It’s always difficult to know just how much of a game to change when you’re remaking it, and that is certainly true when it comes to the insanely-popular Pokémon series. Go too far, and you risk alienating the audience, as was evident with the enjoyable but somewhat simplified Let’s Go! Pikachu and Eevee Switch remakes of the original Pokémon Red and Blue. If you manage to combine the elements that have advanced the formula in the years since, though, you can create some of the very best games in the franchise, as was the case with HeartGold and SoulSilver on DS. Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl fall somewhere in the middle; a pair of titles that offers a great opportunity to pick up some of the Sinnoh Dex that is missing from the current mainline Sword and Shield games, but ultimately an adventure you probably won’t return to once you’re done.
There’s a strange feeling of obligation to these remakes. Generation 1, 2 and 3 have all received stellar reimaginings, and Generation 4 felt like the odd one out. However, instead of a Game Freak-helmed remake and love letter to the generation, ILCA, the studio handling Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, has changed the art style for the worse and failed to include many elements from the generation’s best game, Pokémon Platinum.
Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl feature a 3D ‘Chibi’ art style for their overworld, making all characters look like emotionless Funko Pops, and it was a real mistake. While battles have arguably never looked better – with some incredible arenas and backgrounds for your Pokemon to compete in – the overworld looks cheap in comparison. It also robs some NPCs – who were intimidating and serious in the original 2D games – of their tone completely. Why should we take this big antagonist seriously when he looks just as (un)threatening as any other trainer?
Every character you battle has a full-sized model resembling the style adopted in Sword and Shield, and they uniformly look so much better than the Chibi, toy-like models that cover the overworld. This really makes us wish that they’d retained the overworld scale of the previous Nintendo Switch games, rather than attempt to transport the squat 2D sprites of the original game into a full-3D world.
While the art style underwhelms, the music, however, is excellent. The Sinnoh games were home to some of the best themes in Pokémon history, and they’ve been lovingly remastered here. There’s a great atmosphere to the entire region, you really get the sense that it’s a lived-in environment built around the imposing Mt. Coronet. In a smart move, during battles in the wild, you’ll often see the shadow of Coronet looming in the background, making the battles feel much more like they’re playing out in the world, rather than in some cordoned-off area.
The core of the game is the same as it was 15 years ago. You’re travelling from town to town collecting badges and trying to foil a plot to harness a Legendary Pokemon. If you’re tired of that formula, these games will do nothing to sway you. Some smart quality of life changes include the new HM system, which means that Surf, Fly and other moves that were relegated to the lone Bidoof in your party are now handled by… a Bidoof – but this time it’ll just appear when you need it, and no longer take up a party slot.
In a really disappointing step back for the franchise, Pokémon no longer spawn in the overworld in the wild — instead, it’s back to random battles in the grass when you’re walking the roads of Sinnoh. We had really hoped we’d gotten away from this antiquated system for good, but unfortunately not.
Where Pokemon do spawn in the overworld, however, is in the all-new ‘Grand Underground’. The Grand Underground is a reimagining of the same system from the original games, wherein players could explore, mine for shards, and meet other players. In Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, it’s been renovated with new biomes, which contain roaming wild Pokemon. This not only fixes a big problem in Generation 4 — the lack of Fire-type Pokemon — it also manages to include some of the Platinum Dex that has been omitted from the main game.
There’s a slight issue, however: the levelling system feels somewhat exploitable. As soon as we gained access to The Grand Underground, we began exploring its various biomes and came across two rare Pokémon – well, ‘rare’ when you consider how early we were in the game: Absol and Houndoom. These two powerful ‘mon were both just sitting there, seven levels higher than the rest of our team. We managed to catch them and, for the next few gyms, we had completely broken the level curve.
Throw in the permanent, non-removable EXP share and your team will be absolutely stacked for the whole game. However, that issue aside, the ability to revisit The Grand Underground and hunt for new Pokémon is very enjoyable – especially since they’re visible before battling, avoiding the incredible annoyance of the random battles elsewhere in Sinnoh.
The game runs well in both docked and undocked modes and looks very sharp on the shiny new Nintendo Switch OLED Model. It’s not pushing the limits of graphical fidelity by any means, but all the Pokémon models look nice – even if their static animations are pretty lifeless. Moves are nicely animated, and plenty of Pokémon have their own unique animated signature attack. The frame-rate issues that plagued Sword and Shield and the later DS titles are thankfully absent, making battling a smooth experience. The top-down perspective also mitigates the pop-in issues of recent titles, as the area which the player can see is generally only a few feet in any direction.
These are not bad Pokémon games by any means — they’re still perfectly enjoyable — but having sampled all of the Pokémon remakes, these are the ones that feel the most stuck in the past. When HeartGold and SoulSilver came out, they became the definitive DS titles, and arguably the finest games in the series. Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl don’t feel like they’ll make anywhere near that level of impact. We also can’t emphasize enough how much of a downgrade the Chibi art style is from the pixel art of the originals. Not only does it make the games feeler cheaper, it ruins the design of the game’s main antagonist.
While some of the slower elements of the original games have been fixed, and The Grand Underground makes up for the comparatively weak Pokédex, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl’s new art style and a few other stumbles make this pair of games a somewhat disappointing retread of Generation 4. They’re also very clearly in the shadow of Pokemon Legends: Arceus, the upcoming open-world-like Pokemon game that has fans hoping it can take the series in exciting new directions beyond 20-year-old mechanics. If the remit of these remakes was to remain faithful to the original Gen 4 pair, we wish they’d also stuck to the pixel-art aesthetic. Aside from The Grand Underground – and the connectivity with the current games in the series – there’s very little reason to play Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl over your original DS copies.