Detective Pikachu is very different to any other Pokémon games that have come before it. Whereas the role-playing titles focus on collecting and battling the pocket creatures, Detective Pikachu is all about solving mysteries through conversation and investigation. While it’s still aimed at a younger audience, especially due to its simplistic and unchallenging gameplay, it’s elevated by its light-hearted charm, intriguing story and fantastic titular character. I’m no mega Pokémon fan (I’ve watched some of the TV shows and dabbled in the games), but I had a great time with this Nintendo 3DS adventure, and I suspect anyone with even a passing interest in the series and a penchant for case-solving are likely to enjoy it as well.
Players take control of Tim Goodman, a young teen who has come to Ryme City to try to find out what happened to his missing father Harry, who was working for the Baker Detective Agency. By coincidence, Tim bumps into a Pikachu – but not just any Pikachu. This one was involved in a car accident and can’t remember much, except that he was Harry’s partner and declares himself the world’s greatest detective. He retains the short, plump yellow body and rosy cheeks that the electric rodent is famous for, but this one also wears a brown deerstalker, loves dark coffee, and sounds like a middle-aged man. Curiously, Tim is the only one who can understand what Pikachu is saying, and the pair make it their mission to unearth where Harry Goodman is.
With Tim and Pikachu as a team, they learn that Harry was investigating curious Pokémon behaviour, with many of the creatures uncharacteristically lashing out across the city. Suffice it to say, there’s something shady going on, and the two must solve many different cases across nine chapters to get to the bottom of it all. Some are directly related to the central mystery at hand, like infiltrating a secret lab, while others are tangential, such as recovering a stolen violin. The pieces fit together eventually, and I was pleasantly satisfied with the narrative depth overall. There are lots of secrets to uncover, especially the deceit of certain people, and even though you might see the plot developments coming, the story is still fun and the pace is nicely maintained. The only downside is the ending, which doesn’t resolve enough to be satisfactory, instead teasing a sequel rather than offering any closure.
Solving cases involves examining things in the environment to collect evidence, along with talking to people and Pokémon (Pikachu will translate for the latter) to gather testimony. You have freedom to travel wherever you want within a particular case, and you’ll often need to return to conversations as you uncover more information. Tim jots details down in his notebook as you go, from which you can review item descriptions and past conversations. Though each chapter has an overarching case to solve, there are smaller obstacles to crack too, including navigating through a foggy swamp and fixing the wiring of a Ferris wheel. Deduction is guided by Pikachu, who will pose questions for you to answer; you then drag and drop evidence on the touch screen to conclude the quandary.
You can’t fail any of this. If you’re stuck, it’ll mean that you haven’t exhausted all dialogue options or have overlooked a necessary object. Since a magnifying glass pops up when you get near something important, however, it’s difficult to miss anything. If you get something wrong during the deduction phase, then Pikachu will prompt you to try again. It’s all a simple affair and you’ll be disappointed if you want a proper challenge. That said, the locales become more expansive and the cases more intricate as you progress, with the occasional logic puzzle like solving a riddle to ascertain meanings of certain statues along the way. The lack of difficulty didn’t bother me, since I found spending time in this world with such engaging characters to be enjoyable enough to forgive the rather basic gameplay.
You guide Tim around in third-person view with the circle pad, using the A button to interact and the touch screen to do things like open your notes or view the case list – all straightforward stuff that makes Detective Pikachu easy to pick up and play. Occasionally you’ll encounter an untaxing Quick Time Event where you need to press a button at a specific time, which injects a welcome sprinkle of action into the otherwise leisurely investigations.
Tim is a polite and innocent kid, but he’s also decisive and willing to help anyone. Though he’s not the most exciting character ever to grace the screen, he makes for a good counterbalance to the no-nonsense Pikachu. You might be used to hearing cute noises come from the latter’s mouth elsewhere, so it’s odd at first to hear him talking gruffly and wildly gesticulating. Weirdly, though, it works. The diminutive detective enjoys scoffing sweets, cracking sarcastic jokes, and flirting with women (or trying to, since they can’t understand him). Whenever he comes to a triumphant conclusion, he strikes a pose and exclaims “a bolt of brilliance!”, which is delightful every time. I adored him and it’s a wonderful take on the character.
Wherever you are, you can tap a section on the touch screen to watch a Pika Prompt. These are short close-up clips of Pikachu offering hints or interacting with his surroundings and other Pokémon. They’re entirely optional, but make sure you watch as many as possible because they’re often very funny. You don’t want to miss seeing Pikachu nearly getting sucked into a machine, eating an extremely spicy cake, or practicing gravitas while donning a cloak. It’s a struggle to limit my list to three examples, because there are so many good ones. You’ll want to pay attention to the cute protagonist during cutscenes too, because he’ll be sure to make you smile. In one he watches Tim and friends scan access cards to get past security barriers, then cheekily just ducks underneath and strolls on through himself.
There’s a surprisingly high number of story-related cinematics, which is great, and they are all fully voiced, so that’s where you’ll hear the gravel tones of Pikachu and the soft-spoken Tim. Even the supporting cast are imbued with distinctive characteristics, from Wallace Carroll the sneery scientist to Brad McMasters the egotistical policeman. It’s a shame that all in-game conversation and item descriptions are text-only, as it would have been nice to have voice acting throughout. And while there’s music to keep you company, it’s quite generic and becomes repetitive.
Wallace and Brad are just two of the people Tim and Pikachu encounter in their travels. Some will become friends, including Emilia the local news reporter and Milo the spunky wannabe Pokémon trainer. These cohorts will assist you and help mix up the dynamic. There’s one scene where Emilia’s speedboat driving causes poor Pikachu to feel queasy, which is hilarious. Of course, there’s also a bunch of different Pokémon to meet, and their inclusion in the story is brilliant. While some humans keep the creatures as companions (or perhaps it’s the other way around!), others are putting their powers to good use for gainful employment. It’s amusing to find Yanma, a dragonfly-type bug, operating a camera in a TV studio, and Machoke, a bulky humanoid, lifting heavy containers at the dock. These little touches add great personality and uniqueness to the experience.
Detective Pikachu looks great, especially considering the hardware limitations of the 3DS. Everything is rendered in smooth, bright 3D that looks like it could come from a Pixar film. Compared to other recent Pokémon games, here the characters don’t have black outlines and are more realistically proportioned than the stocky models favoured in the RPGs. Each character is highly emotive during cutscenes, whether expressing a condescending sneer or unabashed joy. Smaller animations are neat too, like the way Tim’s hood bobs when he runs and the splashes of water as some Pokémon frolic in a swimming pool. You’ll get to visit loads of different locations while working through your cases, and they’re all distinct, both in layout and style – places like a gloomy abandoned fairground, a sun-drenched tropical island, and a luxuriously decorated cruise ship are all interesting to explore, though a small cave and warehouse are perhaps less so.
Even with its relative ease it took me around a dozen hours to complete Detective Pikachu, and I had a grand old time. My biggest knock is that one of the central points of the story still isn’t resolved by the end. While other narrative threads are properly tied up, it’s a cop-out to leave this one key element undone. Maybe the upcoming film of the same name will address this outstanding issue. Nevertheless, this an excellent 3DS adventure that provides ample things to love, not least of all its adorable yellow Sherlock. The blend of Pokémon and crime-solving surprisingly works, resulting in an electrifying experience that will keep you entertained throughout.