Detective Pikachu Returns centres on Detective Pikachu, who happens to be both a detective and a Pikachu. Also out this month is Frog Detective: The Entire Mystery. It stars a frog who is also a detective.
In other words, now is a good time for games whose titles tell all. What’s more, we don’t even need the titles. A glance is enough: look at the amphibious sleuth, with a magnifying glass brandished in front of one bulbous eye. Detective Pikachu, meanwhile, sports a deerstalker cap, donning the air of Sherlock Holmes – minus the rich smog of tobacco, of course. This being a product of The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, aimed at an audience of unpolluted youngsters, we don’t get any darkness. If you wish to see Pikachu slumped in an armchair, the crackle gone from his cheeks, in a stupour of cocaine and ennui, you will come away disappointed.
There is no murder here. No violence. The only steamy scene entails a Monferno breathing on a sheet of ice, broiling it down to a puddle. There is an instance of drug use, but it’s nothing nasty – just a pinch of sleep powder, procured from a Lilligant and laced into a Growlithe’s dinner. Fiendish! The plot follows a string of cases undertaken by our hero, who also doubles as the main hook. The opportunity to hear a gruff, middle-aged voice issuing forth from a Pikachu shouldn’t be passed up. He also drinks coffee. No great detective is truly complete without a sidekick, and Pikachu is accompanied by a young man called Tim, who wears a red coat. This is just about Tim’s most interesting feature.
For reasons that don’t matter, Tim, unlike other humans, can understand what Pikachu says, and that current of comprehension is handy during investigations. Pikachu interviews Pokémon and translates their answers for Tim’s benefit. The best jolt supplied by Detective Pikachu Returns is not in what they have to say (Pokémon have clucked and cawed in English before, and rarely contributed much of merit), but in witnessing the kooky ways in which they coexist with people. There is the Ducklett who waddles to a café with a sack around its neck, the better to collect coffee beans for its contented owner. The Slowpoke who partners with a professor on an archaeological excursion, and thus equips itself with a fedora. And the Watchog, with its crazed glare, who keeps a lookout in the middle of Ryme City, where the story unfolds.
If only that story were worth it; instead, you want to fold it up again and send it back. We get a heap of drivel, all about gizmos that turn Pokémon into drones, but way worse is the emotional baggage that gets dropped on us. It revolves around Tim’s missing father and the cause of Pikachu’s condition. Honestly, with a premise of such uncomplicated silliness, charged with easy comedy, why ground it in backstory and absorb all the laughs? The answer, I guess, is that Pokémon demands pathos, the levelling up of character and the overcoming of personal obstacles. In the main entries, you can skim the narrative, build your ideal squad, and relish the bouts of elemental violence. Here all you have is procedural plodding.
Talk to everyone, jog between rooms, hammer the A button, hoover up all available evidence, and cram it all together into a deduction. Or, as Pikachu likes to call it, a “bolt of brilliance.” A similar mixture is found in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, but there the case is helped by two things. One, on the Nintendo DS the process of prodding crime scenes with a stylus is a pleasure – as though it were halfway between scalpel and pen, you cut through the clutter and rough out your theories. Two, the story adorning that adventure was light, both in its mood and on its feet, but hatched with real murk. One can hardly expect a Pokémon game to be similarly hauntered by human weakness, but you might expect a little mechanical challenge. Pikachu can bestride Pokémon and borrow their powers – bounding along on the back of a Darmanitan, thumping away debris, or gazing through walls with a Luxray – but they’re so prescribed that any fun is leached away.
The first game, Detective Pikachu, came out in 2016. It was less a bolt of brilliance than it was a bolt from the blue: unexpected, winsome, and strange. The movie of the same name, from 2019, was even better; it understood that every scene ought to be stuffed with visual gags, and that a little gloom can go a long way. Hence the moment, early on in that movie, when its hero happens on a Cubone: “Not everyone can pull off wearing the skull of their dead relative, but, you know, you sure can.” It’s a reminder that this series has always had weirdness in its marrow, and that, moreover, kids can take it. Anyone fresh from seeing that film and snapping up Detective Pikachu Returns is in for a shock. This is child’s play in the worst way. In a word: elementary.
Game: Detective Pikachu Returns
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 6, 2023