For 22 years we have been training to be the very best like no one ever was, but, what is instantly refreshing about Detective Pikachu, is that we can see what life is like in the world of Pokémon for those that don’t choose to chase a dream to become a Champion.
The spin-off games have had us battling it out in arenas, exploring randomly generated dungeons, unifying the 17 kingdoms of the Ransei region, and even hunting for Pokémon in the real world, but this marks the first time that we have ever had the chance to play an adventure game that’s been set in the pocket monster universe.
It has been two months since 18-year-old university student Tim Goodman’s dad disappeared while looking into Pokémon-related incidents, and, understandably concerned about his whereabouts, Tim arrives in Ryme City to start searching for clues. Before even having the chance to check in at the Baker Detective Agency where his dad had worked as a private investigator, Tim becomes distracted when he witnesses some mischievous Aipom stealing a young girl’s necklace and tries to unsuccessfully intervene – a situation that results in Tim accidentally finding himself holding Pikachu by his ears.
This chance encounter signals much of what is to come, the Nintendo 3DS exclusive, which had once begun life as an episodic release on the Nintendo eShop in Japan, being a hugely charming experience that is packed with as many puns as it is with gripping drama and more heartfelt moments. It won’t come as a surprise that Pikachu constantly steals the spotlight – the gruffly-voiced, wise-cracking, and coffee-glugging electric mouse delivering the best lines as you crack the game’s nine cases that bring you ever closer to the truth behind your dad’s disappearance.
Only you, having taken on the role as Tim, can understand what Pikachu is saying, lending enough room to cram endless mirth into the script to the point that I’m no longer surprised that a live-action movie is in the works. On that point, it won’t come as a surprise that, as an adventure game, Detective Pikachu is a dialogue-heavy, story-driven experience. As you progress from chapter to chapter what the game asks of you never really changes, in that you will interview witnesses to pick up clues from their testimony, overcome the odd quick time event here and there, and start to piece everything together in your case notes.
The clues that have been left behind will lead you to become trapped in Litwick Cave, to uncover a dark secret at the Pokémon Comprehensive Laboratory, to lift the fog that has suddenly covered Cappucci Island, and to explore a rundown amusement park that plays home to Pokémon that the world has forgotten about, and there is more than enough variation in the locations that you will find yourself wandering around. That, thanks to Pikachu’s help, you can understand both humans and Pokémon alike, means that interacting with the many pocket monsters soon becomes an entertaining highlight – with each being portrayed with their own quirky personalities and behaviour.
There isn’t any tremendous challenge to be found in the game’s puzzles, which the relative simplicity is perhaps to be expected given the wider demographic that the brand readily attracts, even if it still comes as a disappointment. These moments are interspersed in each case, and, as you start to unravel the larger mystery that you have been confronted with, will lead to Pikachu being struck with “A bolt of brilliance!” before you gather everyone together to out the culprit’s identity.
But, the problem that Detective Pikachu soon trips over is the same criticism that many have directed at the long-running Ace Attorney series, in that the linearity in design means that you must tick everything off an invisible checklist before the game will let you continue. There could be one clue that you have overlooked somewhere, whether that be an item or a missed conversation option, that holds you up despite knowing the solution and wanting to move on.
The Pika Prompts were a way to get around this, which allow the player to turn to Pikachu for pointers on what to do next. But, this system is partly crippled because it’s also how the developer continues to breathe more life into the character with quirky cutscenes. When you really need help to continue, more often than not you will see Pikachu teasing Fennekin, competing to shout louder than Loudred, or being aghast at what is under Mimikyu’s cloth. These lighthearted moments are part of the game’s charm, for sure, but it’s hard to be entertained in places where you are scorning the lack of direction.
Even with that irritation though, it’s hard not to be astounded at Detective Pikachu’s spectacular production values. It easily ranks as one of the best looking games on the Nintendo 3DS whether that be in its art direction or animation, and the voice cast, which stars Kaiji Tang (Pikachu), Khoi Dao (Tim), and Kira Buckland (Emilia) among others, have recorded faultless performances that really help to bring the whole adventure to life.
His lightning-quick powers of deduction and obsession with gulping down coffee blends from High Hat Café aside, the greatest praise that I can throw at Detective Pikachu is how it always felt like you were really working alongside the electric mouse. And, as we cracked our last case, I can only hope that this is only the start of our adventures together.