Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Great Mouse Detective

「 オレは名探偵じゃない。名探偵だ」
『名探偵ピカチュウ 新コンビの誕生』

"I'm not a detective. I'm a great detective!"
"Detective Pikachu ~ Birth of a New Duo"

Pikapikapikachu? Pikapika. Pikapikapikkkachu. Pi!

When it was first announced in 2013 that a detective game starring the mascotte of the Pokémon franchise, Pikachu, was in the making, people were surprised for several reasons. One was the creepy facial mapping technology used for Pikachu. But people also got excited because it was so unexpected and yet somehow fitting, especially because Pikachu's voice actress, Ootani Ikue, also voices Mitsuhiko from Detective Conan, the Detective Boys member who is way too smart for his age. Fast-forward to January 2016, when Nintendo suddenly released this trailer of the 3DS game Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou ("Detective Pikachu ~ Birth of a New Duo"), together with the announcement the game would be released the following week (first week of February). And people were surprised again. Not by the sudden release, but by the deep, manly voice Pikachu suddenly had. I decided immediately I needed this game. Meitantei Pikachu tells the story of Tim Goodman, a young man who has moved to Ryme City in search of his father, a private detective who has gone missing while working on a case. Immedaitely after his arrival in the city, Tim runs into the talking Pikachu, who was actually the partner of Tim's father Harry. Harry and Pikachu got in an car accident and only Pikachu was found. Pikachu lost his memories, but he gained the powers to communicate in human speech with Tim. Together, the two try to find out what happened to Harry.

Do I need to explain what Pokémon are? Pokémon is a popular media franchise that started with videogames, but also features animated series, theatrical releases and much, much, muuuuuuch more. The games are about the titular Pokémon (Pocket Monsters), about 700 different species of creatures with special powers. People use them for a variety of activities, from pets to using them for Pokémon fights and having them help with work. Pikachu, the best known Pokémon for example, is a yellow mouse species of the Electric type, capable of generating electricity for attacks.

I wouldn't say that all Pokémon games are for kids (stuff can get crazy complex in battles), but Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou is definitely a mystery game geared for kids. But that's not a bad thing. I actually enjoyed this game a lot. During the game, Tim and Pikachu will come across mysteries, which they record in their notebook. To solve a mystery, the duo needs to find evidence, both of the physical kind, as well as testimony from both humans and other Pokémon. When you have gathered all the available evidence, the game (Pikachu) will prompt you to solve the mystery, which you do by combining the right evidence (there is also non-essential evidence). As the game is geared towards the younger public, the mysteries aren't super difficult, and can be solved just by carefully reading all the clues (and the game also nudges you in the right direction). There are no penalties for doing something wrong, they just have you reconsider your answers.

The game is called a "Dramatic Adventure", which in this sense means the game is very story-focused. You solve a mystery, the story advances, and you find yourself in a new spot with more mysteries to solve. You are always confined within a limited space (of several streets/rooms/areas) to find your clues, so it's never that difficult to find every ncessary clue. There is no way to stray from the correct path, so it's a very linear experience.

While I said the mysteries are not particuarly difficult (okay, they're easy), the game does offer something seldom seen in other mystery fiction. That is: the Pokémon themselves. And that makes this a very special detective story. Animals in mystery fiction have always been troublesome, because well, they're animals. But Pokémon do have a human side to them, and because Pikachu can talk (and 'translate' for Tim), you're actually able to get testimony from them. It adds a very original element to detective fiction, because now you have 'humanized animals' participating with the plot, which gives the mystery plot a lot of potential to do original things. Normally, you wouldn't be able to get testimony from birds. But in this game, you can get testimony from Flying type Pokémon. Meitantei Pikachu's mysteries might not be really complex, but it really is an original experience because of the use of Pokémon throughout the plot.

A while back, I wrote that a mystery starring youkai could be considered fair, because even though these are fictional and supernatural beings, they are actually well documented, meaning they have clear 'rules' and thus can be used in a fair mystery story. I'm glad to say that Meitantei Pikachu did precisely that. Pokémon are fictional creatures with extraordinary powers, but extremely well-documented and defined. Pokémon belong to certain types and learn certain powers. Within the world of Pokémon, there is the Pokédex, an encyclopedia on the many species of Pokémon. So while a talking, electricity-generating mouse might not be real, its powers and characteristics are 'defined' in enough detail in the fictional world for it to work within the framework of a fair-play mystery. Meitantei Pikachu has you make deductions based on the powers of the various Pokémon that appear within the story and therefore feels really fresh and original compared to 'boring realistic' mystery stories. And for those not very knowledgable on Pokémon: don't worry. All the clues necessary are available within the game.

Detective Pikachu deserves a special mention: he's a really fun character. Great voice-acting and animation really brings him alive and you soon forget he's basically a talking animal.  Sometimes, he acts like the cute mascotte figure he's supposed to be, at other times he sounds like a hardened private eye. As an original detective character, I think he's one of the most memorable characters I've seen in years!

The only 'but' I have for Meitantei Pikachu is the fact the game is fairly short considering the price. It's also only the first episode in a longer storyline, meaning it ends with 'To Be Continued" and leaves you with quite some unanswered questions. This first episode does end with a climax in the storyline, but to be honest, considering the price I had really expected this game to be at least one hour longer. I'll probably play the following episodes too, but I do really hope they do something about the pricing.

So while I'm not really sold on the cost/performance ratio of the game, I did really enjoy Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou as a funny, original and accessible game. Let's hope new episodes will follow soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵ピカチュウ 新コンビ誕生』

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