting, or rather, the absence thereof. Conspicuously, it’s as if the sun never shines in Ryme City and lights just don’t work. Nothing is given a sense of shading or place, and whatever atmosphere the game is trying to make is ruined as a result. Detective Pikachu himself is animated with tons of life and character, but this is heavily undermined by him always looking as if he was photoshopped into the scenery. The same applies to just about every other character in the game. Despite whatever qualities the visuals may have, this lack of lighting always gives the impression that the world is flat and cheap-looking.
If Detective Pikachu Returns’ goal was to make a mystery game that any kid could enjoy, then it’s almost a complete failure. This is most certainly no Professor Layton, nor is it anywhere close to that pedigree in any category. The mysteries are robbed of all of their catharsis because the game doesn’t ever trust the player’s intellect and intuition. Not that you may want to see the story to its end when the main narrative can’t make up its mind on what it wants to be. For only a very brief stint of time was I invested, but then I soon realized that I already saw everything that it had to offer. Its few bright spots in character interaction and charm couldn’t hide that. This isn’t a broken game, but it’s something I found worse: it’s boring.
WAIT FOR SALE ON DETECTIVE PIKACHU
If you would like to see more Adventure games, you may be interested in our review of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. You can also check out our review of Pokémon Legends: Arceus or Pokémon Scarlet/Violet for more Pokémon.
Many thanks go to Nintendo for a Nintendo Switch review code for this title.
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A hobbyist who took up the pen to write about their favorite pastime: games. While a lover of many genres, Isaiah Parker specializes in Platformers, RPGs, and competitive multiplayer titles. The easiest way into his heart is to have great core gameplay mechanics. Self-proclaimed world’s biggest Sonic fan. Follow him @ZinogreVolt