Detective Pikachu is not a typical Pokémon game. You’re not searching tall grass, battling creatures, or capturing any pocket monsters. It isn’t a role playing game at all. Detective Pikachu is actually a classic adventure game with a fresh coat of paint and some rudimentary detective mechanics. It is very similar to the old school point and click genre, although Detective Pikachu isn't quite a point and click game, the gameplay is remarkably similar. It is quite similar in many ways to the Ace Attorney series and its spin off Ace Attorney Investigations.
The story follows Tim Goodman, another generically earnest and very vanilla Pokémon protagonist. Tim’s father, a Private Investigator in Ryme City, has vanished after getting into a car accident. No body was discovered and everyone is baffled as to what actually happened to him. Frustrated by the police’s lack of progress, Tim heads to the city to investigate his father’s disappearance himself. He quickly runs into his dad’s Pikachu, but Pikachu is different than he used to be. He can no longer use any electric attacks and his personality has changed into a gruff noirish detective ripped out of a 1940's private eye film (complete with a horn dog attitude toward the ladies). The most striking change, however, is that Tim can understand Pikachu as if they were speaking the same language. Pikachu also wants to find Tim’s father so the two team up to investigate the disappearance. Along the way they solve a multitude of crimes and problems that may or may not connect to the disappearance of Tim's father.
The game play itself takes place in small 3D areas where you walk around in third person and investigate areas. In terms of gameplay, most of your time is spent interviewing witnesses, both pokémon and humans. Tim heads up the interrogation of the humans while Pikachu talks to and translates for the pokémon. You also interact with the environment and search for clues. If you see something suspicious or something that could be related to the crime you will have to interact with it before you can use it as a clue for progression.
All of the crimes and scenarios under investigations are low intensity. The consequences are usually quite mild and there isn't ever as much danger as you might think. Even when pokémon go berserk in the game there is very little threat. For example, when you are tasked with solving what knocked out an Aipom, the creature isn't actually hurt. It's just covered in ketchup from a hot dog stand and has fainted.
After gathering your evidence, you will have to trigger the case hypothesis mode (a term never actually used in the game, but the description fits) and use your clues and witness testimony to solve the case. This is accomplished by lining up clues on the lower screen and using the stylus to drag them to the appropriate locations on the screen. For example, one case has you trying to figure out which one of three possible tunnels a specific pokémon is hiding in. A graphic of the three tunnels will be placed on the screen and you need to drag the clues to their appropriate location to solve the puzzle.
All of this is very easy and there's never any sense of urgency or immediate danger. In fact you aren't even punished at all for failure. It’s impossible to fail and simply making sure you’ve talked to everyone is the only real impediment to success. At any time you can also ask Pikachu for hints. These will always trigger a cut scene where he either offers advice or is the butt of a joke (often with other pokémon attacking him to various level of cartoon foolishness).
Most puzzles simply boil down to interacting with every item, talking to every person, chatting with each pokémon, and exploring the environment. Do that and you simply cannot fail. It's a very systematic approach to a puzzle game which sometimes falls a little flat, but it never fails to be entertaining.
Entering hypothesis mode can also be a little bit frustrating. Sometimes you have to do it in a specific location or standing close to specific characters. There's usually no indication of why this would be. But my least favorite aspect of this system is that the solutions are often obvious without needing to collect all of the clues. In the example of the case with tunnels previously mentioned, you can actually solve the puzzle with only two clues. But the game will not let you progress unless you have three very specific clues (extra clues discovered are not required and exist only to throw you off the trail). You cannot enter hypothesis mode and just select the solution with what you have. You still have to collect extraneous clues and bits of testimony that aren't really that necessary if you have already figured it out. This can be burdensome and does make a game about figuring things out less enjoyable.
Another aspect of the game I did not enjoy were the button prompts during action sequences. Whenever Tim or Pikachu is in danger, a small mini game pops up. This game is as simple as it gets. All you have to do is press the A button when prompted. This is the exact opposite of fun. But I will admit that some of the sequences where this occurs are interesting and exciting. Still, I would have preferred using the stylus to interact with the environment to think quickly in these situations, rather than simply pressing a button when you are told.
One thing I genuinely appreciate about Detective Pikachu is something most Pokémon games spend very little time on, and that is world building. Detective Pikachu spends a lot of time establishing the relationships between pokémon and humans, and tries very hard to show what this world might actually be like. Pokémon are not just macguffins to be captured, they are citizens of the city. They hold full time jobs, Rattata run amok in the subway, Timburr are employed to build houses, and pokémon and humans work closely together at all levels of society.
There's even some interesting things never seen before in a Pokemon game (to my knowledge). For example, Detective Pikachu shows unarmed humans outsmarting and defeating an aggressive Glalie without using any pokémon attacks. Very cool.
Frankly, I am astonished by how excellent Detective Pikachu looks. The screen grabs do not do this game justice. The graphics are smoother and suffer less from the dreaded “3DS jagged edges” than they would lead you to believe. This is a game that looks gorgeous on its hardware and really pushes the handheld’s to its limits. I suspect that some of is this due to a repetition of the game’s various locations in order to maximize the graphics and sound. While there are many locations to see and explore, you will be returning to quite a few of them as you play through the campaign. Truthfully, I find this to be an acceptable compromise, especially if it helped make room for the phenomenal voice acting.
The ultimate strength of this game is the sheer amount of full voice talent displayed. While most of the game’s text isn’t voiced, all of the cut scenes and dialogue scenes with Pikachu are. Each scenario can have up to a dozen or more of these scenes. And truthfully I am blown away with it. Not only is the voice acting prolific, it’s also very well done. I had no idea the 3DS was capable of so much.
I must reiterate that Detective Pikachu is not a typical Pokémon game. Anyone going into this adventure expecting the familiar formula is going to be sorely disappointed. But anyone looking for a new spin on a too-well-worn formula, or those looking to play a classic adventure game, will have a fun time. Is it the best adventure game? No. But it’s nice to see a classic formula revived with plenty of love and passion. And at the end of the day it is fun a game with a very unique perspective on the pokémon world. I dig it.