In the Pokémon community there’s an ongoing joke about the state of the megalithic franchise’s world: Where are the people in this universe with no interest in Pokémon battling, in Pokémon contests, or any other variation of “being the very best like no one ever was?”
I am that person.
I’ve played every mainline Pokémon game out of an obligation to what has been the longest standing constant in my gaming life. But as I’ve grown older with little to no time to grind away at the eight badges needed to become a Pokémon master, I’ve lost interest in the same story Pokémon always tells. This is a world for which I’ve dreamt up stories over 20 years now, but for so long Pokémon games have been about the capturing and controlling of these magical creatures in competitive sport, as if my own imagined view of this world is beyond the scope or vision of Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. That’s why Detective Pikachu is such a special game. In taking on a different genre as a mystery-solving adventure game, it presents an alternative view of the Pokémon world, one that is more anthropocentric in nature, and really puts how Pokémon and humans co-exist outside of the battle arena under its investigative magnifying glass.
In the eight or so hours I put into Detective Pikachu I don’t recall once seeing a Pokémon being kept in a Poké Ball, the device trainers use to capture and store the creatures, as every Pokémon in the metropolis of Ryme City is roaming free or assisting humans with everyday activities like services or research. Garbador, a Pokémon made up of literal garbage, is helping scientists study ways to lower pollution in the community, using its ability to consume waste to help lessen the density of landfills and environmental contamination. Kricketune, a string instrument-like bug Pokémon, helps its partner tune her violin before a performance. Then, of course, there’s the titular Pikachu, who uses his ability to communicate with both humans and Pokémon to help protagonist Tim Goodman solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance.
In a sense, Detective Pikachu is the most “human” (both literally and figuratively) stories have probably ever been in the Pokémon games. Tim and Pikachu’s relationship is grounded in a mutual love for Tim’s father, where typically the relationships between Pokémon and their partners boil down to how well they perform in trials by combat and whether or not the human is sympathetic to that or not. Meanwhile, the supporting cast has their own motivations and goals that actually don’t have anything to do with Pokémon at all, such as Emilia Christie, a journalist who struggles with her desire to track down the truth and the trouble it could cause for others, or Brad McMaster, the no-nonsense cop blinded by his own ambition and willing to do anything to bring in a supposed perpetrator. There’s nuance here to characters that is just typically left unexplored in most Pokémon games because they’re all too focused on the sport of Pokémon battling. But even beyond the human’s interpersonal relationships, Detective Pikachu offers up a fresh view as to how Pokémon can affect and participate in culture when they’re more than just glorified athletes.
Pikachu’s ability to communicate between Pokémon and Tim means we get some first-person perspective on how these creatures feel about humans and helping them in ways that only they can, making them feel like distinct characters rather than just the pets or partners of trainers. Characters like a Ludicolo who acts as a waitress at a diner and has become synonymous with her partner’s excellent service and coffee, takes pride in her work and isn’t afraid to show it. A group of Pokémon led by a Charizard puts together a parade like it was their own tradition and production, and found themselves all at a loss once it fell apart after Charizard got caught up in the mystery that runs through Detective Pikachu. This is best encapsulated in Pikachu himself, who isn’t even capable of using standard Pokémon attacks, and has to rely on his calculating mind and wit to solve his problems. Rather than finding fulfillment in being Tim’s personal guard mouse, Pikachu has his own goals and skills that don’t revolve around bringing his trainer the glorious title of “Pokémon master.”
Detective Pikachu is, at its heart, a whodunit story in Pokémon clothing, but its portrayal of this world we’ve grown to know and love and the culture within it is such a stark contrast from what we’ve typically seen. In divorcing itself from what is considered to be the core of the franchise, Detective Pikachu is perhaps the most holistic view of the Pokémon world the series has offered thus far, and hopefully means that The Pokémon Company will be willing to look at other ways to explore this fascinating universe, because playing as trainers has put blinders on us for far too long.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Kenneth Shepard’s reviews, such as Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s bonus episode, and find out why Kenneth thinks Danganronpa V3’s ending makes a polarizing case for letting the series go!
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