It’s better than Sherlock season four.
Pokémon spin off games, with a few exceptions, tend to not get as much attention as main series titles. That makes a certain level of sense; diminishing returns and all, but Detective Pikachu is a bit of a special case. Between the game’s initial reveal and release, Legendary Pictures signed a deal to produce a film based on the story of the game; and that film has quite a cast list. All of a sudden, the question became if whether or not Detective Pikachu actually had the proper potential for adaptation. I’m pleased to report that I can see why this is the one that got picked.
Taking the style of a visual novel, Detective Pikachu is a lighthearted and deceptively simple crime adventure starring a cap-wearing Pikachu with a very distinctive attitude. Gone is the higher pitched cheery voice of the franchise mascot; replaced with a gruff Danny Glover impression. This Pikachu isn’t a battler, he’s a coffee drinking, flirtatious, crabby guy with the ability to speak English as opposed to spouting his own name-a helpful skill for crime solving.
Players won’t actually take the role of Pikachu, though. They take the role of Tim Goodman, a college student looking for his PI father by tracing the last case he was working on. Pikachu was actually his partner before he vanished, so Pikachu joins Tim’s endeavor. From there, they encounter various mysteries to solve Murder, She Wrote style while tracking Tim’s dad. Solving these smaller cases form the crux of Detective Pikachu’s gameplay. Most of this takes the form of talking with humans and Pokémon alike, with the Pokémon proving to be pretty reliable witness that normally couldn’t be relied on. Clues uncovered point-and-click style are also found in whatever environment the case is happening in.
Throughout the investigations, Pikachu will attempt to talk to Tim, leading to the game’s “Pika Prompts.” These are mini-cinematics of Pikachu either going over the details of the case or interacting with elements of the story. Being fully animated and voiced over give a level of polish to these moments, and they’re never long enough to feel like dead weight. Pikachu will also talk players through the deduction process like in other crime-solving type games, with players left to fill in the gaps using the touch screen.
Functionally, all of Detective Pikachu is spot on work. This is one of the best looking Pokémon titles on the 3DS thanks to a new engine made explicitly for this game- you might have remembered a much scarier version making the rounds a long while back. -Thankfully, the final product looks much better, capturing a look similar to the Pokémon anime while maintaining a distinctive look all to itself. Environments are designed carefully to help players stay on track while not being too easy to figure out just by looking. The bottom screen of the 3DS is reserved with only a few options: check clues, check logs, and talk to Pikachu; these are also mapped to buttons if you’re not a touch screen player.
Cases are pretty straight-forward visual novel fare, nothing strays too far from the path. However, this can also cause frustration at times. The game is aimed at a younger audience, and while that shouldn’t be a complaint, the requirement to gather all the fine details to get a solution and progress can drag a bit. There’s not nearly enough wiggle room to fill in gaps using one’s own logic. It gets particularly exasperating when it involves learning about specific Pokémon. If you’ve ever played a core title in the series, there’s a good chance you’ll shout out loud like I did: “I already know what a Gengar is, can I solve the puzzle now?”
Furthermore, some aspects of cases don’t feel all that important to the overall story, much less the cases they’re actually about. Those moments feel like an attempt to pad out Detective Pikachu’s 20-hour run time rather than more time to spend doing things that matter or even to continue to flesh out Pikachu and Tim as characters. There aren’t a whole lot of moments like this, but they’re mostly concentrated around the halfway point of the game and the bloating shows. Making it to the end doesn’t bring a full conclusion either. While I won’t spoil anything, if you’re expecting all the mysteries to be solved, that doesn’t happen. It isn’t hard to think some things are being kept back to have on hand for a sequel for when that movie comes out. Normally that wouldn’t be so bad, but when the point of the game is to suss out answers, not getting them is disappointing.
While in most reviews, I wouldn’t talk much about amiibo, I feel like some special mention should be made of the Detective Pikachu amiibo itself. The impact on gameplay is minimal, all it does is unlock Pika Prompts up to the case players are currently at. However, it is absolutely huge compared to the average amiibo figure. Really, this is more like a small sculpt, and as a fan of collecting and amiibo in general, I wouldn’t mind if Nintendo dropped one of these for big franchise titles for collectors in future. That could leave the smaller and cheaper ones for younger players.
None of this game would land if Detective Pikachu himself couldn’t deliver as a character, but thankfully that’s not the case. He’s surprisingly complex from a personality standpoint, while the narrative sets up plenty of chances to point out how weird this whole situation is. For example, it turns out the only person who hears Pikachu speaking English is Tim, so everyone else can’t hear Pikachu’s deductions, thoughts on coffee, or smooth talking. The voice actor is the same nonetheless, so characters hear gruff “Pikas” instead and it never stops being funny. While the rest of the characters aren’t as complex-this is a kid’s game with a narrow focus after all-the voice cast are all game and turn in good performances. Notably, Detective Pikachu has a cast of characters filled with diversity. It’s never commented upon or pointed out, and the Pokémon franchise has always tried to be somewhat forward-thinking on that front; but it really is noteworthy to see characters with culturally relevant names gel so easily. Let this game be an example of how easy it can be to get representation into games.
Overall, Detective Pikachu is an above average entry in the Pokémon canon, and a surprisingly unique one. As a whole, it might not appeal to all fans due to the slimmed down presentation, but if you have younger people in your life they very well might eat this up. I myself wouldn’t mind seeing the series dabble in more narrative-focused games either. The rest of you can just join us for the movie.
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
Release Date: March 23rd, 2018
Copy Purchased by Reviewer