Detective Pikachu Returns Review
Smoke, Mirrors, and Coffee
Detective Pikachu on the Nintendo 3DS from 2018 was bizarre, ridiculous and oddly refreshing. Pikachu guzzling down coffee and inhabiting a gruff personality straight out of a detective noir film felt extremely absurd, but something about it worked. It had so much zest that they took the concept and ran with it for a big-budget Hollywood film, and it was a resounding success as it pleased casual fans to even the most die-hard Poké-Maniacs. Naturally, it was only a matter of time until a sequel dropped, and this time around, it's now on the Nintendo Switch. Despite the power of a home console, the new entry feels like a downgrade from its predecessor in many ways.
In this interpretation of the Pokémon world, humans coincide with Pokémon and occupy Ryme City together. It's been two years since the infamous R incident, where a toxic chemical made Pokémon lose control of their actions. After many daring ploys from The Great Detective Pikachu and his trusted partner Tim, they solved the mystery and saved Ryme City. However, they could never solve the disappearance of Harry, Pikachu's former gumshoe partner and Tim's dad. At the outset of this game's story, the Mayor has announced Pokémon Friendship Week to celebrate humans and Pokémon coexisting with one another. However, this occasion is ruined as a Corviknight acts strangely and causes a commotion. Not too long after, our dynamic duo is hired to investigate the robbery of the precious jewel, the Aurora Drop, and soon discovers that all the strange events in Ryme City are interconnected.
Due to the success of the film, Detective Pikachu Returns will probably gain more attention upon release than the first game. With this in mind, the game recaps the previous events within the opening moments. Something worth noting to all the cinephiles out there: the major plot twist is predictable if you have watched the 2019 Pokémon Detective Pikachu film. Without giving too much away, there are hints about what happened to Harry, but this concept was never fully explored in the first game. The film used the premise of the R incident, took the underlying hints, and made its own interpretation of what happened to Harry. In Detective Pikachu Returns, although there is a very different build-up to this event, Harry's fate is the same as in the film. It would have been silly for the sequel to have deviated from the sown seeds foreshadowed in the first game, especially with it being a good plot twist—emphasis on why the film took this concept. But with Detective Pikachu Returns being so heavily story-driven, it's hard to deny that it does take the punch away from what is supposed to be a dramatic moment.
Moving the story forward will require you to go from location to location, discover clues and deduce testimonies from Pokémon and humans, and you do this by playing as Tim. The gameplay is a strange hybrid of Professor Layton meets the Pokémon universe. Usually, the first part of the investigation will entail observing the crime scene and looking for clues, which is nothing more elaborate than a point-and-click section. From there, the pair will often divide and conquer, with Tim talking to the humans about the incident and The Great Detective Pikachu interrogating the Pokémon. The duo will then reconvene and discuss what they have found out. However, their conversations are no deeper than "we found a blue feather, so we need to find a blue feathered Pokémon".
The voice acting is superb, whether you pick Japanese or English, and helps portray the crucial moments in the story. The Great Detective Pikachu is still charming, as he cracks witty antidotes, drinks coffee by the gallon, and wears his Sherlock Holmes-inspired hat. On the other hand, Tim is as bland as a cup of tea without any milk. He has very little personality and never really adds much to the conversations. This is a bummer as no other humans can talk to The Great Detective Pikachu, so sometimes it feels like a one-way conversation. A few new characters are introduced, with the main one being Rachel, Tim's friend from university and the Mayor's daughter. Although she is, by far, more interesting than Tim, Detective Pikachu Returns never really nails the human characters, as their personalities feel dull and rather one-dimensional. However, when it comes to the Pokémon, we get to see many personality traits really shine through that don't always appear in the traditional mainline games. For instance, a Purrlion cheekily steals Tim's pen simply because it's bored, and a flock of Whimsicotts sneak into a mansion and unintentionally cause a mess by their cotton shedding.
After collecting enough info, you can deduce the events that have transpired by using Tim's handy notebook and selecting what scenario best fits what has happened. Instead of speculating if it was Miss Scarlet in the library with a rope, think more, was it a Ducklett in the park with the coffee beans, and you will be in the right PokeGym. If this sounds straightforward, that's because it is, and this is, without a doubt, the most simplistic Pokémon game out there, and that's saying something when you consider Pokémon Channel and Pokémon Snap exist. Even its predecessor on the 3DS had more interactive deduction segments, as you would have to drag clues and potential scenarios onto specific parts of the mini-map via the touchscreen. This is easily one of the sequel's downfalls because unless you are incredibly young, it will not require any brain power, and you are bound to find some of the gameplay tedious.
One of the more entertaining aspects of the gameplay is enlisting other Pokémon to help with your investigation. You can ask Growlithe for their keen sense of smell to track other Pokémon's locations or have Darmanitan punch obstacles out of the way. Others include Pangoro, who can push boulders, and Luxray, who can see through walls with fancy X-ray vision. When you need help, you can approach the Pokémon in question, and Pikachu will piggyback onto them. In this portion of the investigation, you get to control the Pokémon themselves, dramatically changing the pace of gameplay. I wish these parts were far more present, as it was pretty fun doing detective work as an actual Pokémon instead of a human.
Visually, the game has a colourful design, and it's great to see Pokémon in environments we would not usually see them in, like a Poliwrath and a Hariyama standing near a street alleyway to a Ludicolo working in a coffee shop. One of the high points of the Pokémon franchise is that it has such a good, diverse range of creatures, and it's great never quite knowing what Pokémon you'll see next. That said, the world itself is a bit small and linear, and you can only explore the places relevant to the story. Another criticism is that the world, at times, can seem very static and vacant as the Pokémon and humans will stand silently, committing the classic NPC trope of not doing anything until the player talks to them. Here is another example of how the previous game outshined, as it had tiny details that made the world feel more immersive and alive like a young boy would physically kick a ball back and forth with a Scraggy, whereas, in Detective Pikachu Returns, a Raboot just stands in a park next to a ball. It might not sound much, but these things add up when it comes to world-building.
Detective Pikachu Returns had some potential, but it's squandered by the overly simplistic gameplay that only younger fans would find entertaining. It's unfortunate when you consider the 2019 Pokémon Detective Pikachu film appealed to the whole family, and given Nintendo's usual rapport to provide fun for almost everyone. This feels even more of a sting when the game's retail price upon release is $49.99 USD/£39.99. Clearly, the developers wanted to stick to the gameplay format of the first title, but the desire to create a more accessible game pushed it into tedious territory for anyone over the age of ten. Admittedly, if I were not such a big Pokémon fan, I would have found the fifteen-hour campaign challenging to complete due to the lack of engaging story and gameplay. Younger fans may have a great time snooping around Ryme City, but everyone else is better off watching the film.