Detective Pikachu Returns is a charming, if bare-bones, mystery game that deals with surprisingly heavy themes at times. However, simplistic game mechanics and formulaic mysteries mean that more grown-up Pokémon fans may find the experience frustrating at times.
A surprisingly deep look at the Pokémon world
Charming animations and dialogue
Deftly addresses surprisingly heavy themes
Thin game mechanics
Mysteries are too easy to solve
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Platform Reviewed: Nintendo Switch
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 6, 2023
Detective Pikachu Returns is a simplistic, yet charming mystery-solving game that will delight younger gamers and families. That said, no amount of Pokémon-induced nostalgia can make up for the razor-thin game mechanics, predictable mysteries, and dated visuals - all of which will likely frustrate older fans.
As its title suggests, Detective Pikachu Returns is a game about solving crimes and mysteries. Blandly good-natured protagonist Tim Goodman takes center stage here. The earnest college student joins his partner, a Pikachu in a fetching detective’s hat, to form an unlikely duo of mystery solvers. This is all thanks to their uncanny ability to fully understand one another - a rarity in the Pokémon world.
The game follows two years after the events of the original Detective Pikachu for 3DS. Since we left them, Tim and his partner have developed a reputation as famous sleuths after successfully preventing a city-wide disaster. However, the mystery of the whereabouts of Tim’s father, Harry, remains unsolved, offering a key plot hook for Detective Pikachu Returns' central story.
Developed by Creatures, the studio behind the original Detective Pikachu, Detective Pikachu Returns uses a simple system of dialogue to carry its story forward over six distinct adventures. You’ll build up testimonies and search crime scenes before using your journal to piece together information by making deductions about what happened.
This is reminiscent of the investigation segments in the cult classic visual novel series Phoenix Wright. In practice, the system is let down by oversimplistic mysteries that fail to demand very much of the audience.
Bolts of brilliance
Despite its lackluster game mechanics, Detective Pikachu Returns has plenty to offer in the charm department with cutesy animations and funny one-liners that often left me smiling.
The good detective himself is a far cry from the cutesy figure you might expect from the Pokémon animated series. The titular Detective Pikachu speaks with a gritty, authoritative voice in both the Japanese and English dubs, offering dramatic remarks that playfully ape the classic noir formula.
The central conceit here is that Pikachu has the mannerisms of a grizzled 1920s detective in the body of an adorable electric mouse. It’s very silly, but also a recipe for laugh-out-loud moments. For instance, as you make your way through the game’s colorful locales as Tim, Pikachu will run behind you with all the grace of a middle-aged man late for his train home - an animation that never gets old.
Adding to this are numerous segments where Pikachu will ride a larger Pokémon in what amounts to bite-sized mini-game sections. Early on in the game, you’ll mount up on a Growlithe to follow the scent of suspects across town. In terms of mechanics, it amounted to little more than holding down a button and following a glowing trail, but it was delightful to see the otherwise dignified detective bouncing along on the back of his canine companion.
The charm is more than just visual, too. Pikachu will moan about his cholesterol level and offer witticisms befitting his hard-boiled detective persona. The opening cutscene where Pikachu narrates the events of the previous game in a serious, noir style while stoically sipping a coffee had me in stitches. Detective Pikachu Returns revels in its own absurdity and is stronger for it.
Unfortunately, these delights do not extend to the game’s mechanics, which often fall flat due to their simplicity. The deduction system, though elegant in principle, rarely offers a challenge. The answers here are usually obvious. I often found myself having worked out the mysteries long before Tim and Pikachu caught up.
At the end of every chapter, a dramatic cutscene begins where you’re able to reason through the facts of the case. The first of these satisfying sequences plays out as you put together the mystery of a high-profile jewel heist. It was a pleasing set piece that would have been right at home in the Pokémon TV show.
