Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: 02/03/2016 (Original version in Japan), 03/23/2018 (Expanded version in JP/NA/EU)
The Pokémon franchise is no stranger to spinoffs of all kinds. One could even argue that the bulk of the franchise is made of said spinoffs.
From the actual RPG that started it all to the anime shows and movies that escalated the property to universal heights, from the collectible card games (that I personally never figured out how exactly it worked) to more recent endeavors like Pokkén Tournament, a fighting game that utilizes the gameplay from the Tekken series, the strength of Pokémon comes from its versatility in all genres it dabbles in. And sure, somewhere along the way, we’ve even had a game where you can yell at a Pikachu through a microphone accessory.
My point is that there’s a lot of different kinds of Pokémon games, but Detective Pikachu is perhaps one of the more interesting offshoots. Initially released in Japan in 2016, the game is an adventure title with light puzzle elements and a strong emphasis on story, featuring a gruff-voiced, coffee-drinking, wisenheimer Pikachu who, as it so happens, is a self-proclaimed “Great Detective”.
The idea of this odd Pikachu is an endearing one to me, and even when I had yet to play the game, I was already a fan of this silly concept. While not something I would personally purchase, I’m also a fan of the tie-in giant-sized amiibo that was released alongside the game, further pointing out the oddity that is Detective Pikachu.
But, is this great concept utilized in any meaningful, fun way when we’re talking about the game itself? Well, that’s another story.
The gist of the plot of Detective Pikachu revolves around the search for Harry Goodman, a detective who has gone missing while investigating a peculiar case involving otherwise friendly Pokémon going berserk. You play as his son, Tim Goodman, who bumps into Detective Pikachu, who just so happened to be Harry Goodman’s partner, but has lost his memories regarding Harry’s disappearance. To both their surprise, Tim can understand Pikachu’s speech, prompting them to work together to find Tim’s missing father.
Perhaps as an attempt to aim Detective Pikachu at a younger audience, none of the mysteries and puzzles are ever all that challenging or even interesting.
The game plays out as a linear experience. Though you have agency as to the order of completion of tasks sometimes, it’s ultimately very much laid out for you. There is an attempt to make this game play like a cross between something like a Professor Layton title and a Telltale game like The Wolf Among Us, but unfortunately, I find that neither style of game ever fits.
Perhaps as an attempt to aim this game at a younger audience, none of the mysteries and puzzles are ever all that challenging or even interesting. The game likes to stop you every 5 minutes to play a short cutscene or line of dialogue, to let Pikachu more or less spell out what you have to do next. This takes the fun out of anything that might resemble independent thinking on the player’s part.
At times, it would seem that previous knowledge of Pokémon might help you solve a mystery faster, but this is never the case, as the game wants to follow a very specific set of steps to come to a conclusion. Something like this makes more sense in Ace Attorney titles, where you have to “prove” to the courtroom how the evidence makes sense, but in Detective Pikachu, this is almost never the case. It just adds to the very chore-like nature of the gameplay.
To add to the passivity the game asks of the player, certain cutscenes involve quick-time event prompts, which range from tapping the “A” button at any speed you would like as long as you fill a meter to reaction prompts (like pressing a button on time to avoid something hitting you), but missing these prompts doesn’t change the outcome of anything, often only leading to a “funny” (read: not all that funny) reaction from the characters.
So, it’s safe to say that the meat of the thing lies in the story, which might be fine if the story was anything to write home about.
Most of the events in the story, as it slowly, painfully progresses is predictable, and not all that worthy of a 7-8 hour average playtime that this game clocks in at. By Chapter 6, the padding in the story can become nearly intolerable, and you get the feeling that you’re being held against your will as if though the conclusion of the story, which you might already know isn’t going to be all that remarkable, is being held hostage.
It makes you wonder who this game was made for exactly. I find it hard to believe that the seemingly intended audience of this title (i.e. little kids) would have the patience to care about a story like this; perhaps an older audience that already loves the Pokémon brand is more likely to care, but, I have my doubts about that as well.
All that said, over half of the battle for a title like this is the visual and audio design, which I’m afraid to say, is severely lacking here. Most environments are rather generic and not all that memorable, feeling more like backdrops for a cheap The Sims knockoff on the Google Play Store. The human character design is similarly unimaginative and lacking, with most NPCs having the appearance of user avatars in some 2000s virtual chatroom.
Worse yet is the music, which at times sounds like it was made on an old cellphone’s ringtone-maker software. In fact, I spent most of the game with the audio turned down, as when the music wasn’t simply boring, it looped in annoying and grating ways. One particular track early on the game was a good indicator of things to come, in that, it was perhaps one of the most annoying loops, by far, that I’ve heard in any game within the past decade.
Sure, it doesn’t get to Yoshi’s New Island levels, but that isn’t exactly a good league to be a part of.
Speaking of audio, I was glad to find that the game includes the option to switch the voice-overs from the English dub to the Japanese original, or vice versa, when booting up the game, so you can easily switch between the two to see which you like the best. I prefer the original Japanese voice acting, but solely for the reason that I think Detective Pikachu’s voice sounds a lot more natural to how his character holds himself. Everyone else sounds pretty generic in either English or Japanese, so it’s not really a big deal either way, though, if you do plan on playing in Japanese (and don’t speak Japanese), be aware that you’ll be dealing with “dubtitles” instead of actual subtitles.
Sadly, the concept of Detective Pikachu, which I still like on its own, comes in the form of a game that I’m not exactly sure justifies its existence. Perhaps this idea would have worked better as a show or a movie (and yes, I am aware that a live-action movie is planned, though I don’t have very high hopes about that either).
As it stands, Detective Pikachu is an unremarkable game that while very much playable, and perhaps appealing to some audiences looking for a short Pokémon-related story, is a disappointment that never meaningfully utilizes any of its own ideas. If you’re looking for a quaint yet engaging adventure game, this isn’t it.