The Pokemon franchise can’t be put in a box anymore. It seems like no genre or media format hasn’t been invaded by this unstoppable force of nature. You name it, chances are that Pokemon has done it. In 2016, the series dabbled in the mystery-solving adventure game genre with Detective Pikachu on 3DS, and while it didn’t set the world on fire, it became another notch in Pokemon’s belt for territory.
It was a humble little game that the world quickly forgot about after it came out. It was about Tim Goodman, a boy who could understand his Pikachu who also happens to be a detective with a coffee addiction. Somebody high up on the ladder has wild hair that still needs to be plucked.
It seems like Pokemon has explored every form of media. One could argue that the one arena Pokemon hasn’t touched yet is delivering a polished and high-quality product. Could there be an answer to why? Perhaps in this review of Detective Pikachu Returns, we may discover the secret of how such a massive media institution can release consistently mediocre games.
Detective Pikachu Returns
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 6, 2023
Price: $49.99 USD
Nintendo Switch has no shortage of excellent mystery-solving adventure games. Some of the best ones are the Danganronpa games; a trilogy of gripping and edge-of-your-seat thrills that suck the player into a world of intrigue and edgy, crass dialogue.
There is also Rain Code, an ambitious high-concept detective adventure set in an enigmatic Kanai Ward, where the player also explores the abstract plane of the mystery dimension. Both AI: The Somnium Files titles are also masterpieces in the genre, providing some of the most gripping and entertaining scenarios to solve on Switch… and then there’s Detective Pikachu Returns.
The story of the first Detective Pikachu is quickly recapped with Pikachu recounting the events over a film projector. This is how the game introduces the character and it is not the most dramatic reveal for gamers who never played the prior entry. The premise of a talking Pikachu is very wild and shows him speaking with the same voice actor as Kasuga Ichiban with no build-up. This should have been a more shocking reveal.
The story unfolds in five chapters and a prologue, all of which are very boring. A lot of the reason is because of the utterly sterile and lifeless presentation of the scenarios and flat dialogue that none of the actors work with. The story itself is weirdly familiar territory that follows the Detective Pikachu film from 2019.
The individual stories that serve to prop up the overarching plot are more original, but like everything else in Detective Pikachu Returns; there is a noticeable lack of joy or energy in all of the proceedings. There is a moment that is almost clever when Pikachu is arrested but is undermined by some utterly baffling design choices regarding a mind-control device.
A lot of the time, characters are seemingly forced to act stupid or oblivious to make the story work. Everyone in this universe would know what Pokemon are, but there are moments where characters act like they’ve never seen one before. This is usually followed up with some tedious exposition that also doubles as an advertisement for more Pokemon merchandise.
There are attempts to incorporate the Pokemon’s abilities into solving cases. Some crimes are also committed using their powers or unique properties. This is the core of why Detective Pikachu Returns works at all. The premise of Pokemon being used in other aspects outside of battling is genuinely appealing. It is too bad that it rarely comes into play with the gameplay at all.
A vast majority of the experience in Detective Pikachu Returns is running back and forth between NPCs to talk or investigate crime scenes to look for clues. Pikachu acts as an interpreter for Pokemon since Tim is only able to understand him. Usually, there will be a required side quest that has to be done to get some Pokemon to spill the beans.
These stories are very dull and uneventful. There are some mind-numbingly easy QTEs and Tim has to ask people a lot of questions. There are also never any consequences for any failures or mistakes. There is only one path and no alternate routes.
Environments are also very small and lack detail. There is not much in terms of visual style. Tim looks like a Nick Jr. version of Marty McFly and like every character in Detective Pikachu Returns, he has blank, soulless lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes.
The lighting is flat and even. Detective Pikachu Returns should have been bold with its visuals and textures. As it stands now, it looks like a cheap mobile game. There is no grit or stylish camera work to build emotion in any scene. Every moment is framed for the sake of efficiency and becomes hopelessly bland that it becomes painful to look at.
The voice actors do their best with the material they are given which is not a whole lot. Dialogue is on par with the quality seen in the Pokemon anime, which is very light and simple. The edgiest the scenario gets is when themes revolving around a divorce are brought up and it’s handled in the most tame way possible.
Detective Pikachu Returns‘ biggest failure isn’t its basic gameplay or sterile presentation; its most heinous blunder is how agonizingly boring it is. Playing this game with children (the target audience) only alienated them. The lack of grit or edge didn’t lure them in and the sorry writing didn’t keep them hooked either.
The languid and laid-back pacing throughout failed to generate a sense of momentum. The humor is usually very flat. The set-ups and payoffs have the energy of a YouTube advertisement and have no wit. Detective Pikachu Returns‘ barebones mystery-solving gameplay aimed at kids could have worked if the presentation wasn’t utterly joyless and cheap-looking.
Detective Pikachu Returns was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by Nintendo. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Detective Pikachu Returns is now available for Nintendo Switch.