Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Review
Like many others, I was a little bit concerned when Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were announced. I wasn’t worried about the art style, that was one aspect I actually quite pleased with, but when it was pegged as a “faithful” remake… well, I had questions. Questions like ‘What, if anything, is new here?” and “If it’s so faithful, what’s going to keep players engaged?” Further trailers and an early look at the game revealed a little bit more about the premise and scope of the remakes, but they failed to answer the key question on my mind: “What makes these remakes stand apart from their inspiration?”
I’ve finished Pokémon Shining Pearl now, having spent 25 hours tackling the main story and a pretty reasonable chunk of the side content available. I’m incredibly pleased to say that it’s so much more than *just* a straight remake of Diamond and Pearl. I mean, it’s certainly a straight remake of Diamond and Pearl, but it’s the small touches, the love and care that ILCA put into the game, that really make it something special. And as both ILCA’s first primarily-developed game, and the first main-series Pokémon game developed by a company outside of Game Freak, it’s a fantastic start to what I hope is a long and plentiful relationship between ILCA and The Pokémon Company — though it’s not without its problems here and there.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and start with the story. In Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, you’ll take on the role of a ten-year-old kid from the sleepy little town of Twinleaf in the vast region of Sinnoh. A spot of adventuring to the nearby Lake Verity — said to be the home of the Legendary Pokémon Mesprit — alongside childhood friend Barry. Sadly, the two of you seem to have never listened to the wise words of Professor Oak, and ventured into the tall grass without Pokémon of your own. Attacked by wild Pokémon, the two of you reach into a nearby briefcase left behind by the region’s local Professor, pick from a trio of adorable starters and thus, a journey begins.
On that journey, you’ll come face to face with the evil Team Galactic as they fight under the leadership of Galactic Boss Cyrus to create a new world. You’ll take on a series of powerful gym leaders. You’ll participate in contest spectaculars, you’ll explore a vast underground network of tunnels, and most importantly, you’ll meet, catch, train, and battle with a rich selection of fun and fantastic Pokémon.
The game’s story is the most faithful part of the experience here, beat-for-beat matching the original games, from the smallest moment to the over-arching story, from the very start to the very end. And that’s not a bad thing! Diamond and Pearl’s story, while not quite reaching the heights of Platinum, is still absolutely lovely, and the way it’s presented in BDSP is nostalgic and charming in all the right ways. Unlike past remakes like Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire and Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee, there’s no twists and turns to the original story, no alternate universes, no extra characters. That is undoubtedly going to disappoint some people, and I’ll admit I’d have liked to see *something* new in terms of story and progression, maybe even a touch of Platinum here and there (Cyrus’s speech at the Galactic building in Platinum is a standout moment for the series, so it’s a touch disappointing it’s missing here). But at the end of the day, these are Diamond and Pearl remakes, and faithful ones at that, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Diamond and Pearl’s story. It’s a charming, simple story, and it does a perfectly serviceable job of pushing you through the game.
But, if you’ve played Diamond and Pearl before, you don’t need to know about the story, you’re here to learn about the new stuff, what separates this game from its original release. So let’s start with the biggest addition to the game: the Grand Underground.
See, in the original games, there was a sprawling network of underground tunnels all throughout the Sinnoh region. In them, you could mine for fossils and stones, build and decorate underground bases, and play capture the flag with friends… and that’s about it. It was essentially a whole other region underneath Sinnoh, but there wasn’t really all that much to do, least of all if you were playing alone. The Grand Underground in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl has been completely redesigned from the ground up (no pun intended), sadly ditching capture the flag and a certain level of base decoration, and replacing them with a host of features that are useful for the average person, and arguably improve the single-player experience dramatically. How? With Pokémon Hideaways.
