Friday, March 30, 2018

It's All in the Game

「ピカッとひらめいた! 」
"A bolt of brilliance!" 
"Detective Pikachu"

While they have been a while for a long time, episodic videogames really took off with the many games by TellTale Games like Sam & Max and The Walking Dead and is now a commonly seen format in the videogame industry. Like the term says, an episodic videogame is like an episode of a series: it is considerably shorter than the usual videogame (and also cheaper, of course), but it is intended as part of a larger, contineous series and are released in a more frequent schedule than conventional videogames. This format results in cheaper releases that can be delivered more quickly to the consumer and it gives the developers an early stream of income as they work on subsequent episodes in which they can also incorporate consumer feedback on earlier episodes. This format is somewhat similar to the serialization of novels (which is also an ongoing service), though still very different in key elements, with the most important distinction being that episodic videogames can stand on their own for the most part, while installments in serializations are usually not standalone, as you need the context of the installments before, and also after to make sense of the story. An episodic videogame ideally is a vital part to the whole series, but should also feature its own storyline that is mostly resolved within that particular episode, giving the player some closure at the end of the deal. That is of course not often the case with novel serializations, as the installments are basically excerpts.

Episodic mystery fiction is not common, but there are some examples. Videogames like Famicom Tantei Club and Trick X Logic were originally episodic releases for example. If we look at printed books, the interlinked short story collection is an example, if the short stories themselves are published seperately first before being collected in a volume, though usually, the overall storyline of episodic videogames is far stronger than those you'd usually see in interlinked short stories. Basically, episodic videogames and interlinked short story collections are standing right opposite each other: the interlinked short story stands on its own, but can also be read in relation to the other stories, while the episodic videogame is intended as a vital part of a series, but also happens to work as a seperate piece.

Two years ago, I reviewed the 3DS download-only videogame Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou ("Detective Pikachu ~ Birth of a New Duo"), which was a simple, but entertaining mystery videogame starring Nintendo's famous Pokémon franchise. I absolutely loved it as it was a funny game that actually made creative use of the creatures for its mystery plots, but I mentioned it was only the first episode in what was obviously supposed to be a longer series. I even ended my review with "Let's hope new episodes will follow soon.". At the time, I assumed new episodes would follow in a few months, half a year tops, as that was the standard release schedule for an episodic videogame. How wrong I was. It seems they eventually simply gave up on the episodic format, and decided on releasing a single, full-length standalone version of the game instead! So instead of releasing seperate episodes, they made us wait until March 2018 to release Meitantei Pikachu (Detective Pikachu) on the 3DS, which includes all the chapters of the story (the first episode that was originally released in Japan corresponds to the first three chapters of the final product). So I was a bit bummed I had to wait two years for this mystery to be finally solved, but as I really liked the original release, I had no choice but to get it.

The story is of course exactly the same as the original release. Young Tim Goodman moves to Ryme City in search of his father, a private detective who has gone missing while working on a case. Immediately after his arrival in the city, Tim runs into a talking Pikachu, an electric mouse 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 of what happened, but he gained the powers to communicate in human speech with Tim. Together, the two try to find out what happened to Harry. The original episode ended right after Tim got his first real lead to what happened to his father, but the story of the complete version of Detective Pikachu obviously goes beyond that, and while it still leaves some questions unanswered for a potential sequel, Detective Pikachu works perfectly as a standalone game or a "first season" of a series.

I was reading through my review of the first episode again, and to be honest, there's little I want to add to that. I really recommend you reading that review first, as the full version of Detective Pikachu runs on the exact same way the first episode paved, so all my points still stand. During their hunt for answers, Tim and Pikachu come across problems they have to solve or mysteries that need to be explained. After collecting evidence and testimony at the scene, Pikachu will lead Tim through some questions to see if they can solve their conundrum (=testing the player). Once the problem is solved, the story progresses, bringing new locales and new challenges for the duo. What makes Detective Pikachu stand out is how it incorporates Pokémon into its mysteries. There are about 700 different species of the creatures they call Pokémon (Pocket Monsters), each with their own special powers and characteristics. 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. Only a selection of them appear in this game, but Detective Pikachu makes excellent use of the well-documented powers of the Pokémon to bring a detective story you're unlikely to find elsewhere. For example, Pokémon usually can't speak with humans, but through Pikachu's interpretation skills, Tim's able to question Pokémon for valuable testimony, testimony that human characters usually can't give. These 'humanized animals' allow for all kinds of neat things in the mystery plot, like getting testimony from Flying-type Pokémon, while in the real world, you wouldn't be able to question a bird even if they were witness to some crime.

The fact all the Pokémon are all fleshed-out creatures with special powers is also cleverly used for the mystery plots, as sometimes the powers of a Pokémon are used to commit a seemingly impossible crime, or you yourself have to use their powers to accomplish a task, or even deduce the identity of a culprit-Pokémon by examining the skills it used or other characteristics. Because Pokémon are so well-documented regarding what they can and can't do, it's still a fair-play mystery even if some Pokémon can turn invisible or walk through walls, and everything you need to know to solve the mystery is within the game, so you don't need to know much about Pokémon to enjoy this game.

The cinematic presentation is also top-notch by the way, and I think that people who like Zootopia will really enjoy this game. The banter with Pikachu (who sounds and talks like an middle-aged man) is really funny, and really gives the game its own voice and face. Detective Pikachu is also slated for a Hollywood live-action adaptation by the way, and I'm actually very curious to see how that'll turn out! The source material is certainly brimming with potential for a great film.

They also released an amiibo-figure of Detective Pikachu, which I couldn't resist. I think this is the biggest figure I have of a detective character (then again, the only other figures I have of detective characters are some small keychain mascottes of Detective Conan and Ace Attorney...). Sure beats the classic Sherlock Holmes bust!

So while it is undeniably a very simple adventure game, Detective Pikachu manages to be a very entertaining experience. It has great presentation, and while the story is a bit predictable in a cartoony way, it also brings creative mystery plots that make great use of the fact that this is a Pokémon game, resulting in a detective story that is totally unique and more importantly, incredibly fun.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵ピカチュウ』

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