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SummaryA disappointing Pokemon point-and-click adventure
The Good* Detective Pikachu is a great character
* Some humorous moments
* Impressive visuals
The Bad* Incredibly underwhelming storyline
* Bland human characters
* Holds your hand pretty much every step of the way
* Dull soundtrack and voice acting
The Bottom LineI haven’t had the best relationship with the Pokemon franchise. While the original Game Boy titles, Red and Blue, were released in the West when I was just the right age for them, I really haven’t kept up with the series since those games. Something about the games, anime, and other media that called out like the Pied Piper to my generation just wasn’t super effective for me. Despite this, I still hold a few fond memories of that time period, a time when some innocent little Game Boy games from Japan seemed like the biggest thing in the world to us kids.
Pokemon’s core RPG games are generally huge system sellers, but ever since the release of Pokemon Stadium, they have been complemented by numerous spin-off titles in many different genres. We’ve had roguelikes, racing games, puzzle games, party games, and even virtual pet games. In 2016, the franchise took its first stab at the point-and-click adventure genre with Detective Pikachu. Unfortunately, despite some surprisingly impressive production values there are a bit too many design and creative snags for this adventure to ever reach the heights of Pokemon’s best titles.
While the titular character is indeed the runaway star of the game, the player actually controls a character named Tim Goodman. Tim’s a young man on the cusp of adulthood who has arrived in Ryme City to search for his missing father, detective Harry Goodman. Not long after exiting the subway station, Tim runs into a Pikachu sporting a deerstalker hat who can .. talk? Yes, as it turns out only Tim and Detective Pikachu, Harry’s former partner, can understand each other, and he’s more than happy to help Tim search for his missing father. After getting their bearings and learning to work together, Pikachu and Tim set out to follow Harry’s trail and uncover a conspiracy along the way.
Detective Pikachu himself has to be one of the wildest creations to ever come out of the Pokemon franchise. Taking gaming’s defacto cute ’n cuddly mascot and transforming him into a gruff, hard-boiled detective really is a stroke of genius. He’s addicted to coffee and sweets, hits on just about every human woman he sees, and is always ready with solving cases with his sharp powers of observation and deduction. Basically, he’s Sherlock Holmes mixed with a bit of Casanova and an electric dose of cuteness. For a franchise so committed to staying wholesome and squeaky-clean, Detective Pikachu is amazingly subversive, while never straying too far out of the bounds of a E rating. Getting a chance to let its freak flag fly for a tiny bit does wonders for the Pokemon franchise, and it makes me wonder how much further it could reasonably go in this direction. A few of his jokes were actually more adult and borderline suggestive than I would have reasonably expected for such a game, and I actually laughed out loud several times.
Too bad that once you get past the character you realize that the story he’s stars in is kind of uninteresting. The game assumes that you already have a strong attachment to the world of Pokemon, as it features monsters from mostly the newer generations, all saying their names right on cue. This doesn’t excuse how bland the human characters are, nor how predictable some of the cases you solve can be. There’s something so odd about how humans treat Pokemon not just as pets but in almost every aspect of life, but the game rarely if ever breaches the ethical questions posed by this.
The first two chapters are painfully dull as the scenarios are very low-key and the tutorial prompts numerous. Thankfully, things start to get a bit more interesting starting with the third chapter, which is where the plot’s conspiracy truly begins to unravel. Even then however, there is something curiously flat and uninspired about the way the game is written. The game is so loaded with expository dialogue that it feels like the relationship between Tim and Pikachu is being pushed aside. The side characters don’t leave much of an impression apart from the weird stoner scientist and a few of the Pokemon which you meet. The worst aspect is easily the ending, which leaves the story’s biggest question completely unanswered for a recently announced Nintendo Switch sequel. It’s such a terrible way to end the game that it’s no wonder the recent film adaptation went for a completely different resolution.
The most disappointing thing about Detective Pikachu is how it plays. Even in Normal mode, the hardest difficulty available, the game is constantly dropping you hints and tutorial prompts. There are many times where you’ll have to link the various pieces of evidence together in a simple puzzle, and there’s no penalty for getting them wrong. It’s merely a check to see if you’ve been paying attention. Even the traditional inventory puzzles are as basic as they can get, with everything automated through simple interactions. There are also quick-time events, but there’s no real penalty for missing these, and they only involve pushing the A button and no other buttons. They’re as basic as they can possibly get.
Detective Pikachu is an admirable attempt to bring this genre to the 3DS, though perhaps its not the most suitable for a small handheld. Most of the game ends up being navigated via the circle pad rather than the touchscreen. Even zooming in on investigative scenes takes forever since the cursor to inspect them moves so incredibly slow. On top of this, there are some surprisingly lengthy load times as you move between areas, and for a game with this many room transitions, having all of this downtime isn’t a good thing.
Nevertheless, Detective Pikachu might quietly be one of the system’s best-looking games. The 3DS was never meant to be a graphical powerhouse, so while the visuals are unlikely to give most Switch games pause, within the limitations of the console it’s actually quite impressive. The polygon count is surprisingly high and the textures are mostly of very good quality. The character animations, particularly those of the Pokemon, are expressive and adorable. There are also a lot of in-engine cutscenes, many of which have surprisingly excellent camera-work and staging. Sadly, there are a few scenes where the framerate drops really hard when there are more than a few characters on-screen, but its a small price to pay for such impressive visuals, and it’s never really an issue since this isn’t an action game. The only real downside is that due to how demanding the visuals are the game is strictly playable in 2D, but by the time this game was released few gamers really cared about the 3D effects anyway, so it’s not a huge loss.
For a 3DS title the amount of voiced dialogue is actually quite impressive, yet the voice acting feels incredibly off for some reason. Lines aren’t delivered with much inflection or personality, and even Pikachu’s voice actor struggles to really bring his character to life. It’s more the sheer audacity of the concept which carries Pikachu more than his actor’s performance. Even the Pokemon voices just don’t sound right.
For a game which constantly mentions jazz music, it’s kind of surprising that Detective Pikachu doesn’t include any. It would have perfectly complemented the story’s noir-ish tone. Nor do we get the chipper, catchy themes of the core games. Instead, we have mostly boring forgettable lite-funk tunes with almost no personality to speak of.
While there are times when one can see the sparks of a truly excellent point-and-click game within Detective Pikachu, they are buried under a blanket of bland writing, a clunky interface, and a design philosophy which insists that only the most amateur sleuths need apply. Despite having fairly impressive visuals and one of the most charismatic and charming leads of any adventure game in recent years, Detective Pikachu doesn’t actually do much beyond its core conceit to make it an adventure game actually worth siting down and playing, unless of course you are a die-hard Pokémaniac. And while it isn’t fair for a seasoned adult gamer to expect too much out of a game targeted at a junior audience, I don’t think that wholesomeness and cuteness doesn’t necessarily have to go hand in hand with excessive handholding and lack of interactivity.