In ‘Detective Pikachu Returns,’ the littlest, hardboiled detective is back on the case

There’s no mystery about it: we are living in the era of the “Pokémon Gays.” Within the last year, not only have there been consistent Pokémon game releases, each entry has taken the franchise into new and exciting directions. 2022’s Pokémon Legends Arceus saw the introduction of open zones with feral pokemon, and the subsequent mainline entry, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, gave the franchise its first fully open world. Now, one of Pokémon’s most audacious spinoffs has finally landed on the Nintendo Switch, in the form of Detective Pikachu Returns.

As its name suggests, Detective Pikachu Returns is a whodunnit, adventure, mystery game where everyone’s favorite electric mouse dons the iconic deerstalker hat and solves crimes. (If only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could have witnessed what his Sherlock Holmes series would eventually inspire). For those who are only familiar with the 2019 film adaptation starring Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds, the Detective Pikachu story goes back so much further.

In 2016, Nintendo celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon franchise with a brand new story no one could have possibly seen coming: a spinoff game featuring a grizzled, caffeine-addicted, talking Pikachu who solves crimes. Detective Pikachu initially launched on the Nintendo 3DS, and it was successful (and bizarre) enough that it spawned a feature film just a year after the release of the U.S. version. With the first Detective Pikachu still restricted to the Nintendo 3DS, Detective Pikachu Returns now brings an accessible, updated installment to the Nintendo Switch.

As off-the-wall as the Detective Pikachu premise might sound, it has roots right down to the 1997 Pokémon anime. Back then, the series creators wanted all of the Pokémon to be capable of speech, but Game Freak—the studio that develops the Pokémon video games—were staunchly opposed to the idea. In the end, they decided that Meowth would be the only talking Pokémon, and all the rest would be limited to battle cries and repeating their own names.

But the dream of a talking Pikachu refused to die. Over the years, game developers worked to find some setting where that dream could become a reality, and eventually, they landed on the hardboiled detective genre.

Fortunately, you don’t need to know all of that backstory (or the plot of the first game or movie) to get into Detective Pikachu Returns. But it is helpful to understand the silly vibe the developers are going for – especially since hearing the adorable Pikachu talk like a grumpy, middle-aged man can be jarring for the uninitiated.

In Detective Pikachu Returns, you play as Tim Goodman, a kid detective on the hunt for his missing father. He teams up with Pikachu after discovering that he’s the only person who can understand him when he talks. They embark on a journey to root out crime on the streets of Ryme City—a modern urban setting where humans and Pokémon live side-by-side. Working together, they have an edge over all the other detectives because Pikachu can communicate with Pokémon witnesses.

From a presentation standpoint, the sequel maintains a similar aesthetic to its predecessor with much sharper resolution. The gameplay itself is relatively simple, consisting mainly of interactions with characters and objects. You wander small, 2.5D areas of Ryme City and talk to the people and Pokémon that you encounter. Some of these strangers will give you optional cases to solve, whereas the larger mysteries are reserved for the main storyline.

In these main cases, you will investigate crime scenes by locating suspicious objects and put together a sequence of events by questioning witnesses. Now and then, Pikachu will team up with other Pokémon to go off on his own investigations. All of your findings are organized on a mental map-style Case Notebook with various leads for you to explore. When you have gathered sufficient evidence for a particular lead, Pikachu will prompt you to deduct a solution.

Because this game is clearly going for an all-ages crowd, the mysteries are not exactly brain-busters. In many ways, the cute vibe and the gimmick of a talking Pikachu is the big draw of Detective Pikachu Returns. If you’re not a big Pokémon geek or don’t find the quirky premise all that amusing, there’s not much else in the way of gameplay to recommend itself.

But for Pokémon fans, Detective Pikachu Returns offers players an entirely different experience from traditional Pokémon games. While you’re investigating crimes and interrogating witnesses, you’re also given a rare window into daily life in the Pokémon world, one that isn’t structured around trainers and tournaments. It’s a mellow game where you can kick back, enjoy the relaxing ambience and the jazzy soundtrack, and get to know classic and newer Pokémon better.

Detective Pikachu Returns is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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