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The city is alive with the sounds of Pokémon.
Even after the hours I spent playing Detective Pikachu, I still haven’t found peace with the title character’s voice in this game. Pikachu has many lines of spoken dialog, and he sounds, disturbingly, like an adult man. He sounds like a Brooklyn plumber with an affinity for booze and cigarettes.
The other pokémon have normal, often cutesy voices. Even the other Pikachu you encounter sound as adorable as ever. But Detective Pikachu is the one who accompanies you through the adventure. And he sounds like Artie Lange.
If it isn’t already obvious, Detective Pikachu isn’t your typical Pokémon game. It’s not an RPG. You can’t battle other trainers or try to “catch ‘em all.” This is a story-driven adventure game. Its narrative is so front-and-center that it’s being turned into a movie (with Ryan Reynolds taking over Detective Pikachu’s voice).
The game takes place in Ryme City, a modern environment that’s just like ours, except that it’s filled with Pokémon. Pokémon walk down the street, hang from trees and fly through the air. They’re like animals, but smarter. Some of them, like the titular sleuth, have jobs and regularly interact with people. Thing is, no one can understand their language.
No one, except you. You play as Tim, a boy whose father has gone missing, so he comes to Ryme City to investigate. Tim’s dad works for a PI agency, and Detective Pikachu is his partner. When you meet, Pikachu is surprised you can understand him when he talks. In fact, he’s the only Pokémon you can understand, which means he acts as your translator for the rest of the game. You quickly team up with the gravelly voiced gumshoe and set off to find your father.
Thus begins a narrative-driven adventure that tasks you with solving one mystery after another on your way to finding your dad and figuring out why some Pokémon are going berserk. The actual gameplay revolves around talking to people and Pokémon while searching for clues in the environment. To advance the story at certain points, you have to assemble the information you’ve collected by dragging icons around on the 3DS’s lower screen. Action scenes play out as quick-time events. Unfortunately, none of this is particularly exciting on its own.
What is exciting is the plot as it thickens. That’s the real drive here. While the gameplay drags, the plot does the heavy lifting of pulling players along.
It’s like a slower, more watered-down version of an Ace Attorney game. That’s kind of a bummer, but also somewhat expected. Detective Pikachu tells one long story, while Ace Attorney cases move quickly with lots of twists and turns.
But if you can get on board with the gradual pace of Detective Pikachu, there’s plenty of enjoyment to wring out of it. The people you encounter tend to be dullards, but the Pokémon you find are often interesting. They come in all shapes and sizes, from giant floating orbs like Glailie to telepathic multi-brained creatures like Duosions.
The presentation is also fantastic, at least for a 3DS game. That’s somewhat faint praise considering the hardware is now seven years old. It’s easy to forget how much better games look on more modern consoles once you start playing. Even so, to get the graphics looking as good as they do, developer Creatures Inc. had to forego the 3D effect.
While the narrative pace picks up as the game goes on, it drags along in the early hours. Making matters worse, Detective Pikachu doesn’t always respect your time. You’re usually on the hunt for a single clue or piece of information, but because there are often a dozen or more characters to chat up in each scene, you end up asking the same questions to a lot of folks who don’t have any answers.
In a better game, these characters would liven things up with quirky personalities. But all too often, they’re just boring people with nothing interesting to say. Much of Detective Pikachu feels like filler. As the story progresses, the typical Pokémon charm begins to emerge. If only it got there sooner.
I wish the makers of Detective Pikachu made more bold choices, especially early on. I wish they would have infused every scene with even more personality. But when the plot works, it works. Reading-age kids will probably enjoy it, as will Pokémon diehards. But for everyone else, other games offer more pleasures more quickly and more often. Sorry, Detective. Maybe your story will turn out better on the big screen.
Detective Pikachu is available March 23, 2018, for Nintendo 2DS/3DS.
Disclosure: Nintendo provided a copy of Detective Pikachu for this review.