“Detective Pikachu Returns works as a charming interactive cartoon, but its simplified deduction takes some of the mystery out of it.”
- Story builds well
- Clever use of creatures
- Lots of personality in cutscenes
- Lots of hand-holding
- Simplified deduction
- Inconsistent presentation
Product provided by Nintendo.
After a dozen hours of cracking cases in Detective Pikachu Returns, there’s one mystery I still can’t solve: Who exactly is this game for?
Let’s consider the evidence. At a glance, the Nintendo 3DS sequel seems like a treat for young Pokémon fans. It almost plays like an interactive cartoon with its brightly colored world and heaps of comedic charm. Simple deduction gameplay, combined with heavy hints and no real fail states, makes for a kid-friendly adventure. Though, like any good case, there’s a complication. It’s a text-heavy visual novel that almost seems like it’s courting older players looking for more substantial storytelling in the Pokémon universe. It’s a conundrum that could stump even the great Pikachu himself!
Like recent mainline Pokémon games, Detective Pikachu Returns struggles to find a way for the franchise’s wide-ranging fanbase to coexist. Childproofed investigation systems don’t leave much room for surprise in a string of heavily telegraphed cases. Thankfully, both kids and adults will find some common ground in a playful adventure that has a lot of fun bringing personality to the series’ various critters.
Detective Pikachu Returns picks up immediately after its 2016 predecessor. It continues the adventures of young detective Tim Goodman and his caffeine-addicted Pikachu, whom he can mysteriously communicate with. After saving Ryme City, a metropolis where humans and Pokémon live in harmony, the crack duo continues to solve local cases while trying to figure out what happened to Tim’s missing father. What begins as a simple jewelry heist balloons into another grand conspiracy that’s as twisty as a Tangela’s vines.
It almost has the pace and cadence of an educational game.
The effectiveness of that central mystery will likely hinge on how old you are. It’s very clear that Detective Pikachu Returns aims to be an experience that even the youngest Pokémon fans can get through, which often comes at the expense of its sleuthing premise. Just about every turn is signposted a mile away. The first case, in which Tim and Pikachu investigate a jewel theft in a mansion, practically winks the answer to every puzzle an hour before Tim gets to piece it together himself in an inflexible, linear fashion.
It almost has the pace and cadence of an educational game. I’m largely spending my time bouncing back and forth between a few “screens” in each chapter hunting for leads, something akin to a 90’s Putt Putt game. Crime scene investigation boils down to simple point-and-click gameplay, while its handful of side-quests largely just have me tracking down a specific Pokémon in town based on an obvious clue. That slow, hand-holding pace is perfect for kids who need a lot of guidance, but it’s hard to imagine that 12 hours of dialogue reading will keep young ones engaged for too long. On the flip side, I imagine older players will be more down for a more interactive visual novel, though left wishing they could dial down all the nudges.
Despite that, I still think fans of all ages will find entertainment here so long as they’re willing to accept Detective Pikachu Returns for what it is. After trudging through a slow opening, I was eventually able to give myself to the adventure by its standout third chapter (where the mystery really heats up and the developer Creatures starts to toy with some fun formula subversion). There’s even a little thematic thread to untangle as the narrative explores what it means for humans and critters to “peacefully coexist.” That’s an inherently one-sided conversation when one half of the conversation can’t say much other than their own name.
When it comes to actually solving cases, the biggest thing that’s changed since the original Detective Pikachu on Nintendo 3DS is the Switch’s lack of a second screen. Otherwise, it’s still a 3D narrative adventure where Pikachu and Tim wander around small locations, chat with both people and creatures (Pikachu translates all Pokémon chatter for Tim), and solve a series of mysteries using their gathered clues. Rather than adding too many new twists, deduction is even more elementary this time around.
Each case is laid out on a flowchart that can be accessed by pressing the Y button. That screen lists out all open questions on an evidence board and automatically pins any relevant clues underneath them. Once players gather enough clues, they can use all their intel to make a deduction. That process is fairly simple, as players simply have to complete a lead by picking from a handful of answers. Most leads are pretty hard to get wrong, as they’re about as obvious as a $500 Who Wants to be a Millionaire? question. Even if players get it wrong, there’s no negative outcome; they just keep choosing until they pick the right one. It’s about as childproofed as it can get.
