Detective Pikachu Returns, the new Switch adventure from Nintendo, is not great at a lot of things. It’s incredibly simple for an adventure game, only looks about as good as the original 3DS game did seven years ago, and even when it has its own take on things, a lot of its big twists have been undermined by 2019’s Detective Pikachu live-action movie. But divorced from most Pokémon games’ typical competitive sport framing, Detective Pikachu Returns, like the 3DS game and movie before it, provides a fascinating glimpse into the reality of the franchise’s strange world.
Ryme City, the metropolis where the Detective Pikachu series takes place, is what lets these games thrive in a mystery genre. Here, Pokémon live alongside humans as citizens rather than being kept in Poké Balls until they’re ready to battle. The city is both a tacit commentary on the competitive battling concept Pokémon was built on, and a perfect setting for an adventure game not beholden to turn-based conflict. The mysteries Tim Goodman and his talking, titular partner ‘mon solve in Ryme City are uniquely catered to the Pokémon universe without having to fall back on the same cultural touchstones as games like Scarlet and Violet, where problems are resolved through battle.
A distinctly Pokémon mystery
Because Detective Pikachu Returns commits to being a mystery game set in the Pokémon world, most of its puzzle-solving is made almost trivial by having a decent grasp of franchise lore and rules. Got a wall of ice blocking your path? Maybe check in with the fire-type Pokémon you saw on your way up. Need to follow a scent to track down evidence? A dog-like Pokémon can probably help you out. Detective Pikachu Returns doesn’t quite managed to deliver a complex mystery, but as someone who is mentally astral projecting into that universe at all times, it was a delight when my established Pokémon knowledge paid off, even when solutions felt incredibly obvious.
Sure, being a poké-pro accounts for some of that easy breeziness, but other times Detective Pikachu Returns just feels like an adventure game meant for young children. That isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it does mean certain aspects of gameplay are so simplistic that I question why they’re even present. QTE-driven action setpieces make a return, but they almost exclusively have you mashing A until your wrist cramps. And the collaborative nature of Tim and Pikachu’s detective work means you’ve always got someone talking you through each mystery, so there’s not much difficult deduction going on.
A lot of Detective Pikachu Returns’ mystery solving can feel pretty uneventful because most of the game is just talking to people. There’s not a lot of overt puzzle-solving or deduction, more just talking with Pikachu until you decide what Pokémon in the environment to point at a problem. The biggest gameplay addition here are case-specific companions that Pikachu can ride around an area to help solve mysteries. Growlithe can sniff around to track a scent, Luxray can see through walls, and Pangoro can use Strength to push boulders out of the way. Everything feels distinctly Pokémon, even if it’s all just a bit too straightforward. There are also overhead stealth segments that are so elementary they barely add to the experience.
Detective Pikachu Returns has a lot of interesting ideas that feel undermined by how watered down they feel compared to the game’s genre contemporaries, which I feel is more a concession made so kids can play it than an inherent failing. However, the story’s subject matter makes it one of the franchise’s darker entries, which feels markedly at odds with how kid-friendly it is as a video game.
The Detective Pikachu subseries inherently questions everything we know to be good and righteous about the Pokémon world. After all, why would Ryme City—a place where Pokémon battles don’t happen and Pokémon don’t stay in Poké Balls—exist if everyone was on board with the franchise’s core battling conceit? But Detective Pikachu Returns takes things a step further by pretty overtly questioning the competence of law enforcement, and going as far as to outwardly criticize how the entire institution can become corrupt. It stops short of getting too radical, but Detective Pikachu Returns is surprisingly upfront with its depiction of how state-sanctioned power allows some of the most corrupt to ascend to power and keep it. All of this is explored in a distinct Pokémon framing and builds upon those themes in a way that makes Ryme City one of the most well-realized settings in the series.
Improving upon the movie’s weaknesses
Beyond its commentary on institutional systems, Detective Pikachu Returns’ family narrative is maybe a bit inelegant in its dialogue, but the broad emotional strokes absolutely had me in their clutches. Unlike the live-action film, 2016’s original 3DS Detective Pikachu didn’t resolve its core mystery, which tasked Tim to find his missing father Harry with Pikachu by his side. The game’s take is a bit different from the movie’s, but it still has the same weight, and is the latest Pokémon game to strike a strong balance between weighty themes and dark twists while still being palatable to younger audiences. It doesn’t quite reach the buck-wild finale levels of Pokémon Legends: Arceus or Scarlet and Violet’s, but I’m happy to see The Pokémon Company really leaning into the possibilities of this world rather than shying away.
Detective Pikachu Returns’ late-game story swings elevate it beyond its mechanical simplicity, even if the live-action movie pretty much spoiled most of them in 2019. Part of the reason those reveals are still super effective is because the game pulls off a lot of those storylines in a more compelling fashion than the movie. The worst part of the live-action movie is how it pivots into being a disaster film in its final act and the explanations for its reveals feel underbaked. Whether by looking at the movie’s failings and iterating on them or because this is just what the team at Creatures had in mind from the beginning, Detective Pikachu Returns’ take on similar plot threads is just line-by-line better than the version we saw in theaters.
I say this as a person who loves the live-action movie. It’s one of my favorite things Pokémon has ever put out, even with its flimsy climax. Because that conclusion has been such a weird asterisk next to my recommendations of the film, seeing Detective Pikachu Returns handle so many of the reveals with greater clarity in the writing, motivation, and world-building was almost healing. There’s a specific case near the end of the game entirely about why Pikachu can talk to Tim when other critters can’t, and the writing around it was so clever compared to the movie’s spin on the same storyline that my appreciation for the game skyrocketed in its home stretch.
Somehow, the worst part of the Detective Pikachu movie is the best part of Detective Pikachu Returns. It feels like the conclusion I’ve been waiting for, even if getting there means going through a pretty unremarkable adventure game. But that was largely how I felt about the original 3DS Detective Pikachu. It was an incredibly simple mystery game meant to appeal to all ages, but in between the trivial puzzles and deduction, it delivered one of the best-ever depictions of the Pokémon world.
Detective Pikachu Returns isn’t setting up a sequel, and while I’m glad to have some closure, I am sad to leave Ryme City. Sometimes I get tired of sending Pokémon out for battle to knock each other out, and I just want to go on adventures with Pikachu by my side. Detective Pikachu Returns is imperfect, but lets me revisit the Pokémon world I’d most like to live in. I hope, even if this is the end of Tim and Pikachu’s story, it’s not the end of The Pokémon Company doing interesting, off-the-wall adventure games that can look at this universe in fresh ways.
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