I do not think Detective Pikachu Returns is a good video game. I’m not sure if it’s bad as much as it’s just not good. It fails to rise to the occasion of a mystery game, nor does it offer any significantly interesting gameplay mechanics. Its plot is predictable. It consistently gets in its own way.
That being said, I smiled often while playing Detective Pikachu Returns. I giggled out loud several times. Pikachu has been an international icon for decades, and he continues to be a delight in this iteration. The other residents of Ryme City, both human and Pokémon, are equally charming. For anyone who’s a fan of the Pokémon universe and just wants more, they’ll certainly find something to love here.
Detective Pikachu Returns succeeds in small moments, but struggles in its grandiose, laboriously told main story. The game picks up where the first left off, with protagonist Tim and his talking Pikachu looking for the missing Harry Goodman, Tim’s dad and Pikachu’s old detective partner. The plot itself has interesting elements, but the game has execution problems from start to finish. My biggest problem is with its core premise.
Detective Pikachu Returns Is Not a Good Detective Game
Detective Pikachu Returns misses several opportunities to actually be a mystery video game, much less a good one. The story is split into 6 chapters, but only the first actually has a true experience of having a case to solve. The rest of the chapters are all explorations into a big conspiracy. The same thing happened in the first game as well, and it’s disappointing to see it happen again.
The mechanics of interviewing suspects, gathering clues, and using logic deduction is only interesting in the first case. In every other chapter, the player usually ends up repeating points that have been blatantly stated minutes or even moments before. Throughout Detective Pikachu Returns, the player is treated almost like its amnesiac namesake.
There’s one particularly frustrating late-game sequence where I repeated the same bit of logic three or four times within a five minute period. Every time, Tim and Pikachu remarked to themselves with surprise, “Wow, yes, that must be it!” Bro, you just said what I said. In the finale chapter, I had several moments where I murmured out loud, “Duh.”
While the main plot is told well, it’s not very interesting from a substance perspective. Part of this has to do with its relationship to the 2019 blockbuster film. Since any commentary on that movie would include massive spoilers, I’m going to include my notes on it after the score at the end of this review.
Detective Pikachu Returns Chooses Hand Holding Over Fun
In the game’s tutorial, players are told that they can ask Pikachu for help if they get stuck. I only needed/wanted to do this once, in the game’s first case. Pikachu told me exactly where to look for the next step, but this isn’t even necessary as the game continues. Throughout the other chapters, you’re told explicitly what to do at almost every significant given juncture and sometimes are just guided there immediately with no choice.
If Detective Pikachu Returns had left guidance like this as optional hints rather than mandatory hand-holding, I think the game could’ve felt more intellectually stimulating. I wondered at one point if this was done with the idea of helping out young children playing the game, but then, again, why not just leave Pikachu’s optional hints?
Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if, in the moments where you had autonomy, you were actually able to do something about it. Even if you realize that you need to ask X for help, you have to wait until the characters figure it out. This can mean clicking on three or four different setpieces before the characters “get it.” Even then, the game doesn’t give you the opportunity as the player to make that decision—protagonist Tim will simply say, “Let’s ask X!” and you’re transported back to X.
Detective Pikachu Returns could’ve invited players to practice logic, which is a core premise of mystery games. Players could enjoy the experience of unraveling details. Instead, the game frequently removes any chance for players to exercise initiative or analysis. Perhaps that’s why I most enjoyed my time exploring and doing side quests.
Detective Pikachu Returns feels like it was made by a group of people who really love Pokémon, but don’t necessarily care about mysteries or video games.
The Best Part of Detective Pikachu Returns
The game most succeeds when it frees itself from the burdens of A Big Impressive Plot. You can explore a few contained neighborhood blocks that are teeming with interesting Pokémon. Because of Pikachu’s special ability, you can talk to them. Sometimes, you even play as Pikachu rather than Tim, and this allows for more direct and stimulating conversations.
