Developer - Creatures Inc.
Publisher - Nintendo/The Pokémon Company
Platform - 3DS
Price - £Variable [shop around]
Genre - Adventure
The game's synopsis alone is enough to intrigue: a guy teams up with a talking Pikachu and together they fight crime. Have you noticed how it tends to be crime that gets fought in these things? It's never Big Business, say, or The Man. Anyway, the player character, Tim Goodman, is the only person who can hear the surprisingly gruff-voiced Pikachu. He can still talk to other Pokémon, which gives you your edge as a detective duo: being able to get testimony from the adorbs creatures themselves.
On paper, it's an excellent premise. Seeing Pokémon in the everyday world, outside of the main game series, is something I have wanted to see for a long time. Here they are, making mischief on the street, helping send mail to people, getting fed in the park. The world of this game is incredible and looks it, too. The voice acting is also generally spot on, once you've adjusted to the hard-boiled Detective Pikachu's voice and got past the breathiness of the female lead. In short, the production values are sky-high. It could almost be a pilot for a new cartoon.
Playing the game, though, is a different matter. It's easy to liken the game to Ace Attorney, the Capcom-produced lawyer 'em up. Detective Pikachu has the investigation portion of those games down, including the fact that you can't progress until you've checked everything and chatted to everyone. This is at best irritating, especially when you figure things out before the game lets you move on or, worse, when you haven't and get loaded up with red herrings. There is a reason that the Ace Attorney series has cut the investigation phases down in recent games.
The best parts of Ace Attorney games, though, are the courtroom battles. The well-written ebb and flow of you versus the prosecutor adds tension and a great sense of achievement to proceedings. There's none of that in Detective Pikachu, making it much more like Ace Attorney Investigations - the courtroom-free AA spin-off from 2009. Wrapping up a case involves Pikachu asking you to do a little chain of reasoning that you present to an authority figure (Tim is only 18) or answering a few questions. It's impossible to fail this, so you can just keep selecting things until you get it right. It feels a little flat most of the time.
"A little flat" is, sadly, the best description of the gameplay. Switching from cut-scene to play is always a bit of a comedown, jogging about with the electric mouse detective trundling behind. The Pokémon dialogue is also excruciating, by the end. As per the cartoon canon, a 'mon can only say elements of its name, so a typical exchange might be
"What? The lab workers deliver the crates to the docks?"
[now was that Spinarak, Spinda or Chespin? Spoilers...]
Of course things have to be spelled out to the player - and I often felt at least 25 years too old for the game - but it always seems to take place the same way. There's never any "Yeah, you would look cute with a hat" or "You did that?! Do not ever tell anyone else that!" There's so little humour. The stakes are high, to be fair, but good writing can pierce that with carefully applied changes in tone. There are too few of those.
To be fair, the story progresses well and there's a constant sense of an ever-present threat escalating in the background. Everything works well. Occasionally you get the opportunity to see Pikachu interacting with a nearby Pokémon and these short scenes can be sweet, but mostly pointless. The enormous Detective Pikachu amiibo unlocks 'em all, as they can be tough to earn in-game. In short, it's a solid foundation for the inevitable sequel but there are things that need to be fixed before Detective Pikach2 can hit the development phase.
Final Verdict: Phoenix Wright and his friends have nothing to fear from this upstart electric mouse and his hoodie-clad buddy Tim. There's not enough game to get your teeth into beneath the slick hood of gorgeous cut-scenes and well-voiced dialogue. Although it'll be a treat for fans of the cartoon, it feels like more of a Missingno than a Hitmonlee.