Outside of the deductions, the game’s mechanics boil down to simple mini-games and quick time events (QTEs). Though the mini-games rarely overstay their welcome, they are too basic to provide much of a palette cleanser between mystery-solving sections. One section in the game’s third mission had me navigate through a maze while trying to avoid an ornery Pokémon. It was a trivial puzzle to solve and didn’t leave me feeling particularly satisfied. The QTEs themselves involve little more than button mashing, though they are often accompanied by fun little cutscenes, such as Pikachu climbing the massive neck of an Alolan Exeggutor in the prologue.
Unfortunately, though the game is full of animations that will enchant Pokémon fans young and old, the game’s visuals themselves leave something to be desired. Though the game performs far better than the likes of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the graphical style occasionally lapses into the uncanny valley with just enough detail to make the characters look human, but not nearly enough to make them look like realistic humans. Though not enough to spoil the experience outright, the cavalcade of empty, staring eyes and blank expressions did undermine the more human-centric cutscenes.
We all live in a Pokémon world
That said, Detective Pikachu Returns is refreshingly immersive at times, offering a surprisingly in-depth look at the Pokémon setting. Being able to walk the busy streets of Rhyme City makes for a surprisingly intimate look at a world that, despite its popularity, rarely finds itself under the microscope. In Detective Pikachu Returns we get to see a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of those who actually inhabit the Pokémon setting - a real treat for fans.
Detective Pikachu Returns also wrestles with some surprisingly dark themes, though always in a gentle and family-friendly way. The central story approaches themes of divorce and institutional corruption, offering a surprisingly nuanced look at how law enforcement can abuse its power. Without spoiling too much, the game’s fourth mystery has Tim and Pikachu directly investigate police corruption, uncovering a sinister conspiracy that threatens the entire city.
Despite clearly being aimed at younger gamers, Detective Pikachu Returns respects its audience, addressing mature themes in terms that, although accessible, never come across as patronizing. This in itself is an achievement worth celebrating even if the game is held back by its rudimentary mechanics and flat visuals.
Detective Pikachu Returns is a perfect introduction to mystery games for younger gamers, as well as a solid title for families looking to play something together. However, older Pokémon enthusiasts are likely to find the bare-bones game mechanics and simple mysteries a little too bland and predictable.
Detective Pikachu Returns offers fairly little by way of accessibility features. Although text display speed and character movement speed can be adjusted, there’s no provision for colorblind players. The game uses subtitles by default, but there are also no settings that allow you to adjust text size or background. A disappointing showing from a Nintendo title.
How we reviewed Detective Pikachu Returns
I spent 10 hours with the game and played through the majority of the mysteries as well as numerous side quests. I played the game using both the Japanese and the English dub so as to get a feel for the full range of voice-acting on offer. I predominantly played the title in handheld mode.
I’m a Pokémon fan and a big enjoyer of mystery games like Phoenix Wright. I previously reviewed Pokémon Scarlet and Violet for TRG and have spent hundreds of hours playing Pokémon titles since the launch of the first generation back in the late 1990s.
Cat Bussell is a Staff Writer at TechRadar Gaming. Hailing from the crooked spires of London, Cat is an experienced writer and journalist. As seen on Wargamer.com, TheGamer.com, and Superjumpmagazine.com, Cat is here to bring you coverage from all corners of the video game world. An inveterate RPG maven and strategy game enjoyer, Cat is known for her love of rich narratives; both story-driven and emergent.
Before migrating to the green pastures of games journalism, Cat worked as a political advisor and academic. She has three degrees and has studied and worked at Cambridge University, University College London, and Queen Mary University of London. She's also been an art gallery curator, an ice cream maker, and a cocktail mixologist. This crash course in NPC lifestyles uniquely qualifies her to pick apart only the juiciest video games for your reading pleasure.
Cat cut her teeth on MMOs in the heyday of World of Warcraft before giving in to her love of JRPGs and becoming embedded in Final Fantasy XIV. When she's not doing that, you might find her running a tabletop RPG or two, perhaps even voluntarily.