The Pokémon in Detective Pikachu Returns are brimming with personality. Some are sullen, others are playful. They’re spunky, determined, and have goals. For anyone who’s a fan of the Pokémon universe, they’ll find this approach to the interior lives of Pokémon to be refreshing and delightful.
In each level, there are side quests called “Concerns.” They’re basically all fetch quests, but their simplicity didn’t bother me—it just meant there were fewer roadblocks to the endearing conversations. I reunited a group of Clefeba who were playing hide-and-seek but had gotten so wrapped up in their mission that they forgot they had to go home for dinner. A young boy wished he had a friend to play soccer with, so I introduced him to a Cinderace. I explained to a Gumshoos who thought people were being tortured in a shop that they were just eating spicy food; I awakened in him a passion for curry.
There is such a level of care and joy in the development’s approach to all of the Pokémon featured in Detective Pikachu Returns. It’s no surprise that the best gameplay is also Pokémon-heavy, rather than anything having to do with Tim Goodman.
Less People, More Pokémon
Gameplay-wise, Detective Pikachu Returns is largely disappointing. Besides the incredibly simple logic elements I’ve discussed, most of the game is running around levels and talking to NPCs. At one point, Tim and Pikachu get separated, and you toggle between sections with them. Tim’s sections are unilaterally boring compared to Pikachu’s.
In each of the chapters, Pikachu builds a relationship with a Pokémon where he can ride on their back and the player can utilize that Pokémon’s skillset. For example, in the first match, Pikachu rides a Growlithe’s back who follows scents to trace clues. While even these activities are simple, at least they’re interesting, sweet, and (for the series at least) innovative.
Pikachu himself is well-written and funny. Developer Creatures is one of the co-owners of the Pokémon franchise (along with Game Freak and Nintendo), and their love for their beloved mascot is obvious. Even the way Pikachu runs, huffing and puffing behind Tim, is animated with care. Any time he talks, it makes the scene better. Players can touch base with Pikachu throughout the game just to chat, offering scenes like this one:
Graphics and Audio of Detective Pikachu Returns
Overall, the graphics in Detective Pikachu Returns are fine. Generally, they have a fun, colorful 3D-ness. However, the portraits for human NPCs, aside from the main characters, are super creepy. They are under-detailed and have a strange, dead-eye expression when you talk to them. I’d rather we had zero close-ups of them in dialogue.
Many cutscenes have voice acting (with the option to choose between Japanese or English). The English voice actors for the most part do a pretty good job, especially the actors for Tim and Pikachu, though with one exception: There are a couple of times when Pikachu has memory flashbacks and, as he falls into a purple-and-black psychic abyss, wails with panic. I think I’m supposed to be worried about Pikachu in this scene, but the over-the-top “WahHhahHHHh!” is more funny than anything.
The music is appropriately fun and energetic. I found myself especially taking note of anything that took advantage of the theme with a jaunty, hard-boiled jazzy. When I went to look up a specific song to add here, I discovered there’s actually an astounding (disturbing?) 173 unique, unnamed tracks on the Detective Pikachu Returns original soundtrack composed by Takuto Kitsuta. I’m fond of #94.
Yet Another Female Pokémon Sidekick With Nothing To Do
Anyone who was invested in and excited by Tim’s growing friendship with GNN reporter Emilia Christie from the first game/the movie will be disappointed. Emilia only shows up during optional-to-view news segments that Tim can watch each morning. However, neither Tim nor Pikachu mentions once that they know Emilia, are happy that her career is blossoming, wonder how she’s doing, or anything like that. It’s very weird.
However, the game does deliver yet another young, attractive, female companion who knows random things that conveniently Tim and Pikachu don’t know. This time it’s the daughter of the mayor, Rachel Myers, who’s also a university classmate of Tim. Despite Tim spending a lot of the game with Rachel, I found myself struggling to remember interesting things about her to share here.