In Pokémon Hideaways, of which there are many in the Grand Underground, you’ll find a bunch of Pokémon wandering about in the overworld, much like they would in Pokémon Let’s Go or Sword & Shield. The levels of these Pokémon scale with the amount of gyms you’ve completed, so they’re a good resource for finding new Pokémon to flesh out your team at any point in the story. Most excitingly, they feature a tonne of Pokémon that you wouldn’t normally be able to find in Sinnoh, or at least not until the post-game in most cases. Players of the original games will know that the Sinnoh dex’s type coverage, especially for things like Fire-type Pokémon, was uh, not great, to say the least. The Grand Underground goes a long way to fixing that, and as early as the second gym, I was catching Pokémon like Houndoom, Swinub, and Teddiursa – all Pokémon you’d normally not have access to until after you’ve cleared the game. It opens up a huge amount of flexibility with your team composition, and since you’re free to catch and evolve non-Sinnoh dex Pokémon, I found myself with a well-rounded team that eventually became critical to my success in the late-game. I’ve even heard that you’re able to catch other generations’ starters in the Grand Underground, if you’re lucky enough, though it’s worth noting that the Pokémon available in the game don’t seem to go past generation 4 – which sadly, means no Sylveon.
Sadly, there is one catch to all of this, and that’s the catch rate. Good lord, the catch rate. I’m honestly not 100% sure if it’s a bug, or if I was just doing something very wrong, but it seems outrageously difficult to catch just about anything in the Grand Underground. I wasted over 140 Poké Balls of various types, from standard to Ultra, Dusk, and Timer Balls, trying to catch a single Lickitung that was on 1HP, and paralysed. Eventually, it knocked itself out with a Struggle, which was an exercise in frustration and a solid waste of both time and in-game money. It seemed to become marginally easier the later in the game I got, but it was never as easy to catch something as it should have been. Again, I’m not sure if this was just a bug that affected me, intentional behaviour, or just that I was missing a major mechanic that would’ve made it easier, but it’s a real sour note in what was otherwise a fantastic idea.
Digging in the Grand Underground returns too, and it’s more or less the exact same minigame as it was in the originals, meaning it’s a tonne of fun. The big difference is that you can now find type-themed loot boxes while digging, and successfully excavating one of these will reward you with a statue of a Pokémon of that type. You can then place those statues in your underground base — the only thing you can decorate your base with now, alongside pillars to place them on — and depending on the types of the Pokémon in the statues, you can get a boost to that type appearing in Hideaways. This means you can, to some degree, manipulate which Pokémon you find while in the underground – for example, if your team was severely lacking in Fire coverage, you could fill your base with Fire-type Pokémon statues, which would boost the appearance rate of Fire-type Pokémon in hideaways. It’s a nice way to tie all these Underground mechanics together, and it feels like a much more cohesive experience overall with these additions and changes. There are multiplayer aspects to the underground too, both local and online, but sadly I was unable to test any online play prior to the publication of this review. It’s Pokémon, though, so you can probably bet on it being solid, but basic. If that’s not the case, I’ll be sure to update this review.
Contests return too in BDSP, with a major facelift that, honestly, has left me a teensy bit underwhelmed. There’s no more dress-up section, a fan favourite (and a personal favourite) feature that would’ve been quite nice to see — but understandably wouldn’t really be all that feasible after the transition to 3D models for Pokémon. Instead, your Pokémon will be judged on their condition from eating Poffins, as well as the decoration of your Ball Capsules, which is another fan favourite feature that I was incredibly pleased to see return. Other than that, contests take the form of a fairly simple rhythm game, that has you pressing buttons along to the beat and building up points with your performance. It’s fine, really, but nothing particularly special, though I did like the strategy involved with selecting a move to use at juuuust the right time to maximise your score. It’s not something I anticipate I’ll spend a lot of time with in the future, but I’m glad it’s there nonetheless, as I do enjoy a good rhythm minigame from time to time.
