What’s the Story, Pikachu?
When writing a review, it is critical to pay attention to how a game comes together. There may be a lot of great things under the hood – wonderful graphics, fantastic world-building, well-written characters – that make it tempting to score high. What really matters though, is recognizing what a game is trying to do and deciding whether or not it succeeds. Style can be an overriding factor for some games, but what’s most important are the immediate elements of a game. The aspects, like gameplay and story, that all of these wonderful smaller things we may love are building towards. What the gameplay is like, how much it matters, whether there is or isn’t a story, how it affects the gameplay, and which one should outweigh the other, if at all. These questions help determine how much these immediate aspects succeed.
If the answers turn out to be subpar, it counts against the game more than the great characters or crisp graphics could make up for. This is the problem Detective Pikachu suffers from. It’s an adventure game. It features lots of Pokémon cameos that will keep fans interested, and answers a lot of questions about Pokémon lore. It’s a great looking 3DS game, and the main characters are well written and acted. How much of this matters though, when the story and gameplay are pretty lackluster?
The main character, Tim Goodman, comes to town and basically just becomes a detective to look into the disappearance of his detective father. Tim joins up with his dad’s partner, a talking Pikachu only he can understand, in order solve the case. The mystery aspect is well-covered, but the smaller mysteries and story beats it takes to get to any sort of resolution are by-the-numbers and boring. Among the more interesting cases are figuring out who smashed a violin, and tracking down some international smugglers, but they feel like forgotten episodes of the Pokémon anime. You know nothing bad will actually happen to the characters, so the stakes remain low, even as the tension ramps up.
The gameplay suffers a similar fate. It somehow manages to be simpler than an Ace Attorney game, because all you really need to do is talk to people, explore the environment, and combine the things you find into a logic puzzle flowchart to progress. Yet, this is also more complicated because this is the only way the game knows how to deal with any situation. Trying to escape from a cave in? Better gather testimony. Hanging around the detective agency? Don’t forget to search everything you can, even though it never matters. The game stretches to fit these moments into regular gameplay systems, but there’s no reason for it. Some added flexibility would have been much appreciated.
There are also QTEs, but the game doesn’t handle them much better. They’re more limited than any other QTE game I’ve seen. The only button you press is A, like this game is on Gamecube or something, and the way you’ll press it is telegraphed because of context. It takes out all of the excitement, and never bothers to switch it up.
It sounds like I’m ragging on the game, I know, but that’s because this is all so frustrating when the rest of the game is pretty interesting. The voice cast is great. Special commendation goes to Khoi Dao as Tim and Kaiji Tang as Detective Pikachu, because their chemistry is what kept me going. Pikachu holds your hand way too much and over explains to the point of telling you when it’s time to solve certain puzzles, but his loveable personality is that of a big burly detective, complete with a love for coffee, sweets, and the ladies. Tim is college-age, making him much older than the usual Pokémon protagonist, and the things he can do as a result (like driving!) make it feel like a mind-blowing revelation. He’s also pretty sarcastic and subdued, making him the perfect foil for Pikachu’s never-ending antics.
If you’re a fan of Pokémon, I still would say this might be worth your time. Not only for the character dynamics, but also because it’s cool to see what Pokémon will pop up and when. Garbodor, Tropius, Aipom, Feebas, Klefki, and more make memorable appearances, usually by how well they’re integrated into the world. The soundtrack doesn’t hold a candle (or Chandelure) to the usual Pokémon standard, but it’s not the worst you’ll hear, either.
This game also answers questions about Pokémon I didn’t even know I had. Stuff like: are there Pokémon who can’t use any moves? Are there people who never grew up owning Pokémon? How much do Pokémon know about the human world? Having Pikachu act as a translator, Tim is able to interview Pokémon as easily as humans during his mysteries. This gives the player the opportunity to also get to know these Pokémon a little beyond the sound of their name and how they look. This is useful, especially when a Pokémon’s testimony can help break the case, but Tim can’t just out and out say a Pokémon told him what to do.
There’s just so much that’s interesting about the Pokémon world, and the characters created here, it sucks the actual story and gameplay are so average and blah. It’s a game that can be so much more, and I hope Nintendo gives it another chance with the movie coming out next year. I would love to see a sequel with a more deserving story, because I can still see this spin-off going places. This first step is a bit of a stumble, but it isn’t a falling down moment. There’s still plenty of time to dust-off and make an impact. Someone just needs to give it the guidance it needs to get there.