This is yet another missed opportunity in Detective Pikachu Returns. I have often been disappointed by female representation and storylines in the Pokémon franchise (c’mon, they’re all called Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy? Really?). Here, Rachel’s character is set up to care about Pokemon rights and welfare, but they usually don’t give Rachel anything interesting or deep to say. Most of what she says is something like, “I can’t believe Papa would do this!” Also, she calls her dad “Papa,” like a lot, which doesn’t work unless Eleven from Stranger Things or a ten-year-old French rich boy from the 1930s.
Is Detective Pikachu Returns Worth Playing?
If you want to experience the comfort of the Pokémon world without the stress of battling, then I think Detective Pikachu Returns serves its role admirably. However, I don’t think it’s a great video game, much less a great detective game. If you can tell yourself that Detective Pikachu Returns is essentially an interactive anime episode, rather than an actual video game, then I think you’ll have fun.
For anyone who’s a fan of the Pokémon universe and just wants more, they’ll certainly find something to love here.
Despite having a pleasant time, I was frustrated to see an IP with as much potential as Detective Pikachu flounder in a video game format. It’s not like there aren’t examples of successful mystery games from which to take inspiration. For the most part, Pokémon mainline games have stuck to a pretty standard core formula for decades. There have only been a few deviations, most recently Pokémon Legends: Arceus and New Pokémon Snap (which I listed in my Top 5 GOTYs for 2021). Both of those were executed so well (with different studios at the helm), which makes Detective Pikachu Returns all the more disappointing. Detective Pikachu Returns feels like it was made by a group of people who really love Pokémon, but don’t necessarily care about mysteries or video games.
I did a completionist playthrough of Detective Pikachu Returns which took me about 15 hours. The price tag of $49.99 is hefty for such a short playtime. Wait until it’s on sale, and manage your expectations.
Detective Pikachu Returns was released on October 6, 2023, for Nintendo Switch. It was developed by Creatures and published by Nintendo and The Pokémon Company.
P.S.: How Detective Pikachu Returns Differs From the Movie
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR DETECTIVE PIKACHU (2019, FILM) AND DETECTIVE PIKACHU RETURNS
Mind Over Movie
The Detective Pikachu 2018 3DS video game ended on a cliff-hanger. What were Mewtwo and Pikachu talking about? Will Harry Goodman be okay?! Where is he???
Three years later, the answer was “spoiled” in the 2019 movie—Pikachu’s consciousness had been fused with Harry’s to save the latter’s life. In the movie, Harry and Pikachu are safely separated and get to live their lives together.
In the opening hour of Detective Pikachu Returns, Tim pointedly makes a cheeky comment that movies often do their own thing. In the opening hours of Detective Pikachu Returns, this gave me hope that the game would also try to do its own thing. I wondered what clever way they would handle Pikachu and Tim’s ability to speak together. Perhaps Mewtwo had put a spell on them of some kind. Maybe Harry had taught Pikachu a special move. Could Pikachu be at the forefront of the ultimate Pokémon evolution???
The game reveals at the end of the penultimate chapter, through an incredibly laborious back-and-forth series of conversations with Tim and Pikachu, that what happened in the movie did indeed happen in the game universe. Perhaps this would’ve been interesting if I hadn’t seen the movie four years ago, or if this game had come out before the film. Instead, it’s disappointing and, because of how the news is delivered, pandering and annoying. I have a hard time believing that Nintendo genuinely thinks that the majority of people playing this game wouldn’t have seen the movie.
In the game’s final moments, everything is wrapped up quite suddenly with a neat little bow. When the credits began to roll, I actually said out loud, “What?” Staying through the credits rewards the player with a brief epilogue cutscene… but mostly, it’s just such an abrupt ending to an already short game. It’s as if the developers thought, “Well, they already know how it ended with Ryan Reynolds, so what’s the point?”
I guess this is all to say… I’m not really sure what the Detective Pikachu development team was doing for the past five years. With all that time and the movie “spoiling” their big reveal, I would’ve thought that the team would’ve come up with an alternate path. Maybe Harry could have remained missing, and this game could’ve actually been about solving crimes. Or even that it would’ve picked up after the events of the movie, and again, this game could’ve actually been about Detective Pikachu… being a detective.