For decades now, yes decades, the Pokémon series has had its two mascot figures: Ash Ketchum and Pikachu. The duo has been the face of the series; a partnership built on trust, friendship, and being chased by a horde of overpowered birds in the rain. Now it’s time for something a little different; an adventure that still stars a young boy and an electric mouse, but a very different dynamic. There are still the adorable critters you know and adore, but intertwined with riddles and exploration – an intriguing mystery about a very unique Pikachu. Does Detective Pikachu have what it takes to inject something fresh as a spin-off, or is it a mystery best left unsolved?
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First and foremost, Detective Pikachu is a very different sort of Pokémon title. No longer is it a coming-of-age tale of a young lad or lass, but more of an action-packed tale of mystery and intrigue. It’s Pokémon from a very different perspective, but one that maintains what’s most loved about the tale: those unique critters. It all starts with a young, slightly clueless, lad who strolls into town in search of his father. Tim’s old man has been absent for two months, apartment stained in dust and something just doesn’t feel quite right. Just where to begin, though? As fate has it, Tim ends up crossing paths with the star of this particular tale: a special Pikachu that’s traded thunderbolts for magnifying glasses and deer stalker hats.
Pikachu is a touch different from the ones seen in the animé and games. It’s wiser, a touch gruff, and has a keen craving for a hot cup of coffee. Much like Meowth from the animated show, this Pikachu is able to go beyond cheery grunts and engage in full-blown conversation. Interestingly, only Tim can speak to this Pikachu, making their audience raise an eyebrow – has Tim been sniffing too many Magikarp? The pair’s introduction is only short-lived as a horde of Aipom monkeys are causing chaos, stealing a necklace from an unsuspecting girl and running off like the cheeky scamps they are. It’s from here that the new detective pairing is unwittingly thrown into action; a new case formed.
Detective Pikachu plays much like the point-and-click games of old, blending the likes of the Ace Attorney or Professor Layton franchises into one over-arching narrative. The formula leans a little bit more toward the former, with plenty of sleuthing and NPC interaction to be had. Whether it’s a missing puppy or being trapped deep within a cave; Pikachu and Tim are on the case. To progress, simply scour the area and talk to as many witnesses as possible – jotting down notes and prodding the scene for any evidence. The crux of all the investigating comes when Detective Pikachu, who clearly knows what’s happening, gets time to slide the pieces into place. By blending testimony with any evidence, the duo solves the case in style. The pacing of these puzzles is done well, together with quick-time events, to break up the exploration/investigation scenes.
The Pokémon / human relationship is where Detective Pikachu stands out amongst similar mystery tales. Tim handles the interactions with fellow city folk in an amusingly awkward way, whilst Pikachu plays the buddy-cop lead role by talking with Pokémon. It’s interesting seeing the dynamic unfold, with more to the adorable creatures than simply battering each other to a pulp. They are not just hiding within tall grass, waiting to be nabbed by a cheery ten-year old, but going about their own lives.
Where the game does tend to falter is the dialogue with the human folk; seemingly more like dressed up signposts. Unlike Ace Attorney, there seem to be far too many of these avatars that are indistinguishable from one another. One thing that makes a good, and ultimately rewarding, experience is having only a handful of faces – but each one contributing to the chapter. Due to the slightly stilted dialogue trees, and some repetition, some of the chapters do tend to drag on a little longer than they should, with plenty of backtracking to discover something that should have been apparent earlier on. Most story-driven titles do have that re-tread aspect, but the pay-off is compelling enough to justify it – at times Detective Pikachu wraps things up in muted way. As the adventure unfolds, however, things do accelerate and become more compelling – it just takes some fiddly chapters to get there.
Where the game really does excel is the main cast – Pikachu has been portrayed and developed in such a way that distinguishes him from other cutesy yellow mice. Given the iconic appeal of the Pikachu being the franchise’s mascot, it was a risk to use the very same type of character in the spotlight for this tale. Simply through his movements and impressive voice-over work, though, this new take holds his own as a very special Pikachu indeed. Tim may be more wooden than a Sudowoodo, but does have his moments of comedic, fumbling, brilliance. It will be interesting to see where the dynamic might go from here.
Beyond the storyline, the game holds a neat visual and sound quality – reminiscent of the more recent Professor Layton titles. It’s bright, cheerful, and distinctively modern. There’s still enough nods to the series’ overall art direction to keep Detective Pikachu within the realms of Pokémon, though, and little touches of familiarity to tie everything together.