In Detective Pikachu Returns, Kitschy Humor Steals the Show
He likes his coffee black.
While playing Detective Pikachu Returns, it dawned on me that this brusque version of the series’ mascot is likely the least agile Pokémon I’d ever seen. In one scene, Pikachu needed to climb on the back of a Growlithe, and after giving a couple of little despondent hops, like a child that can’t reach a cookie jar, he asked the Growlithe to lay down so he could ungracefully climb aboard.
The humor of Detective Pikachu Returns is the driving force behind the experience, creating an undeniably charming world and story, even if the gameplay systems around it seem a bit too simple at times. That said, it’s marked departure for the Pokémon franchise, and the personality injected into the experience should put it on any fan’s radar.
Detective Pikachu Returns is a sequel to the 2018 3DS game Detective Pikachu, picking up directly where that story left off. It follows a young man named Tim Goodman, who’s looking for his missing father with the help of his partner, the gruff-talking, coffee-slinging Detective Pikachu.
My thirty-minute demo put me in the mix with Tim and Pikachu as they investigate a jewel theft. The adventure game is split up into a number of chapters where you’ll conduct investigations, gather clues, and determine the culprit. Detective Pikachu Returns is entirely based around dialogue and investigation. Unlike most Pokémon games, there’s no battling whatsoever.
“In order for the fans to really enjoy detective work, we wanted to steer the attention away from battle, so that they can focus on using their brain to figure their way through,” says Yasunori Yanagisawa, senior creative director at Creatures Inc.
The dialogue feels fast and snappy. Each Pokémon you meet has a little tagline as a descriptor that sets the stage for their personality, like “Pawniard: Furious Slices.”
Detective Pikachu Returns is a deeply unserious story, in a good way. In one section I had to find a Pawniar and interrogate it. While learning about his story, Pikachu wondered how Pawniard could get into a second-story window, which cut to a quick scene of the grumpy little Pokémon being lifted into the air by two Whimsicotts stuck on its shoulders. It was a slapstick moment that made great use of the physical features of Pokémon, and it’s indicative of the game’s approach in general.
Just like the first game, Detective Pikachu Returns is preoccupied with the physicality of these weird little creatures, and how humans would actually cohabitate with them in an urban setting. That’s what I enjoyed the most about the first game, and I’m very glad to see that emphasis still present here.
The major new feature of the sequel fleshes out this idea even more, by letting you directly control Pikachu during investigations. While you control Tim, you’ll be able to talk to humans and have Pikachu interpret for Pokémon. Playing as Pikachu lets you actually talk to those same Pokémon, seeing more of their unfiltered personalities.
This is also essential for piecing clues together, as Pikachu can find different clues and advance the investigation in ways Tim can’t. You’ll also be able to ride certain Pokémon in these sections, like the aforementioned Growlithe. It’s a neat little twist that adds more variety to investigations and provides you with more ways to learn about Ryme City and its inhabitants.
Still, the deductions you make are decidedly simple, obviously intended for younger audiences, and most of the game boils down to walking around and collecting clues.
“This game is made for all ages. However, for the older generations that might have more knowledge about Pokémon, they can use their knowledge and experience with Pokémon to bypass or expedite certain parts of the game,” says Yanagisawa.
Graphically, Detective Pikachu Returns isn’t exceptionally impressive, but there’s a bright color palette the game uses that injects a bit of personality. Despite its simplicity the first Detective Pikachu still managed to shine by having quirky characters and an interesting story, and getting hands-on with the sequel gave me hope it’ll manage to hit that sweet spot again.