The previous Detective Pikachu game, released over five years ago on 3DS, traded in traditional Pokémon elements for mysteries more familiar to the Phoenix Wright/Professor Layton crowd. Gone were the trainers, Poké Balls, and battles in exchange for evidence-gathering, deduction, and a Pikachu that can speak far more than its own name. A year later, the movie adaptation became the second highest-grossing video game film at the time. While the game left a central loose thread dangling, the movie, which is disconnected from the game series, tied everything up in a neat bow. Detective Pikachu Returns is left to deal with this discrepancy, impacting the story this game sequel can tell.
Partners Tim Goodman and the titular Detective Pikachu begin by receiving awards for their investigative work from the previous game. Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong, and they solve a series of connected mysteries while continuing the search for Tim’s father, Harry. I welcomed their familiar rapport with Tim as the straight man to Pikachu’s gruff, coffee-swigging comic relief. Seeing this relationship grow and evolve as the cases become increasingly personal deeper into the game is great.
The gameplay remains largely the same as you dash through the streets of Ryme City, temple ruins, and other varied locales, chatting with every human and Pokémon you see. This builds out the world, gives personality to the Pokémon via Pikachu’s translation, and compiles evidence for your notebook. Once you have enough on file, it’s time to deduce the facts you’ve probably figured out already but now have the proof to back up. Cases once again wrap up via a multiple-choice quiz as you lay them out and identify the culprit. I appreciated the quality-of-life options that help move things along, like faster movement speed, zippy text navigation, and a fast-forward button for cutscenes.
Pikachu’s ability to team up with other Pokémon is easily the best addition. Sniffing out a trail with Growlithe, punching through obstacles with Darmanitan, and peering through walls with Luxray all provide a welcome active gameplay break from the constant text scrolling and environment searching. These sequences aren’t revolutionary, but they finally allow you to use some Pokémon powers in this series (Detective Pikachu famously can’t use his powers).
Side missions shake things up outside the main case you’re working on. Someone will need help finding a missing Pokémon friend, or a persistent professor will describe one you can keep an eye out for. These open up your singular focus on the main case but provide little payoff. When a new chapter starts, you can scroll a newspaper covering all the NPCs you helped. I did these more out of obligation than pursuing a sense of accomplishment.
The simple, cartoony visuals are a step up from the long-in-the-tooth 3DS entry and work well for the game’s tone. Unfortunately, environmental navigation is stuck in the past. Pesky loading screens are a constant companion as you run back and forth through small chunks of town or navigate floors of buildings.
I enjoyed the overall arc and individual case stories, even though you won’t ever really be stumped. However, it’s disappointing that the 2019 movie stepped all over some of this game’s crucial moments. While many plot elements are markedly different, the ones that line up make me feel like I’ve already seen a spoiler. The only way to come into this story clean is to play the 3DS game and not watch the film. Those who have only seen the movie and expect this game to pick up where it left off will have a jarring experience as specific characters and narrative beats are in different places. Granted, this is solely a review of the game, but you should know what you’re getting into depending on your background with the series.
While there is room for improvement, the return of this odd pairing with their new bag of tricks is entertaining. Your mind won’t be changed if the style of the previous game wasn’t for you, but patient gumshoes should be satisfied with a capable follow-up.