Besides a handful of re-releases, the Pokémon series has experienced something of a draught in recent years when it comes to spin-off titles, but Detective Pikachu is here to put this unfortunate trend to rest as you solve mysteries Professor Layton style alongside the titular electric mouse. The detective style of gameplay may seem like a far cry from Pokémon's turn-based RPG roots, but we feel its charm and a great sense of humour helps to make the transition a smooth one.
You play as Tim Goodman, the son of the great detective Harry Goodman, who has disappeared following a suspicious accident. It's not long before you're reunited with his old Pokémon companion Pikachu, who can now speak and has a penchant for coffee and old jazz records. Over the course of Detective Pikachu's nine cases, it's up to you and Pikachu to gather clues about your father's whereabouts and solve the case he was working to crack, and we for one loved Pikachu's sarcastic wit and how the narrative took a much darker tone than we've seen explored in other Pokémon titles.
Cases in Detective Pikachu start simply enough but steadily grow in complexity, adding many more pieces to the puzzle. During the nine available you'll gather testimonies and search for clues by interacting with people and Pokémon and combing the environment. To solve a case, you'll open the file and use your stylus to pull together all of the evidence that confirms your suspicions. If you're stuck (or haven't paid attention) you can even hit a flashing lightbulb at the bottom of the screen to give you 'inspiration'. This will progress things for you, but it only works if you have gathered all the right evidence.
The second screen of the 3DS plays an important role and is used to display case notes, clues, and information about all Pokémon encountered. It's a handy tool to use mid-investigation as you start to see how all your evidence is piecing together, and you can also tap the icon of Pikachu when it flashes up to see a short and often comical cutscene (these can be played in the main menu too). Pikachu will jump up and blob his tongue out, offer random detective tips, and irritate the other Pokémon around him - moments we found hilarious. As such we always kept one eye locked on the bottom screen of our 3DS to see what mischief Pikachu would get up to next.
Besides your detective work there are also QTE sections where you'll have to push the A button at the right time or mash it repeatedly. This trick was used when saving Pikachu from falling out of a Pokémon's nest and when tiptoeing over a swarm of Stunfisk, for example, but they didn't really bear any consequence and we wish we could've had some other interactive elements like mini-games. That being said, you do get a different outcome for failing a QTE sequence, and watching Pikachu yell at Tim for failing to protect him was always entertaining.
We were impressed by how great Detective Pikachu looked on the (now seven-year-old) 3DS handheld and its visual style reminded us an awful lot of Pokémon Coliseum on the GameCube. We loved seeing what Pokémon we'd find next in this style and there was a great variety on display, from older favourites like Lapras and Gengar to newer faces such as Litten and Rotom. As much as we loved the visuals we felt that the soundtrack was lacking, however, with many of its motifs being repetitive and forgettable. It also remained the same when moving between set pieces too, meaning it slowly began to grind on us.
Perhaps our biggest complaint with Detective Pikachu is that it ended without answering many of the questions it posed at the very beginning. This was likely intentional to provide the basis for a sequel or the upcoming film in 2019, but we couldn't help but feel disappointed after investing roughly 12 hours into its story. Another issue we had with its plot is that many areas involved backtracking and it felt tedious asking NPCs the same questions. This coupled with the lack of voice acting during these encounters along with the relatively linear level structures made for a fair share of dull moments.
Taking the Pokémon franchise to strange new places, Detective Pikachu is a charming distraction that should please fans both new and old. We loved the character of Detective Pikachu, and the gameplay style it borrows from the likes of Ace Attorney and Professor Layton lends itself surprisingly well to the Pokémon universe. That being said, we felt that its conclusion failed to address some key questions and that it got a little repetitive at times, but that doesn't take away from the fact we were certainly impressed by this unconventional take on a relatively niche genre.