The Pokétch has had a much less extensive makeover, sadly using the Diamond and Pearl-style design with a single button rather than the two-button design featured in Platinum, which means that accessing Pokétch apps requires you to carefully jump through each app one by one — and if you accidentally go past the one you want, you’re stuck cycling through them again until you get back around to it. The Pokétch lives in the top right-hand corner of the screen for the most part, and holds a host of apps that range from quite useful (like the Marking Map) to utterly useless (like the Coin Flip app). Thankfully, you can hide the Pokétch too, with a long hold of the R button, short pressed of which will cycle between the corner display and full-screen as well. The best part of the Pokétch, however, is that the role of HMs are now assigned to the device, calling up a wild Pokémon to perform your desired move instead of taking up precious move slots on your team. It’s a huge quality of life update that brings it inline with the more modern games in the series, and while I would’ve liked to see a rotating roster of HM-performing Pokémon pop up each time you use the move, I have to appreciate the commitment to the gag of using Bidoof and Bibarel for every single HM move except Fly. ILCA knows what’s up.
Other quality of life additions are here too, again bringing the experience up to modern standards of Pokémon gameplay that we’ve come to expect. The Fairy type is, of course, present here, meaning that tricky Pokémon like Spiritomb are much more manageable (and trust me, you’ll need it), and there’s an autosave function that regularly keeps your save data safe just in case the worst should happen. This is in addition to the global Pokémon Box access, which is unlocked reasonably early into the game, and makes catching and managing your Pokémon a simple and straightforward affair. In a perhaps more controversial move, the party-wide EXP Share returns from Sword and Shield too, and much like that game, cannot be turned off. At first I was quite worried about this, since it had a tendency to overlevel your Pokémon in Sword and Shield, but there seem to have been some tweaks made to the formula to make it a much more even-handed experience. Throughout the entirety of the game, the global EXP Share consistently kept my Pokémon’s levels at or below each gym leader’s strength, resulting in gym fights (which use their DP teams rather than their Platinum teams) that were actually challenging and sometimes even difficult. There’s been a huge boost to the AI used in important battles too, with opposing trainers using advantageous items and berries to give themselves the upper hand, correctly predicting (or cheating) my moves and switches, and having movesets that are prepared for just about anything. I can’t say too much about it for various reasons, but there are late-game trainers that absolutely handed my butt to me on a silver platter multiple times over, even with the global EXP Share and affection bonuses boosting my EXP gains across the board. If you’re looking for a challenge, there’s plenty here for you, trust me.
Another controversial choice was the reintroduction of single-use TMs, something I thought we’d well and truly moved past at this stage. Yet another thing that I was initially quite concerned about, this also turned out to be mostly a non-issue, but I’m still deeply confused as to why this particular choice was made after three whole generations of infinite TM usage. Thankfully, gym leaders and other characters of interest give you a handful of TMs when you defeat them, usually more than enough to see you through the main game, and there’s plenty of other ways to get more TMs, either through purchasing at the Veilstone department store, finding them in the Grand Underground, or other ways I can’t go over in this review. Take my word for it though, if you want to use multiple version of the same TM, there are ways to get them, even if you might have to work for them a bit. Still, it was an unnecessary thing to bring back after such a long time with infinite-use TMs, and I wish they’d abandoned the idea in favour of a mixed approach like Sword and Shield’s TM and TR system.
So let’s move on to the elephant in the room: the game’s presentation. Yes, the art style in BDSP has been and will continue to be divisive. For what it’s worth, I find the overworld art style quite charming and cute, and I think it’s a lovely way to recreate the DS’s art in 3D, personally. Still, I can see why others might not be so on-board, as art styles and personal taste are very subjective experiences — though I’m more than happy to be blunt and say that saying the art “like a mobile game” is not a very sound criticism at all. In both the overworld and in battles, which take a more SwSh-like approach to 3D, the presentation is a lot softer and pastel-ish than other 3D titles in the series, matching the originals’ visual tone and engaging those feel-good “safe place” synapses that make the game feel like coming home after a long holiday. Being able to customise your character somewhat is a nice little touch too, letting you make the main character a little more you and a little less generic. The world looks downright gorgeous at times, and as mentioned in my initial preview of the game, the 3D depth goes a long way in making the Sinnoh region feel bigger and more expansive than ever. Another huge positive for the presentation is the game’s music, which is lovingly recreated and then remixed in a way that artfully combines nostalgic vibes with modern musical practices. The end result is a soundtrack that genuinely made me get a little emotional at times, bringing back some very strong memories of how I almost gave Pokémon up, only to get sucked back in by a secondhand copy of Pokémon Diamond. Overall, it’s an audiovisual treat for both players of the original games, and those who are jumping in for the very first time.
