Pokemon has flourished as a series in part because it crosses generations. The main series of creature-collecting RPGs and popular TCG are simple enough for children just starting to learn about role-playing-game mechanics, but with enough complexity and depth to support a flourishing competitive scene for adults. Pokemon’s spin-offs, on the other hand, are usually more narrowly targeted, and that’s the case for Detective Pikachu Returns. The narrative-heavy adventure game certainly has its charms, but it’s so gentle and simplistic that only younger pocket monster fans need apply.
Like the first Detective Pikachu, you play primarily as Tim Goodman, the college-aged son of renowned detective Harry Goodman, who has gone missing since before the first game. You’re accompanied by Harry’s partner, a Pikachu in a deerstalker cap who considers himself a great detective. Tim is the only human who can communicate with Pikachu, and while neither of them are officially part of any police force, they find themselves embroiled in investigations surrounding strange happenings in Ryme City. And naturally, Tim is still searching for answers about what happened to his father.
In classic adventure-game style, most of your investigations revolve around searching around environments for evidence, talking to witnesses, and ultimately reaching a conclusion based on what you found. The crimes here are relatively low-stakes and child-friendly–a jewel heist, wrongful arrests of innocent Pokemon, and so on. For a series that has built its name on battling, there’s shockingly little violence between Pokemon themselves. If two Pokemon are coming to blows, or even threatening to do so, it’s treated like an emergency. That’s because in Ryme City, Pokemon are treated like fellow citizens, and the city prides itself on peaceful coexistence between humans and the creatures.
But while Ryme City is meant to be a bustling metropolis, I didn’t get that impression from actually exploring the environments. Across the game’s five cases, you explore an area of the city equivalent to, maybe, three or four city blocks, along with a few other locations outside the city. And even in the metropolitan areas, the setting is sparsely populated without much to see or do. There are a handful of people to talk to, or Pokemon to speak with using Pikachu as a translator, and most of them are mission critical. The others serve as simple side quests, requesting for example that you find a Pokemon strong enough to open a jar. These diorama-like sets are also remarkably narrow, straight paths, so most of your time is spent running back and forth across an almost 2D stretch of the street.
Similarly simplistic are the puzzle solutions themselves. The game will prompt you when you’ve seen everything you need to see, so there’s no chance you’ve missed vital evidence before forming a conclusion. When it comes time to deduce a solution, you’re taken to a flowchart screen where your conclusions are presented in multiple choice. Most of the time, these reminded me of the quizzes I’d get in grade school, where at least one of the multiple choice answers was so comically wrong that the teacher obviously inserted it as a freebie for kids first learning how to use the process of elimination. If you somehow do get the answer wrong, there’s no penalty at all; it simply Xs out the wrong answer and prompts you to try again. Then, once you’ve successfully deduced the answer, the dialogue will tell you almost exactly what you need to do next.
The visual style is equally no-frills, with Pokemon rendered in a very basic presentation that actually grew on me as time went on. Pokemon are often at their best when their designs are simple and elegant, and since Detective Pikachu Returns doesn’t have to render hundreds upon hundreds of the creatures, it was able to choose the ones that look the best using this visual language.
This was most evident with Pikachu, who looks great in a wide variety of dialogue portraits that help give him personality. He’s also very expressive and animated in occasional cutscenes, which is also where you get to hear the most of his unexpectedly gruff voice. Those also pepper in little jokes and visual gags, which was enough to elicit at least one belly laugh and a few other warm chuckles from me.
While the bulk of the game is seen through the eyes of Tim Goodman, you do sometimes take control of Pikachu himself, as well as other Pokemon he’s befriended to help in his investigations. Early on, you meet a Growlithe who can follow scents, for example, and later you find a Luxray who can see through walls. These moments are brief and very prescriptive, but it works well enough to break up the pace of the traditional adventure-game puzzles. When Detective Pikachu Returns does introduce a mechanic that seems like it could introduce some complexity–for example, at one point you’re told you can only do something twice per day–it holds your hand so much that the new wrinkle doesn’t really matter.
And this being a mystery game for kids, I often found myself ahead of the writing. That’s understandable, of course, since you want children to learn how the mystery genre works, but it also meant I spent a lot of time waiting for the characters to catch up with conclusions I had already made, and that made wading through the dialogue a bit dull. Plus, while the story ultimately concludes differently, some of the central mysteries in Detective Pikachu Returns share a lot in common with the Detective Pikachu live-action movie that came out four years ago, which put a damper on some of the ostensible surprises.
Detective Pikachu Returns is charming and well-made enough for what it is, but that is a mystery game made for younger readers. Its setting, story, and mechanics are all geared toward gently introducing the uninitiated to mystery tropes with a soft-touch approach, and that makes it hard to recommend for any age group above tweens. There’s some satisfaction to be had in seeing the story unfold, but mostly this is a game made to be played by or with kids, not to make you feel like a kid again.