"Although Detective Pikachu unequivocally has a charming lead, it's ultimately a few sparks short of being a true bolt of brilliance."
Trouble better prepare
Because Pokémon's star detectives are here!
To protect Ryme City from R infestation
To unravel the mysteries behind its causation
To discover the truth in testimonies unclear
To search for a person they both hold dear
Two skillful sleuths with wit and resilience!
Solving each case with a bolt of brilliance!
Yep, that's right!
Okay, so that last line didn't quite work out. I tried my best. But now, I completely understand why Team Rocket loves to recite their motto constantly; it's inexplicably invigorating, to say the least. All homage aside, Pokémon is back with a new spin-off, and no, it isn't another mystery dungeon game, unfortunately. In this latest installment, the titanic franchise ventures into the detective subgenre and follows the footsteps of acclaimed series like Professor Layton and Ace Attorney. Is Detective Pikachu the newest standout in this ever-growing category, or is it nothing more than a slavish imitation? As RPGFan's unofficial resident detective, I'm on the case! (You all have no idea how much I've always wanted to say that.)
There's trouble brewing in the coastal streets of Ryme City (the punny side of me ardently wishes for it to be named Electri City instead). Pokémon are going berserk with no identifiable cause. Harry Goodman, a prominent detective, was investigating these incidences alongside his eponymous sidekick when he mysteriously vanished after a fateful car accident, leaving his Pikachu both partnerless and with partial amnesia. Without any leads, Tim Goodman travels to the city in order to search for his missing father. Shortly after arriving, he has a chance encounter with his father's Pikachu and startlingly discovers that it can talk with no "Ryme" or reason. Well, only to him, it seems. With introductions out of the way, the two decide to form an alliance and retrace Harry's footsteps in the hopes of finding clues pertaining to his whereabouts.
Before its release, Detective Pikachu shocked the world by releasing highly charged teasers that unveiled a jarring representation of the beloved mascot. Gone is the adorable demeanor we've all come to know and love, and in comes a boisterous variant with a penchant for problem solving, sarcasm, and coffee quaffing. Seriously, that quasi-drunken expression in the screenshot to the right says it all. Initially, I was a bit skeptical of this unconventional direction but decided to give the developers the benefit of the doubt.
And I'm glad I did.
Most, if not all, of the game's magnetic charm can be attributed to Kaiji Tang's phenomenal portrayal of the titular protagonist. His performance is imbued with such electrifying élan that provides a much-needed and welcome change to the staling formula of the franchise. Complementing it is a slew of witty banter referred to as Pika Prompts which are sometimes informative (but mostly comical) cutscenes sporadically scattered throughout the game. During investigations, I would explore every nook and cranny of each location to trigger these prompts simply to witness more of Pikachu's slapstick shenanigans. Pika Prompts undeniably warm the cockles of my heart, and there are over 150 of them! Gotta find 'em all!
Tim, on the other hand, is your typical McCoy and serves as the perfect foil for the rambunctious rodent. He is the resounding voice of reason and the one who constantly reels Pikachu back in whenever it gets sidetracked...by coffee and sweets especially. But unlike his sparkling counterpart, Tim is sorely underdeveloped as a main protagonist. Apart from being a mild-mannered and artistic individual, his personal background and overall relationship with his father are shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless, they make a dynamically charged duo that enhances the game's hearty atmosphere.
A few moments of wonderment aside, the trope-reliant narrative in Detective Pikachu is criminally dull with its array of amateurish whodunits. Each enigma is rife with overexplanations and obvious hints that negate the need for critical thinking. All that's missing are blinking neon signs hovering over each clue. Rounding out my story woes is a string of cheap red herrings that drag the overarching story to an unforeseeable and unfair revelation and a contrived sequel hook. Moments after playing through the unfulfilling conclusion, I scoured through the Internet to see if there was an alternate and more gratifying ending. There wasn't.
Solving each case is your standard adventure game fare most akin to Ace Attorney Investigations with its formulaic process of clue gathering and clue sorting. Gathering evidence involves surveying the area for key items or conversing with people and Pokémon alike (with the help of your bilingual partner of course) for useful testimonies. After collecting the necessary evidence, you must make certain connections to draw a conclusion using the Case Notes functionality. Serving as a change of pace during investigations, quick time events are lazily sprinkled throughout with no real penalties for missing them. Failing to press the A button in a timely fashion simply results in a do-over or an alternate scene with one unhappy Pikachu. Not too hard, right? But wait, it gets easier — too easy in fact. Alongside the already elementary puzzles and QTEs is a Pikachu that's constantly holding your hand through every step and doesn't know when to let go. Instead of being able to utilize my powers of deduction, I was simply following his "suggestions" the entire time.
Thankfully, there are picturesque landscapes along the way to keep things enthralling and interesting. Detective Pikachu is the most visually stunning game in the series thus far, and Creatures Inc. beautifully showcases this with its call for exploration in each of the game's chapters. Detailed buildings line the bustling city streets and are accompanied by moving objects and ambient noise. Likewise, the tropicality of the island is perfectly captured by the lush vegetation and the endless susurrus of the waves. And if that's not enough to strike you with awe, then Tim's sketches surely will. Each drawing pays a small tribute to the art from the original anime series with a cartoonish appearance and pseudo-watercolor effects.
And that's it! That's all my case notes, so here are my closing remarks:
A good mystery doesn't have to be serious. But it does need to be both engaging and exhilarating to establish appeal and maintain interest. Every action and interaction should feel like a calculated clue that leaves you in a constant state of suspense which propels you toward the culmination and a satisfying conclusion. Most importantly, there should be substantial (but not too revealing) evidence throughout the narrative for the player to identify the culprit without it feeling entirely like a bolt from the blue. Although Detective Pikachu unequivocally has a charming lead, it's ultimately a few sparks short of being a true bolt of brilliance.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.