Someone at The Pokemon Company really likes Detective Pikachu, because it’s kind of funny how many chances it keeps getting – first a 3DS game, then a big budget Hollywood adaptation, and now another game for the Switch. And to be fair, it’s a fun enough series for fans of the Pokemon world – for younger players, the stories provide a different look at the series’ world while for older players, the meta in-jokes and references are probably clever enough to keep them entertained.
This was true of both the original 3DS game and especially the Hollywood movie. Detective Pikachu Returns very much continues along those same lines. It’s more of the cute, wholesome, kind of clever, writing that characterized the first game and the movie, with some fun characters, a fun if unsurprising story, and some very straightforward gameplay that even the youngest of players can wrap their heads around.
"Tim Goodman is trying to find his missing father with the latter’s partner Pikachu, who awoke with a pretty strong sense of amnesia about the incident that led to the disappearance, and also an inability to use his moves."
If you didn’t play the original – which launched on the 3DS very late in its life – or did not watch the movie (which launched right after an Avengers movie, so it didn’t set the world on fire), then you don’t really need to worry about not being caught up with the story with this game. It does a good job of getting you onboarded with the events of the game (and even the movie, with some playful in-universe teasing about where it diverged from the story of the game) at the start, and the story is written to stand well enough on its own with minimal context or information necessary.
And the premise is pretty much the same – Tim Goodman is trying to find his missing father with the latter’s partner Pikachu, who awoke with a pretty strong sense of amnesia about the incident that led to the disappearance, and also an inability to use his moves. However, Tim can understand what Pikachu says – and with that ace up his sleeve, the duo set out to investigate various cases and mysteries, with Tim getting testimony and accounts from people, and Pikachu getting them from Pokemon. The two then put the information they have together to try and figure out what the solution to the case might be.
So the broad setup is the same, and it plays out pretty much the same as the first game. The cases are simple, if fun, involving the unique intricacies of the world of Pokemon in some fun ways, and giving us more of a loom at what life in it might be like. Familiarity with the various Pokemon you encounter only makes the interactions with them, and the deep dives into these cases, more fun – this is definitely a game for fans first and foremost.
"Detective Pikachu Returns very much continues along those same lines. It’s more of the cute, wholesome, kind of clever, writing that characterized the first game and the movie, with some fun characters, a fun if unsurprising story, and some very straightforward gameplay that even the youngest of players can wrap their heads around. "
One thing that has changed this time around is how the story itself is structured. The original game presented the central conflict very early on, and every case you tackled was explicitly with the intention of chipping away at the central mystery more and more. In Detective Pikachu Returns, the story structure is more episodic, where you take on a bunch of problems, and get the full picture for how they come together in the story the more you play. In that sense, uncovering what the story is itself becomes a game this time around, especially for younger players – as mentioned, the story isn’t going to catch you off guard.
Older players will probably pick up on where it’s going. That said, it’s done well, and it’s great fun to follow along with anyway, and the resolution is earnest and satisfying. The writing itself, while being primarily kid-friendly, does have some bite for older players too; as mentioned, it gets delightfully meta and self-aware a lot of the time, and sometimes it starts referencing, if not outright tackling, some surprisingly dark and hefty (for Pokemon) subject matter too.
The gameplay side of things has seen some big changes as well. How cases are tackled is totally different this time around thanks to the new case diary mechanic. This is… I suppose it makes sense from a contextualization perspective, but it actually simplifies gameplay a bit too much. Essentially, all you have to do is talk to the witnesses and investigate the relevant areas, and then you’re just going to go into the diary and select one from numerous possible theories in response to the facts and evidence you have gathered that answers the question on hand. If you pick wrong, Pikachu chides you gently, and you get to pick one from the remainder.
This means the actual gameplay is extremely simplified now, since the puzzle solving aspects of the first game are all but gone. You do get some fun QTEs during some segments, which I guess make for some more active gameplay, and there are some fun segments where you can team up with other Pokemon and use their powers in some fun ad hoc mini games, but other than that, you’re talking to people, and you’re picking the right choice in your diary.
Which is why it’s a good thing the writing keeps things fun and interesting enough, at least for Pokemon fans. The critical path is pretty fun, the side quests you can pick up have some of the cleverest and most amusing writing, and it is, of course, always a joy to just chat with Pikachu unprompted and get his pearls of wisdom (which almost all have to do with coffee, or his great detective skills and prowess).
"The game also has a surprising amount of voice acting, which ranges from being inoffensive to surprisingly well done. The star of the show is Pikachu himself, and his voice work is great."
In other areas, gameplay has remained mostly unchanged. You’re still navigating in thinly disguised grid based environments (which feels a bit jarringly dated), and there are still a lot of loading screens separating the various areas (thankfully none of them is too long).
The graphics are… fine. They do look distinctly simple and have a lower budget feel than something like, say, New Pokemon Snap did. On the 3DS, Detective Pikachu was actually one of the better looking games on the system. Returns has definitely made some improvements to the visuals over that game, but it still looks markedly on the lower end of what the system can offer. The good thing is the performance remains steady, the best that I could tell – although, of course, in a slow paced adventure game like this, even if there were frame rate drops, it wouldn’t impact much. However, thankfully that is a moot point.
The game also has a surprising amount of voice acting, which ranges from being inoffensive to surprisingly well done. The star of the show is Pikachu himself, and his voice work is great. Unfortunately, the cutscene direction and music both let down the good voice work a lot of the time, and it comes off as feeling more stilted and awkward than it otherwise should.
Should you play Detective Pikachu Returns? If you are a fan of Pokemon, and enjoyed the original game, you will probably get something out of this one. While there are some changes to what the first game did, on the whole, the boat has not been rocked too much, and you will still get more of that same formula here. Younger players especially will probably like this game a lot and be drawn to it, with its charming characters, fun story, and simplistic gameplay. For older players, the recommendation has more caveats, but if you’re down for getting a deeper look at the Pokemon world than you otherwise get, you’ll find what’s here fun enough.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A fun story with a satisfying resolution; surprisingly strong voice work for the main characters; charming characters and great fan-service for long-time fans; easy and fun to pick up and play for younger players.
The graphics look dated, and there are a lot of loading screens; the gameplay is extremely simplified; the story is done well and is fun to follow along, but remains largely predictable.