Detective Pikachu Returns’ Overflowing Charm Is Enough to Overcome Its Flaws
Inverse Score: 7/10
After completing a tough case, Pikachu and Tim settle down for a nice meal with their family — only for Pikachu to fall into some sort of weird trance where he sees a flashback of Tim’s father asking his mother for a divorce.
This is the exact moment Detective Pikachu Returns hooked me with its story, an absurd twist that throws a wrench in the so-far low-stakes events. And it only spirals from there, resulting in one of the strangest Pokémon stories ever, overflowing with charm and kitschy humor. That’s how Detective Pikachu Returns draws you in, even if its gameplay mechanics ultimately feel too simplistic.
A Bolt of Brilliance
Detective Pikachu Returns is technically a sequel to the 2016 3DS game, and completely unrelated to the 2019 film. It picks up with the adorable detective and his human partner Tim Goodman as they continue to search for Tim’s father Harry. A quick intro cutscene gives you all the context you need about the first game, meaning you can jump into this sequel perfectly fine without having played it.
Events kick off as Ryme City celebrates Friendship Week, signifying the bond between people and Pokémon. Tim and Pikachu receive medals for their work investigating R, a chemical that turned Pokémon berserk in the previous game. During the ceremony, a Corviknight suddenly attacks, launching the duo into a new investigation to find out why the peaceful city is being hit by a new wave of incidents.
Detective Pikachu Returns is split into five different chapters, each of which functions as a different “case.” The gameplay loop is entirely story-based, requiring you to speak with both people and Pokémon to gather clues, which you can then use in a “deduce” section to move the plot forward or figure out how to solve a puzzle, like opening a locked door. Each chapter feels distinct in its overall theme, even if you do explore some of the same locations. For example, one has you investigate the theft of a priceless jewel, while another has you delve into ancient ruins.
Amid all this dialogue are small sections where you’ll have to investigate an area, moving the cursor to examine points of interest. Detective Pikachu Returns also does a better job than its predecessor of throwing in some extra gameplay elements, like stealth sections that require you to avoid guards, quick-time events during cutscenes, and small minigames.
The major new feature of this sequel lets you control Pikachu and Tim, teaming up with other Pokémon to use their special skills in your investigation, which adds some nice variety. For example, Growlithe can track scents, Darmanitan can smash through boulders and ice walls, and Luxray can see through walls to spot guards you need to avoid.
Every mechanic and gameplay element in Detective Pikachu Returns is in service of pushing the narrative forward, which means many of your clues come directly from dialogue. Often, solving the mysteries and deductions can feel overly simple or spoon-fed, but the tightly written and charming dialogue helps assuage that problem.
Who’s That Pokémon?
There’s a tongue-in-cheek style to everything about this story, from Pikachu’s obsession with dark roast coffee to the way the diminutive Pokémon playfully ribs Tim over his romantic interest.
The game consistently reminds you that Detective Pikachu himself is a middle-aged man in a Pokémon body, who groans at even the smallest bit of physical exertion. The dynamic of how Pikachu interacts with the world around him is never not entertaining, bolstered by some truly exceptional voice acting by Kaiji Tang.
The other thing Detective Pikachu Returns does exceptionally well is how it creates a world where people and Pokémon co-exist. Battling has always been the major focus of the franchise, but in Detective Pikachu, we see what it would actually be like for Pokémon to live alongside humans peacefully. An Inteleon works at the local florist cultivating plants, a Milcery works at the coffee shop adding cream to drinks, a Politoed sings karaoke at night, and a Manectric works as a vigilant police dog.
Ryme City is awash with adorable little details that make the setting feel vibrant, and that’s ultimately what kept me invested in the entire experience. The main story also does a good job of slowly teasing out the mystery, providing new wrinkles at the end of each chapter that make you eager to continue on and reveal the whole picture.
The city itself is a vibrant location, with a colorful aesthetic that helps add a lot of flavor. There is one drawback, however, as Detective Pikachu Returns feels a bit under-baked graphically, with some stiff character animations and occasionally muddy visuals. It’s not experience-ruining by any means, but it can be distracting at times, like when Pikachu talks about his fur despite his completely flat character model.
Still, there’s a sense of place and personality that makes Detective Pikachu Returns compelling. A fantastic jazz soundtrack helps add a sense of film-noir, and playing as Pikachu allows you to talk to Pokémon directly to see more of their individual personalities, rather than just hearing Pikachu’s translation from Tim. It’s the little touches and attention to detail that make this game something special and help elevate it above a simple point-and-click adventure.
Detective Pikachu Returns ends up feeling much like its predecessor, a fun story and charming world that could have benefitted from more gameplay variety. The antics of its titular character are the beating heart of the experience. And while it would have been nice to see more ambition on the gameplay front, there’s an infectious charm about Detective Pikachu Returns that’s undeniable.
Detective Pikachu Returns releases on October 6 for Nintendo Switch.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.