It’s a surprising downgrade from the first game, which asked players to use just a bit more brain power. Deductions were more like puzzles there; one asked players to fix a mural by dragging different Pokémon where they’re supposed to be in the painting based on context clues. There’s nothing like that here, which feels like a direct side-effect of dropping the original’s stylus-based tactile gameplay.
The more knowledge you have of the series’ vast number of monsters, the more fun it’ll be to try and guess who’s involved with a crime.
While that’s a shame, Detective Pikachu Returns does make up for it with more traditional 3D adventure hooks. The primary change is that Pikachu gets to split off from Tim in each chapter to team up with partner Pokémon with its own special power. In the first case, he rides on the back of a Growlithe that can pick up the scent of clues and track them. Luxray, on the other hand, can see through walls to scope out locked rooms or reveal hidden paths. The abilities aren’t particularly deep, but they do add some much-needed investigative variety (plus, it’s downright cute to see Pikachu riding another Pokémon).
While there are a few extra twists in stealth sections and button-mashing quick-time events, some of the best deduction is simply mental puzzle work. My favorite moments came whenever I’d have to figure out what kind of Pokémon could explain puzzling case developments. Is there a creature capable of cutting through a glass case in one clean slice? How might a Whimsicott factor into a crime? The more knowledge you have of the series’ vast number of monsters, the more fun it’ll be to try and guess who’s involved with a case (at least before the game makes that very obvious moments later).
The monster guessing game at the heart of the story underscores why the sequel is still entertaining enough even if its watered-down gameplay disappoints. No matter what genre it’s translated into, the world of Pokémon continues to be an inviting delight. The team at Creatures understands that strength and works to make Detective Pikachu Returns one of the most personality-filled pieces of Pokémon media outside of its anime adaptations.
It’s the closest any Pokémon game has really come to matching the TV series’ energy.
Ryme City is filled with a wide array of critters who not only have their own role in the town, but their own comedic quirks. Early on, Tim and Pikachu meet a certain creature who’s overly protective of a rock. Since I’m seeing the scene from Tim’s perspective, I can’t understand what it’s saying, so I have to rely on Pikachu’s translations. Later, when exploring as Pikachu, I strike up a conversation with the Pokémon and discover that he speaks in an overly dramatic faux-Shakespearian tongue. It’s a hysterical reveal that made me eager to chat with every Pokémon I met.
Developer Creatures gets even more opportunities for playful moments with a wealth of fully animated cutscenes that play out like slapstick cartoons. Those moments especially give Pikachu a chance to show off his expressive side as he excitedly celebrates a “bolt of brilliance” or tries to scurry up the long neck of an Alolan Exeggutor. It’s the closest any Pokémon game has really come to matching the TV series’ energy.
Not everything is as charmingly produced. It largely still feels like I’m playing a Nintendo 3DS game from a visual standpoint. Though colorful, there’s not much detail to really bring the world to life. Humans have it worse off than Pokémon, though; stilted character designs and robotic voice-acting performances make it feel like one of those unsettling, computer-generated children’s videos at times (“Telling lies?” / “No, papa!”)
As I lay out each piece of the puzzle here, I find myself staring back at that one unsolved question still pinned to my evidence board: Who is this really for? That’s a tough nut to crack. Detective Pikachu Returns at times feels like a creative riff on the Phoenix Wright series that lets long-time players see a new side of their favorite creatures. In the same breath, it can also feel like an educational game that isn’t concerned with putting in a lot of effort for little kids who couldn’t care less about quality. I can even tie a red string between that and Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, another recent release with the same tension.
Hang on, I’m sensing a pattern here. Detective Pikachu, Scarlet, Brilliant Diamond, Let’s Go … all titles that struggle to bring together a growing audience age gap. Could it be that recent Pokémon games are trying too hard to be everything for everyone rather than being their lovable selves? There’s no crime here; it’s just a simple case of identity crisis.
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