After seven years, Pokemon has returned to the story of Detective Pikachu with the aptly titled Detective Pikachu Returns, but time away does not appear to have been kind to the original Nintendo 3DS game's formula. Pikachu in a little deerstalker is as charming as it ever was, but the underlying mechanics and graphics show their age even with a fresh coat of paint.
Release date: October 6, 2023
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
First and foremost, Detective Pikachu Returns is a game about detective work and investigations. It's a classic formula, but complicated here by the existence of Pokemon broadly, the fact that protagonist Tim Goodman is the only human that can talk with the eponymous Detective Pikachu, and the mysterious disappearance of Tim's father, Harry, as of the events of the first game that has still not been resolved.
But don't worry if you didn't play the 2016 original. The opening of Detective Pikachu Returns includes a quick, handy recap of the most important events that you really need to know in order to conceptually understand what's about to happen in the new game, and it's not like it assumes you already know how its mechanics work. There are a few tweaks compared to the original, which do seem for the better, but actually playing should feel relatively familiar to anyone with prior experience.
Grin and bear it
The core conceit is compelling – who wouldn't want to find their missing father? – but the actual investigation work is full of drudgery, presented in a way that constantly made me reconsider my stance that all games are for everyone. Detective Pikachu Returns feels made for children, as opposed to being made also for children, in a way that is reminiscent of shows like Dora the Explorer or Cocomelon. It beats you over the head with solutions and looks oddly smooth, in a way that I typically associate with low-budget animated shows on streaming services.
If you're simply following along with whatever is suggested you do, it is nearly impossible to come to anything but the correct conclusion about a given caper. The first major case in Detective Pikachu Returns, "The Missing Jewel," essentially holds your hand and signposts every major development multiple times in a way that makes it increasingly obvious (as it should) who did it but that still requires several further steps to come to the mechanical conclusion you've already mentally reached. It makes for a frustrating experience.
Basically, once you've wandered around and collected enough clues, you can start to deduce how those clues actually answer a question as part of the larger investigation like, for example, how someone got access to the aforementioned jewel or where exactly a specific Pokemon was heading. It's a slow process that requires interacting with nearly every person or Pokemon you find in addition to various points of interest, and few are interesting enough on their own to hold the right amount of focus for the constant back and forth.
And there is a lot of back and forth. I frequently found myself butting up against just how fast Tim or Pikachu could move because it was never quite fast enough to make traversal across environments anything but time consuming. It's not that the spaces are particularly big or unwieldy; they are just largely empty and devoid of anything to do once you've been through once or twice, despite the fact that it feels like the game sends you through far more than that. It's a double whammy, in that it is just big enough to feel empty and annoying while not big enough to feel a real sense of place.
Haven't a clue
There are still high points, however. If you liked the fact that Pikachu talked and went around helping solve crimes in the original game, or the wildly popular live-action movie Pokemon: Detective Pikachu for that matter, that vibe is absolutely still present. There's still a weirdly campy tone where an official Pokemon video game talks about characters wanting a divorce in stilted dialogue in shockingly close textual proximity to an entirely different conversation featuring others discussing how delicious it is to eat a Slowpoke's tail.
That's the part of Detective Pikachu Returns that works for me. I want more of Pikachu getting flipped up into the cold snowball on Galarian Darmanitan's head to ride around while shivering and punching boulders. I want more of him razzing Tim for not having/maybe trying to have a girlfriend. I want more jokes about how the canonical, in-game movie adaptation of Tim's greatest case didn't include Tim's mom and sister with a nod and a wink at the plot of the actual real-life movie.
My opinion of Detective Pikachu Returns is largely summarized by how I feel about Pikachu's little running animation. It's delightful to see him run pell-mell after Tim, hat flapping about, off to his little job that he finds such pride in. It's just the right amount of serious, which is to say only barely. But it's repetitive, and as charming as it is, the joy I initially found had diminishing returns. In the end, instead of chuckling, I only found myself wishing he'd run faster so that the busywork on the other end of his journey would be over all the more swiftly.
Detective Pikachu Returns was reviewed using code provided by the publisher on a Nintendo Switch OLED.