Published on October 14th, 2023 | by Martijn van Gent
Detective Pikachu Returns Switch Review
Summary: Detective Pikachu Returns takes some steps back compared to its 3DS predecessor – most notably in its presentation – but retains its charming writing, beautiful worldbuilding and loveable cast of both humans and Pokémon alike.
2018 marked the Nintendo Switch’s second year on the market, and with it came a bunch of new titles that would define the system. Yet one of my favorite games of that year was a little 3DS game called Detective Pikachu. A year later, the announcement of a sequel to the game that would resolve its cliffhanger had me ecstatic – meanwhile, the rest of the world suddenly also got familiar with the characters of this relatively niche Pokémon spin-off through its live-action movie adaptation. Little did I know, I wouldn’t see my favorite detective hat wearing Pikachu again until June 21st of 2023 – when we finally received our first actual look at Detective Pikachu Returns. The game is here at last – was the long wait worth it? Let’s find out.
Taking place two years after the events of the first game, Detective Pikachu Returns continues the adventures of the titular character alongside Tim Goodman – his partner in crime investigating – as they solve another mystery unfolding in Ryme City. In order to do that, they examine, inspect and scrutinize various locations, get testimonies from both people and Pokémon, and use their brilliant deduction skills. If you’re looking for incredibly thrilling gameplay, you will not find it here – the game mostly consists of running from place to place and reading dialogue, and the occasional other things you’re asked to do are also not especially taxing on the hands or the brain. This already makes it a game that is decidedly not for everyone – however, I personally don’t mind easy games, and Detective Pikachu Returns has other qualities that kept me playing.
One of these qualities is its worldbuilding. While we have seen Pokémon talk to each other in series such as Mystery Dungeon and PokéPark, those worlds had no actual, existing humans present. Detective Pikachu was the first game to give us Pokémon’s thoughts on humans and what they think of their relationship with them – and Returns goes even further with this concept by also having us play as multiple Pokémon, and at times seeing what they literally say without Pikachu needing to interpret for Tim (and by extension, the player). The sections featuring these playable Pokémon are easily the most standout addition – removing Minior shells by punching them as a Galarian Darmanitan to send them back into space is objectively awesome. This is what the Detective Pikachu duology is best at: using Pokémon and their unique abilities to tell stories that can only be told in the Pokémon world.
That leads me to the writing of these two games, which I could easily describe using a single word: charming. I’ll pick the wrong choices during the deduction process – on purpose – simply because it gives me even more amusing dialogue to read. Every character (be they human or Pokémon) has fun things to say, but Detective Pikachu is naturally the star of the show – especially through his chemistry with Tim. Kaiji Tang once again turns in a fantastic performance, and the rest of the voice actors also do a solid job. Now that we’re talking about audio, the game’s music is pretty catchy too – I was especially pleased whenever I heard renditions of the main theme show up at pivotal moments in the story.
Speaking of the story, I love the way the events of the first game are followed up on and have genuine consequences that reverberate through the narrative – the main conflict is about people’s uneasiness regarding something like the incidents from Detective Pikachu happening again. It’s also not often a story in the Pokémon world gets a direct follow-up to it to begin with, and it was great to see a mix of familiar and new faces for our protagonists to talk to.
I do very much question the priorities when it comes to the treatment of these characters though. The police guy from the first game that nobody liked gets somewhat of a character arc, yet Tim’s mother and sister (who were not even mentioned before Returns mind you) don’t even get to leave Tim’s apartment? Tim’s new classmate Rachel is a perfectly fine character in her own right, but her dynamic with Tim is very similar to his and Emilia’s – the most prominent side character from Detective Pikachu, who only makes a few (admittedly appropriate) cameos in Returns. So at that point, I think it would’ve been easier and more satisfying to simply have Emilia in Rachel’s role and further strengthen the established connection between her and Tim – rather than starting from scratch with a relationship that doesn’t really end up going anywhere.
In this regard, I don’t think they hit a good balance in their attempt to appeal to both new and old players – new ones won’t know or care much about the returning characters, and old ones will be disappointed at how little some of them are utilized. While I like and appreciate the continuity in it, Returns’s story as a whole just feels less creative than its predecessor and treads a bit too much on familiar ground – a lot of tropes, themes and plot points are similar to ones from Detective Pikachu the game, and also (strangely enough) the movie. Furthermore, the majority of the game’s mysteries end up having the most obvious and/or predictable (re)solutions – even if that is not always a bad thing, necessarily.
Returns’s locations and visuals are a bit of a letdown as well. It has less chapters than its predecessor, but they are a lot longer and have a bigger scope. This sounds fine, and for the most part it is – however, it also means the game has less visual variety, and about half of the adventure takes place in relatively mundane buildings and streets. The first game had quite possibly the best presentation you could find on the 3DS – Returns, by comparison, is an average looking Switch game at best. The cutscenes in particular are far worse – more awkward pauses, less smooth and more repetitive animations, just more stilted looking overall. I usually don’t really care about graphics, but when the focus in Detective Pikachu Returns is often on what you’re watching and not so much on what you’re playing, middling visuals become harder to ignore. At least the Pokémon are still very lively and fun to behold – and there are plenty of them to be found in Ryme City and its surrounding areas.
Detective Pikachu Returns took me 13 hours to complete, which means I can add another thing to the “this aspect of Returns is of a similar or worse quality when compared to the first game” checklist. That has sadly been a fairly consistent theme in this review. I love the game for what it is, but I do feel disappointed that after four whole years of waiting I can’t even consider it an improvement over its 3DS predecessor in most areas. This only stings more knowing that this is very likely the last time we’ll see these characters. If the strong gameplay experience is what you like about Pokémon, I don’t think this is the Pokémon game for you. At the end of the day, this duology caters most to fans of the Pokémon world specifically. It’s a beautiful exploration of the core theme of the franchise as a whole – the relationship between humans and the strange, wonderful creatures that inhabit their planet. If that sounds appealing to you, I’d say give the adventures of Detective Pikachu and Tim a chance – you’ll probably find enough to like about the game despite its flaws.