With a coffee-drinking, lady-chasing, smart-talking Pikachu as its lead, Detective Pikachu understandably launched to a cautious fanbase. This seemingly bizarre take on the world of Pokémon is actually a lot smarter, sweeter and sensible than you’d think, based on its star. But that chatty star plays no small part in making Detective Pikachu — the franchise’s first take on point-and-click, mystery-adventure games — one of the best Pokémon games in recent memory.
A lot of its greatness is owed to how dramatically Detective Pikachu shakes up the classic series formula. There are no Pokémon battles or gyms; Pokémon exist as partners, even coworkers, not as members of a party trained up for competition. Pokémon are friends here, a core part of the franchise that feels oft-ignored part of the Pokémon universe. Detective Pikachu’s setting is the one that belongs to non-playable characters who carry on simple lives while dutiful trainers soldier on to become the very best.
This is not to say that Detective Pikachu is based on daily mundanities. There’s a strong story here, which is admittedly a Pokémon rarity. A mysterious accident leaves Pikachu, the talented partner of private eye Harry Goodman, with amnesia and without his human. Goodman goes missing, as Pikachu discovers when he comes to; the Pokémon is then committed to using his own talents to find his partner.
Meanwhile, Harry Goodman’s son Tim is looking for his dad on his own, albeit without the same advantages of Pikachu. (That sounds weird, but seriously: Pikachu is way smarter than the hot-headed Tim ... although they’re equally girl-crazy.) After the pair run into each other — and discover that, unlike every other human Pikachu encounters, Tim can actually understand what Pikachu is saying — they decide to team up.
What follows is a surprisingly complex series of chapters, in which Tim and Pikachu scope out the last places where the elder Goodman was seen prior to his disappearance. These follow a formula that expands with each new case: Pikachu and Tim uncover more clues, more evidence, more mysteries as they poke around different rooms and interrogate humans and Pokémon both to suss out anything they can about Harry Goodman. There’s a consistent, diverse set of characters throughout the adventure, like the reluctant head of the detective agency where Pikachu is employed, a trash-loving scientist and a beleaguered receptionist who can’t stand Pikachu. (In her defense, he’s not only constantly flirting, but he’s also always eating everyone’s food, including her reception desk snacks.)
It’s cool to experience a story-based Pokémon game where the story is actually entertaining and interesting. I’m not dissing the classic “Be the very best!” storyline, but it’s more of a bare-minimum purpose for collecting and fighting Pokémon. In line with the best Pokémon games, though, Detective Pikachu’s main attraction is also the things you do in between cutscenes. Every chapter features a giant, lengthy puzzle that’s reminiscent of other adventure games, sending players back and forth to collect items and info that unlock earlier roadblocks. These could feel like running to fetch things for people, but chapters also feature some quick-time action sequences, as well as different kinds of puzzles to complete. Sometimes Pikachu and Tim need to deduce a password; sometimes they have to make inferences based on their suspects’ ambiguous statements.
All of this also helps make vaguely thirsty, deep-voiced Pikachu a really, really likable character, too. He proves himself to have genuine aptitude for solving mysteries; he’s like a little P.I. prodigy. His quirks become less unnerving as the story goes on, and it’s actually heartbreaking to see him suffer alone without his partner. (Tim is less sympathetic, if only because he’s a human boy and not a chubby Pikachu that slowly waddles everywhere.) The added benefit of the most beautiful visuals of any Pokémon game to date only strengthen what borders on Pokémon’s first truly cinematic story.
Punctuated and padded out with hints from the endearing Pikachu and some genuine intrigue, Detective Pikachu actually becomes the most engrossing Pokémon game in a long time. There’s no mistaking the game for one of the series’ mainstays; instead, it’s the cutest version of the long-lived point-and-click genre that I’ve ever experienced. And unlike other Pokémon spinoffs where battling is either reinvented to complement the genre or a missed feature amid a blander concept, Detective Pikachu shows that Pokémon’s expansive universe fits perfectly into a serious, non-action-based genre. I’m now all for more talking Pokémon — as long as they get to star in stories as good as this one.