Detective Pikachu Returns Takes on Police Corruption

Detective Pikachu Returns Takes on Police Corruption

Major storyline spoilers ahead for Detective Pikachu Returns: To analyze key ideas in the film.

Detective Pikachu Returns, from a brand most known for collecting monsters to fight for collectible badges, is blatantly political. That reputation isn’t entirely unjustified, since previous editions of the US$88 billion series have addressed issues such as colonization in Japan, monopolization of energy resources, and climate change, to mention a few. Detective Pikachu Returns stands out for its willingness to embrace cinema noir elements and its unapologetically current take on police and government corruption, whether on purpose or not.

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The plot beats are so unexpected because of the presentation. You’re still Tim Goodman, but you’re a college student now, and you live in Ryme City in your own apartment. Even now, you converse with a charming Pikachu with a detective cap. You often visit the same café, which is crowded with regular patrons and their Pokémon. Snivy is dozing off in a booth next to an elderly man. A woman is out in the town square taking endless pictures of her cute Maractus. With the exception of Detective Pikachu Returns, when the police are collecting and imprisoning Pokémon for small offenses, this could be any starting town from any Pokémon generation game. The police in Detective Pikachu Returns purposefully fabricate evidence in order to detain Pokémon that are not guilty. To establish legislation requiring monitoring devices on all Pokémon to “foster friendship” and create a false sense of security, the police in Detective Pikachu Returns purposefully fabricate evidence to imprison innocent Pokémon.

During my playing of Detective Pikachu Returns, I felt as though I had spent too much time in the depths of a certain YouTube algorithm explaining the plot to virtually anybody. The conspiracy that most people connect with the franchise is not this one. Nevertheless, once I got over the psychological shock of witnessing a Pikachu accuse the broad-chested chief police of taking bribes for bringing Pokémon prisoners to a lab to serve as test subjects, I was amazed at how daring writer Hiroyuki Jinnai and the rest of the team were in creating this sequel. The main premise of the game is a cleverly crafted piece of detective fiction. It does, however, falter at the end, unable to neatly wrap up its main plot regarding Tim’s father and Mewtwo’s role in the story of the duology.

Notably, one of the main storylines of The 3DS ended unresolved: what happened to Tim’s father, and why can Tim talk to his Pokémon partner? The Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds-starring movie stayed fairly true to the original game’s story, with a novel ending that answered any unanswered concerns. While there are techniques to explain the ending, Detective Pikachu Returns invites players not to think about “how” in its last minutes. The story urges players to overlook the pieces that are still in play on the board and accept that time ran out and everything turned out okay in the end. Even though the outcome was always going to be a little over the top, this results in a less satisfactory ending.

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There are a few such instances in the last act, such as a pivotal conversation where we are meant to think that despite a strong figure’s repeated visits to the scene of a big crime (a kidnapping), he was coerced into agreeing to the conspiratorial plan, and no one is saying anything about it. Mewtwo’s role in the narrative is essentially one of convenience—he appears out of the blue when the plot requires him. The main antagonist’s key storyline reveal may also seem less realistic to players; it introduces a sci-fi twist that is reminiscent of Get Out’s climactic moments. Since Detective Pikachu Returns explores humanity’s fear of others who are different from them, their inclination to oppress others in order to feel comfortable, and their desire to assimilate into other groups in order to gain power, I thought the choice was consistent. I can’t speak for the designers’ intentions, but it was impossible to ignore the references to deplorable times in human history.

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The appearance of Noctowl in Detective Pikachu Returns
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Venonat, as it appears in Detective Pikachu Returns

The graphics in the game are its major flaw. While it runs better, Detective Pikachu Returns doesn’t look any worse than the standard Switch Pokémon generation—it just has a simpler aesthetic. Whether they have fur, feathers, armored skin, or fluff, the monsters are all smooth models with no texture. The color scheme is cheery and vibrant, yet because of its simple layout, it still seems cheap. Pokémon don’t actually interact cohesively; they only stand about in various locations. This is still my biggest issue with the more recent franchise entries, and I think it’s a squandered chance to rethink character designs for a fresh audience. This is particularly true in a game where the diversity of monsters can be chosen more carefully by the producers. Mewtwo’s appearance is arguably the worst; his facial features seem to be painted on.

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Surely, we can do better than this.

There are a few fetch tasks in each location that players can complete to pass the time, although they’re not very special. The game is rather easy to finish, though occasionally players will take control of another Pokémon with a special ability to spice up the problems. There are seldom any difficult conclusions, and unlike in the Ace Attorney series, players won’t have to reconsider the meaning of hints. Except for a couple, the environments are mostly linear and designed to be played like a side-scrolling game.

Detective Pikachu Returns leans heavily on its noir detective ideals and audacious writing. It seems hopeless to bemoan the franchise’s drab visuals at this point, but one can hope. Although the gameplay isn’t very difficult, fans of detective fiction and Pokémon will enjoy a compelling narrative.

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