The two newest installments in the Pokémon game series, “Brilliant Diamond” and “Shining Pearl,” were released a little over a month ago on Nov. 19 for the Nintendo Switch. It has been 15 years since the release of “Diamond” and “Pearl,” the original games that took fans to the Sinnoh region. The remakes make one more thing clear about the Pokémon formula: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
To preface this review, I want to admit that I never finished my copy of the original “Pearl,” as I gave it away to a friend before I could complete it. Nonetheless, I’ve played another generation four title, “HeartGold,” for countless hours, so I’m very familiar with the gameplay. I’ve also played every other Pokémon game in the classic series. When I saw the remakes of “Diamond” and “Pearl” would be hitting shelves, I thought playing them would be a great opportunity to bring my personal journey with the fandom full circle. Now, onward with the review.
I mention my personal history with the Pokémon series because depending on how much experience a player brings to these games, they might have a very different reaction. For example, “Brilliant Diamond” and “Shining Pearl” (commonly referred to as BDSP) brought back the use of chibi overworld character models, a feature that had been replaced by more realistic-looking models beginning in 2013. This reversion to the styles of “Pokémon Black/White” and the previous games likely has something to do with Pokémon’s usual developer Game Freak not being at the helm for these games. In its stead, developer ILCA was in charge of the BDSP games, and they must have favored this style. For older fans, this probably worked to the remakes’ advantage, adding to the nostalgia factor. However, for newer fans expecting a similar experience to the Hoenn remakes of 2014, the style may be a bit off-putting. Either way, the style is executed very well, except for a slightly uncanny switch from chibi to realistic that only shows up at the beginning of battle sequences.
As for gameplay, much is once again riding on what each player would want from the games. For fans looking for a shiny reskin of the Sinnoh games, difficulty and all, that’s not exactly what one will find here. The games use a forced experience points (EXP) share system, in which the active Pokémon receives the full amount of experience from a battle and the rest of the party receives half. EXP shares were originally items found in the games that would only affect the Pokémon holding them. In generation six, EXP share changed to a feature accessible at the beginning of the game and affects all the Pokémon in the player’s party. The inability to turn EXP share off takes away the ability to increase the difficulty of the games, and it seems unlikely that the option will return. While this makes it impossible for hardcore fans to experience the grind-heavy slog from the older Pokémon titles, it must be acknowledged that the pacing of the leveling of the Pokémon is incredibly well-timed. Without an excessive amount of extra grinding for experience points, each gym and even the Pokémon League all feel relatively beatable, but not to the point where there’s no challenge at all.
The plot, as with most Pokémon games, is incredibly concentrated into the penultimate act of the game. Sinnoh’s villainous Team Galactic has a lot of potential plot-wise, relative to some of the other generations’ villains. Yet, due to the quick rising action and short climax, it becomes clear rather quickly that the focus is very much on the gameplay and not as much on the narrative.
One general challenge that remakes of already established media face is the need to bring new content to the fans. The generation four remakes, which are more faithful to the source material than predecessors have, manages to include some new features, for better or for worse.
On the positive side, the Grand Underground is simply a revamped, upgraded version of the original Underground area of the Sinnoh region. This provides a great escape from the main progression of the game, and new features like fully online functionality add even more dimensions. Another plus is the ability to walk with one’s Pokémon in the overworld, a fan-favorite feature that has only appeared once before in such an unrestricted way: The remakes of the Johto games, “HeartGold and SoulSilver.” The only downside to this feature is that the AI of walking Pokémon isn’t the brightest, but this is easily overlooked.
The last of the new features I want to highlight can either be a positive or a negative depending on certain factors: the Pokétch’s new ability to use hidden moves (previously referred to as HMs). The Pokétch, a feature from the original Sinnoh games, includes multiple applications to help the player. The feature in the remakes includes a new application that allows wild Pokémon to use hidden moves for the player instead of needing a Pokémon in the party to know said move. For example, in the past, if a player wanted to use the move Fly to instantly travel to a location, one of their Pokémon would have had to know Fly. Now, Fly can be accessed as long as the player progresses far enough in the game and finds the move in the overworld. Unfortunately, that second prerequisite provides a frustrating scenario for players who have played previous games before: If a Pokémon in the party knows one of the hidden moves and the player has progressed far enough to use it, this is no longer enough. For example, some Pokémon naturally learn hidden moves like Cut and Strength from leveling up, but even if they have learned these moves, the player is unable to use their overworld utilities without finding an in-game item. This can lead to unnecessarily frustrating wild goose chases to hunt down an overworld item that should’ve been redundant. In short, this new addition to the Pokétch is a plus, but it was implemented poorly.
In short, “Shining Pearl” and “Brilliant Diamond” are very solid Pokémon games, and that’s how they feel when playing them. They don’t suffer from random frame rate drops, the graphics on the Switch are fantastic, the ambient music is charming, and there’s basically infinite replayability due to the myriad options to explore in any Pokémon game once the main storyline is finished — Pokedex completion, shiny hunting, multiplayer battling and more). The original games were a hit because they were executed well and the Pokémon formula continues to keep bringing fans back for each game, BDSP should be no different.