Pokmon isn’t usually about stories. Well, it is – but it’s usually the stories you create which take centre stage. The main Pokmon games hold just the loosest framework of a hero journey for you to play out, and fill in the blanks. They’re about your own chosen team of monsters, your successes and losses in battles, your path of discoveries. To find a Pokmon game with its own, fixed narrative – and a surprisingly enjoyable one, at that – is a welcome surprise.
I’ve written already about how Detective Pikachu reminds me of Pokmon’s anime series – and it certainly draws from the TV show in how it represents the Pokmon world. The places and people within it are what bring Detective Pikachu to life – they are the kinds of settings and characters which fans have spent hundreds of hours getting a glimpse of on Game Boy or 3DS screens, or imagining in their heads, now slotted into what is essentially an interactive movie with light puzzle elements.
The star, of course, is Detective Pikachu himself – both your sarcastic sidekick and the subject of the game’s central mystery, whose mix of gruff backchat and slapstick antics somehow shrug off the scepticism of giving the typically-mute Pikachu a voice. There are Reasons why Detective Pikachu can speak and why only main character Tim Goodman can understand him, but the game will keep you guessing for a good while as to what they might be. In its opening scenes, though, you will find out that Detective Pikachu was the crime-solving partner of Tim’s father – a detective who himself vanished while investigating the case Tim is now keen to pick up.
If you’ve played a Professor Layton or Ace Attorney before then you’ll be familiar with the gameplay on offer here: visiting an environment and poking around, asking questions of those conveniently still hanging around the scene of the crime, before revisiting them later on when you have unlocked new avenues of enquiry to nail them once and for all. Detective Pikachu’s puzzles are pretty straightforward, and can mostly be blitzed through by simply asking everything of everyone and consulting your case file of evidence if you forget something of importance. Then, when you’re ready to present your argument and expose the culprit, it’s simply a matter of dragging and dropping icons that represent clues into place via the touchscreen in order to lay out your argument.
But while the gameplay may be simple, it’s seeing more of the game’s world and meeting more of its characters which will propel you forward. It’s the friendly team of allies you amass, the suspicious characters you encounter, the suspiciously too-friendly person you’ll probably suspect all along… and Detective Pikachu himself, of course, who is always just a tap of the touchscreen away from being summoned on-screen for a skit or piece of advice. A huge number of other Pokmon get their time to shine as well, with a large roster of old and new creatures popping up to play their part in your investigations. Through Detective Pikachu, you can question these Pokmon witnesses just as thoroughly as the human suspects – and there’s plenty of humour in hearing what Pokmon really think about us.
Tim’s search for his father finds him embroiled in various other investigations along the way – which escalate from missing and injured Pokmon to corporate espionage and top secret research. Explorations through streets and parks in earlier cases progress into you visiting a tropical island, a fairground and underground laboratories in later investigations. Backtracking is sometimes necessary but kept to a minimum, and there are no penalties for getting anything wrong – Detective Pikachu will just ask you to try again. There are a few times you’re expected to find a particular object on the ground or a Pokmon hiding in the shrubbery which you’ll just miss, but when starting a game you can select an Easy mode to be told where to go next. You’re likely playing the game for the story, anyway – but this mode will enable a cheat option to use at your digression if you ever get stuck.
Originally released as an episodic title in Japan, this belated Western version stitches together the full game and comes with or without that impressively enormous amiibo (which simply lets you watch some of Pikachu’s comedy skits a bit faster). I really didn’t know what to expect with Detective Pikachu – it’s such a departure from the main Pokmon games and any other Pokmon spin-off I’ve played so far but, somehow, it all fits together. Its tone blends both comedic and emotional moments, and the difficulty of its various cases are pitched to be just difficult enough that even grown up Pokmon fans may sometimes be surprised when the case’s outcome is revealed. (And there, is of course, a scene where all the characters accumulate in a library to find out whodunnit.)
It’s an engrossing slice of life in the world of Pokmon – and perhaps that world’s most realistic appearance outside of the TV series. While we wait for Pokmon on Switch, if you fancy heading back to the world of Pokmon once more, Detective Pikachu is waiting to be your partner.