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Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl review: Un-bucking convention

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl come with big visual upgrades over the 2007 Nintendo DS originals, but as remakes go they don’t deviate much from the source material.”>
Enlarge / Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl come with big visual upgrades over the 2007 Nintendo DS originals, but as remakes go they don’t deviate much from the source material.

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield may have disappointed some of the series’ most devoted fans with their truncated Pokédexes, but that doesn’t seem to have hurt them much with the game-buying public. The two titles are, collectively, the fifth best-selling game in the Switch’s history, trailing only Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the Switch iterations of Smash Bros. and Animal Crossing, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They’re the best-selling Pokémon games since Pokémon Gold and Silver were released at the height of late-’90s/early-’00s Pokémania over two decades ago.

Part of Sword‘s and Shield‘s appeal, as we explored a bit in our review, was that they used the Switch’s extra hardware power to create a truly console-sized adventure, crafting a world with an impressive sense of scale and the series’ first free-roaming overworld areas. There were still some weird quirks—story cutscenes with mouth movements but no actual spoken dialogue come to mind—but it felt like the series had finally broken free of some of the conventions it had been leaning on since the earliest Game Boy entries.

In that context, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon Shining Pearl can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown. The games are faithful to their source material, but that source material is a pair of games released on the original Nintendo DS in 2007, and both the originals and the remakes hew much more closely to the series’ Game Boy roots. It’s not that there aren’t improvements—it’s just that, even relative to other Pokémon remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl feel inessential.

They’re Pokémon games

The shortest, truest review I could write of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is that they are Pokémon games. If you like Pokémon games, you will probably enjoy them. If you don’t care for Pokémon games, these won’t change your mind.

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As in most of the series’ other entries, you begin the game as a Pokémon-less youth who has waited until now to obtain your first Pokémon even though everyone you talk to is constantly jabbering about Pokémon. After receiving a pre-captured monster from a local eccentric academic, you quickly master elementary concepts that no one else in the world seems to understand, like “carrying six Pokémon with you at all times” and “using more than one Pokémon type.” You explore the Sinnoh region, catching new Pokémon and acquiring badges from Gym Leaders, until eventually you use your monster battling skills to attain cultural and strategic hegemony at the top of Sinnoh’s Pokémon League.

Catching, raising, and battling Pokémon has always been the bedrock of the series, and the rock-paper-scissors-style battle system remains satisfyingly easy to learn but difficult to master. And as much as I miss Sword‘s and Shield‘s more ambitious graphics and design, developer ILCA has done a clever job of melding the cute chibi art style used in the overworld with the more realistically rendered Sword and Shield-like characters and 3D arenas used for battles. And for younger players who enjoyed the Pokémon Let’s Go games, the simpler and more linear structure of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl will be easier to follow and understand than Sword and Shield.

But for series veterans, there are parts of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl that feel threadbare, especially for a $60 console game. The level grinding, rigidly linear exploration, barely there story, bland dialogue, and simple city and town designs are all way too familiar at this point. And the locations you visit and the characters you meet (including this iteration’s Team Rocket-esque gang of petty criminals, Team Galactic) are among the series’ least-memorable. There’s rarely a reason to revisit locations on Sinnoh’s map after you’ve been there once (other than to pick berries you’ve planted), and you need to get pretty deep into the main story before you’ll be challenged by most of the trainers or Gym Leaders you fight.

One bright spot—and one of the remakes’ larger additions to the original game—is the Grand Underground, a subterranean network of tunnels that runs beneath the entire Sinnoh region. The original games had a similar Underground area, where you could dig up and trade rare items and create and decorate “secret bases” to show your friends while playing over Wi-Fi. The remakes expand the network of tunnels with themed rooms designed around different biomes. Each of these rooms is filled with biome-appropriate Pokémon, and these Pokémon are visible on the map rather than being random encounters.

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This is as close as the Diamond and Pearl remakes get to Sword and Shield‘s Wild Area, and, in the early- to mid-game, the Grand Underground serves as a convenient way to catch a wider variety of Pokémon to fill out your team roster. Exploring each of these rooms and playing the item-finding mining minigame are both entertaining ways to break up the main adventure when it gets to be too monotonous.

Modern touches, for better or worse

Diamond and Pearl isn’t as customizable as it is in Sword and Shield, but, once you get to a certain point in the game, you can at least buy some pre-made outfits.”>
Enlarge / The games don’t push the Switch’s hardware very hard, but obviously even a simple Switch game is going to be a big graphical jump from a mid-2000s DS game.

My biggest criticism of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is that they’re eminently skippable, whether you’ve played the original games or not. They’re well-made, very faithful renditions of a couple of 15-year-old DS games. But without newer Pokémon or other major gameplay updates, they feel like too many other games I’ve played before.

Past remakes of Pokémon games were worth playing because (1) there was a lot more about the battle system and graphics that could be modernized and (2) because their national Pokédexes meant they offered the newest and most up-to-date superset of all available Pokémon. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl just feel perfunctory by comparison. I suspect that the decision to hand these games off to an external developer has something to do with this, whether it’s because ILCA didn’t want to stray too far from the source material, or because ILCA was given a mandate not to stray too far from the source material.

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If Diamond and Pearl are special to you, you’ll appreciate this remake’s respect for the source material. If you’re looking for an engaging but by-the-numbers RPG, these games might scratch an itch for you, too. But if you’re looking for a more ambitious console-scale follow-up to Sword and Shield, you might be better off waiting a couple of months for Pokémon Legends: Arceus instead.

The good

  • Rock-paper-scissors Pokémon battles remain fun and engaging.
  • Cute art direction that melds chibi and human-scale character designs.
  • Dozens of hours of gameplay and hundreds of monsters to collect.
  • Raising and managing your Pokémon party is easier than it was in the old games, reflecting tweaks made for Sword and Shield.
  • Simpler storyline and gameplay are more welcoming for younger players than Sword and Shield.

The bad

  • Lightweight, linear story is mostly forgettable.
  • Limited Pokédex leaves out hundreds of newer creatures and alternate forms.
  • Games don’t do much to push the Switch’s visuals.
  • Pokémon Home integration is going to take a few months.

The ugly

  • Even for Pokémon remakes, these games won’t do much to surprise you.

The verdict: No doubt these will sell well regardless of what I say, but if you’re not already dying to play these, I would save the $60 for Pokémon Legends: Arceus, due out in January.

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