I can’t stop taking screenshots of my playthrough of Detective Pikachu Returns. The new story-driven spinoff of the main Pokémon series, the one that stars a gravel-voiced Pikachu with an unquenchable thirst for black coffee, is full of personality. Or rather, it’s full of Pokémon with personality: Pokémon with jobs, with attitudes, and with a zest for living life as weird little creatures that coexist with humans.
So, whenever the “Great Detective” Pikachu drops a Columbo-style zinger, or I meet a particularly quirky Pokémon — like a Cramorant who speaks like a SoCal surfer bro — on my adventure, I snap a screenshot. When I read what makes a Trubbish tick, I snap a screenshot. Slowpoke saying “Sloooow”? That’s a screenshot.
Pokémon brimming with personality and eccentricity is what sets Detective Pikachu Returns apart from other Pokémon games. This is a game where you finally get to understand what Pokémon are saying and thinking, thanks to your partner Pikachu.
If you haven’t played the original Detective Pikachu on Nintendo 3DS, you shouldn’t feel lost here. Detective Pikachu Returns goes to great lengths in its early hours to digest the events of the first game into a recap and numerous conversations with other characters. Virtually everyone in Returns’ Ryme City recognizes our heroes, Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu, reminding them just what fantastic detectives they are. (The 2019 movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu is also a pretty good primer for the events of the first game, though that film ends with the mystery of Tim Goodman’s father, Harry, pretty well resolved.)
Tim and Pikachu seem unique in the world of Pokémon, as both can understand what the other is saying. Where the rest of Ryme City’s residents only hear “Pika! Pika!” when Pikachu is speaking, he and Tim have full, detailed conversations in English. Pikachu can also converse with other Pokémon.
The events of Detective Pikachu Returns are set two years after the previous game and the release of a nasty drug named “R” that sent the Pokémon of Ryme City on a rampage. There’s a new nefarious technology affecting Pokémon behavior, as well as new legislative measures to keep the city’s Pokémon safe — including a new police task force dedicated to protecting them.
Detective Pikachu Returns plays much like the first game: The detective duo hunt for clues, talk to witnesses, and deduce solutions together. Early on, Tim and Pikachu flex their detective skills by joining an investigation into a jewel heist. Tim interviews humans, while Pikachu questions various Pokémon. Together, they gather evidence and leads, keeping their findings in an in-game notebook. Sometimes, they’ll enlist other Pokémon to aid them in investigations, exploiting each species’ unique powers. After their initial mission, new mysteries are revealed, and the overarching question of what has happened to Tim’s father hangs over the duo, leading them to new adventures.
There’s very little challenge in solving the game’s point-and-click adventure-style puzzles. Most seem designed for a younger audience, as hints and story elements are repetitively explained. Character dialogue and mannerisms are highly exaggerated; it’s obvious who the heroes, villains, and guilty parties are during interrogations. Oftentimes, as the player, you’ll suss out the solution to a puzzle or finger the suspect before the game lets you, as Tim and Pikachu, solve a situation in-game. In other words, you’ll have to go through the motions to progress. But adults monitoring a less experienced player will probably find this level of handholding helpful, especially when playing cooperatively with an early reader or young Pokémon fan who’s never played a mystery video game or visual novel before.
Despite that absence of challenge, Detective Pikachu Returns is rarely dull. There’s a good deal of backtracking and some laborious conversations, but the story moves along at a compelling pace. One mystery solved opens up another, and the game frequently throws side quests and requests from NPCs at Tim and Pikachu to keep things interesting.
Visually, Detective Pikachu Returns is on par with other recent Pokémon games on Switch. It’s graphically simplistic and sparse in detail; environments are small and self-contained, sometimes quite drab.
Instead, it’s the Pokémon who shine in Detective Pikachu Returns, thanks to clever writing and some good humor. (Detective Pikachu Returns even seems to crack a joke about the Ryan Reynolds-led movie, which feels like some rare recognition of a world outside of the Pokémon games.) Detective Pikachu himself is a font of entertainment, dropping silly catchphrases and good physical humor. Frankly, it’s just fun to watch that portly little rodent sprint as he tries to keep up with Tim during their exploration of Ryme City and the surrounding regions.
Then there’s the supporting cast. It’s never not enjoyable to hear Pokémon speak about their jobs, their wants and desires, and their human partners. As amusing as it is to hear Pokémon repeatedly say their names as a primary means of communication, getting to know creatures like Trubbish, Munchlax, and Pawniard for their unique personalities, not their stats in battle, is hugely entertaining. I’ve spoken to virtually every Pokémon NPC I can in Detective Pikachu Returns, just to see what they say. Often, I’ll just hit the “talk to Pikachu” button — yeah, there’s a button for that — to get a little dose of outsized Pokémon personality.
Detective Pikachu Returns is a welcome deviation from the mainline Pokémon games, thanks to its charming story and characters. It’s also a rare chance to see what life is like for Pokémon themselves, beyond the series’ focus on trainers, gym leaders, and professors of pocket monster studies. For the younger Pokémon fan with a thirst for solving mysteries, it’s easy to recommend. For longtime Pokémon fans, it’s simply a pleasant change of pace — and a big dose of Pokémon personality.
Detective Pikachu Returns will be released on Oct. 6 for Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” Switch download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.