REVIEW: Mysteries are child’s play with “Detective Pikachu”

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  • Nintendo 3DS / rated E / $39.99 / released March 2018
  • FINAL: You can SKIP this game. 2 out of 5 stars

This is probably not the Pikachu you’re looking for.

In “Detective Pikachu,” new to Nintendo 3DS, the title character is not the Pikachu you know from one thousand episodes of the “Pokémon” cartoon. This Pikachu is a gravelly-voiced sleuth who teams up with a kid named Tim to solve the case of his missing dad. The game’s story is divided into episodic chunks, making “Detective Pikachu” more of an interactive TV series than a traditional “Pokémon” video game. It’s a charming look at the “real” world that surrounds the usual “battle to be the best” sports fever of “Pokémon,” but it doesn’t have much to offer.

Rather than hearing “pika pika” grunts, Tim can fully understand what Detective Pikachu is saying. Pikachu acts as a translator between humans and Pokémon, as the team searches out clues for the multiple mysteries in front of them. In each new area, Tim and Pikachu interrogate nearby witnesses, catalog information and try to form the connections that will solve each case. The game helps you along, only allowing you to accuse suspects when it knows you have all of the required evidence. Even then, if you go after the wrong person, the game will tell you you’re off base and let you immediately guess again. There doesn’t seem to be any real game-ending “fail state,” which is fine considering this is a kids’ game.

Adult players will find it an easy ride, probably annoyingly so since the characters will talk and talk and talk about solutions and plot points that are blindingly obvious. “Detective Pikachu” is essentially the thin soup version of story-heavy adventure games like “Batman: The Telltale Series” and “Minecraft: Story Mode.”

Substantial reading comprehension is required (the game is not 100% voice acted) so any potential kid player needs to be right at that sweet spot of being a great reader but still interested enough to make it through a rather slow-moving – and not especially challenging – Pokémon tale. “Detective Pikachu” is probably better suited for a co-play situation, where, for example, a parent and a young-reader child roll through the game together.

Older “Pokémon” fans will get some good deep lore thought exercises out of the game, particularly pertaining to the relationship between Pokémon and humans. The “core” games emphasize a trainer-fighter relationship as various people compete in the game’s cute-washed pet boxing. Here we see examples of Pokémon integrated into daily life, rather than just at sporting events… but the critters still have to put in the work. “Detective Pikachu” reminds you that, generally speaking, Pokémon are entirely sentient creatures with emotions and thought processes far deeper than our real world animals. So are the Machokes that move heavy shipping containers getting paid for their labor? Do the Yanmas that run the TV station’s cameras get to take breaks? Is the Shuckle that mixes chemicals in a laboratory guaranteed a safe working environment? This franchise has always kept these kind of questions at arms’ length, but if you’re the kind of nerd that devotes serious thought to this kind of introspection, it’s a fun podcast topic at the very least.

In the end, “Detective Pikachu” has trouble staying interesting. Although the central mystery of the missing father is clear, there’s a fair amount of wheel-spinning and bland characterization that drags it down. Get it for the kids, but don’t expect it to occupy them for very long.

“Detective Pikachu” is available for Nintendo 3DS. This review is based on product supplied by the publisher. Images courtesy Nintendo of America.

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