Performance is pretty damn solid too, with no noticeable frame drops or overly aggressive jaggies in my time with the game’s main story. Gone too are the days of Diamond and Pearl’s absolutely glacial battle UI, with health bars falling so quickly you barely have time to register what’s happened, and no awkward pause after selecting a move, with Pokémon immediately starting their attack animations. Unfortunately, I did encounter a couple of very minor bugs in my time with the game, the first of which was an incredibly minor animation bug that had my following Pokémon sliding around behind me with no walking animation, and the second of which a slightly more serious bug that accidently let me surf on land for a single tile. Neither of these were game-breaking in the slightest, and you’re pretty unlikely to experience them yourself. I’m quite certain that they’ll be patched out before you even know it, too, with one patch for the game already out (this is the one I played on), and another on the way.
Let’s talk about that second patch briefly, too, because I do have some opinions on that. Look, I get that this is ILCA’s first proper game, and they’ve done an absolutely commendable job delivering what they have so far. I also get that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, so printing and shipping schedules have to be moved forward to prevent major delays — something that would jeopardise both this release, and the release of the upcoming Pokémon Legends: Arceus. But it is just a little bit disappointing to see that certain features are missing in the game right now; the major one that people will notice is the GWS (or Global Wonder Station) in Jubilife City, which upon approach, has you stopped and told that the feature isn’t ready yet. This would let you perform wonder trades with other players, throwing a Pokémon into the void and getting a random voidling back, but it’s just not here yet. You’re also limited to online trading and battling through the Union Room, which like, sure, whatever, that’s fine I guess, but online play is limited to just you and one other person right now, which is a little disappointing if you’re interested in playing with a large group of friends. Sure, these features are definitely small and for the most part, insignificant, but they represent a larger trend of games as a whole shipping before they’re 100% ready, with carts that need (often sizeable) updates on day one, or sometimes even later. Now, I know that ILCA and The Pokémon Company will provide these updates, and probably do so very quickly, but it would’ve been nice to see them available in the game from day dot, not shipped in an update days or weeks after the game is out.
Ultimately, these games were a bit of an experiment for The Pokémon Company. Having a developer other than Game Freak take the reigns on a main-series title, even if only for a remake, is a huge deal, and it certainly seems to have paid off in this particular instance. But it’s hard to look at BDSP without also bringing up Pokémon Legends: Arceus, the other Sinnoh game that’s releasing just a couple months from now. This tick-tock strategy of a smaller-scoped game from a third party developer paired with a bigger, bolder direction for the series from Game Freak themselves is an absolutely fascinating way to go about things, and the results of this grand experiment won’t really be known in full until PL:A sees a release in January. Still, if that game pulls off its ambitious direction, and BDSP does as well as I think it should, the future of the Pokémon series of video games is one that’s going to be incredible to watch going forward. Pokémon generations were already getting fuzzy, and this pair of Sinnoh titles, one a remake, and one a reimagining of the region in the distance past, could present a shake-up that has been dearly wished for by some of the die-hard fans of the series. Only time will tell.
Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are bordering on a masterclass of how to do faithful remakes of a classic and beloved series. They’re nostalgic, charming, lovely experiences, that perfectly mix the old with the new to present a journey that will appeal to fans of the originals while still keeping things fresh and up-to-date. As one half of a pair of Sinnoh games, they deliver on their half in spades, and show that The Pokémon Company is ready, willing, and able to mess with the formula for the sake of the series. I have my complaints here and there, too, but overall, these are the Diamond and Pearl remakes that I didn’t know I wanted until I fell in love with them.
Version played: Pokémon Shining Pearl
+ Gorgeous presentation
+ Plenty of fantastic quality of life additions
+ Surprisingly challenging and engaging
- Grand Underground catch rate is a bit funky
- Contests are nothing to write home about
- A few tiny bugs and missing features yet to be fixed