Detective Pikachu Returns Review
Have you ever had something you really like, but get annoyed by one little thing? Like when there’s a dead pixel on an otherwise fantastic display, or a scratch on your car. You know it’s there, and it’s always visible to you even if you try to overlook it, and even though you really really like that thing, you’re much less excited about it because of that flaw? That’s how I’d describe Detective Pikachu Returns.
Detective Pikachu Returns picks up two years after the first game, in a Ryme City that’s definitely had some upgrades. Tim and his trusty Detective Pikachu have been working on smaller cases these past few years, all the while keeping an eye out for Tim’s dad and Pikachu’s former partner, Harry. They haven’t had much luck on that front, but they’re still trying, and there are plenty of people to help in the meantime.
A stolen gem spurs Detective Pikachu and Tim into action, and subsequent cases snowball into a grander story. I won’t (and can’t) spoil that story for you, but on the whole I enjoyed it. Pikachu and Tim are a delightful duo, and seeing them interact with and solve crimes in this very well-realised world is genuinely lovely. Detective Pikachu Returns relies heavily on its character work, and while most characters are a little bit… basic, I guess, Tim and Pikachu are always fantastic, and that’s what matters most.
Despite being a detective game, though, you probably won’t be working too hard to solve the mysteries of this new version of Ryme City. This isn’t Rain Code, with its galaxy brain 4D chess, nor is it even on the level of Ace Attorney. These are simple, straightforward cases that won’t take much brain power to solve, and while that’s a little bit of a letdown at times, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy going through the motions and just taking in the world of Pokemon. Sometimes you just don’t need a challenge, and Detective Pikachu Returns isn’t asking much of you at all.
The gameplay loop is pretty straightforward — you’re presented with questions about a case, you have to interview people and gather evidence, and then tie that testimony and evidence to an answer. Eventually, you’ll have a great big web of evidence all pointing to the right answer, but you rarely have to think about the bigger picture, just whatever question you’re looking to solve next.
Along the way you’ll likely have to partner up with a guest Pokemon, like Growlithe or Luxray, leaving Tim behind and letting Detective Pikachu shine. These sections are probably my favourite in the game, not because Tim is boring (even though he kind of is), but because seeing Pokemon directly respond to you rather than relying on Pikachu’s translations is an absolute blast.
The gameplay mechanics tied to guest Pokémon are fantastic at breaking up the monotony that could settle in if it was all Tim all the time. As enjoyable as solving mysteries is, when you’re playing as Tim there’s a lot of walking back and forth between specific places and sitting through dialogue. Throwing more gameplay mechanics into the mix, like tracking scents with Growlithe, goes a long way in making Detective Pikachu Returns actually enjoyable.
Unfortunately, we now come to the elephant in the room, and my biggest issue with Detective Pikachu Returns as a whole — the graphics. Let me be clear that the character models all look fantastic, for people and Pokemon alike, the game is rendered at seemingly native resolution, and there are no massive performance issues like some other Pokemon games we’d best not get into. It’s just the lighting – or lack thereof – that lets it all down.
Detective Pikachu Returns basically has no lighting variation. There’s very little in the way of shading or shadows, everything looks evenly lit at all times, as if everyone was standing on an illuminated floor in the middle of a bright, sunny day. It’s a real letdown, honestly, not because it looks bad (even though it does) but because it’s such an inexplicable decision that I just can’t wrap my head around.
If you’re outdoors, it’s not all that noticeable — a big chunk of the game takes place outside, and it is a bright and sunny day for most of the game’s runtime. When you head indoors though it’s quite striking, everything feels wrong. It looks like there was supposed to be one final graphics layer and it just hasn’t been rendered, as if there were a bug or something. The result is a game that looks graphically flat, despite having high-quality assets, charming animations, and interesting environments.
I try my hardest to overlook minor graphics flaws like this, but for whatever reason, in Detective Pikachu Returns, I couldn’t help being bugged by it. There will be people out there who don’t care, who love the game for what it is and couldn’t care less about the lack of lighting variation, but it really did just take the wind out of the sails for me. I’m not asking for super fancy ray tracing here, just any amount of lighting that makes it look even remotely natural.
It’s especially noticeable in cutscenes that, as far as I can tell, are pre-rendered. When you get to the end of a case, there’s a big cutscene with Pikachu and Tim rattling off the details of the case and effectively solving it. The lip syncing here is off, presumably tied to the Japanese voice track rather than the English one, but the bigger sin is that it just looks bad because of the lighting. It’s hard to be swept up in the moment of the big reveal when the whole thing looks unfinished.
Negativity aside, there are a lot of small touches that I really enjoyed. There’s a delightful conversation early on that references the live-action movie and made me laugh out loud, and plenty of other clever writing that made me smile throughout. While some of the voice acting can be a bit flat at times, Kaiji Tang’s performance as Detective Pikachu is fantastic the whole way through. It’s no Danny Devito, sure, but it’s absolutely the next best thing.
Some of the side quests are a lot of fun too, and there seems to be a bunch of them. Unfortunately, for the sake of time, I had to stop doing them, but the few that I was able to complete were charming little side-adventures that sometimes were even more interesting than the main story. The strength of these quests, much like in the main game, is seeing how Pokémon interact with the world, and a lot of care has gone into making those interactions fun.
Detective Pikachu Returns is a lovely, charming sequel to the 3DS game, unfortunately let down by inexplicable graphical shortcomings. Where the first game was one of the best-looking games on its platform, Returns ends up looking rushed and unfinished for a significant amount of the game’s 15-hour runtime. If you can overlook a total lack of lighting, the core game in Detective Pikachu Returns is a charming experience that gives the best sense of how Pokémon exist alongside humans in Pokémon’s history. It’s not difficult or challenging, but it is fun, and sometimes that’s close enough.
+ Charming writing
+ Guest Pokémon are a lot of fun
+ Detective Pikachu is wonderful as always
- Total lack of shading and lighting
- Mysteries aren't particularly difficult to solve
- Side characters can feel a bit flat