Pokémon Diamond and Pearl have Piplup as one of the starter Pokémon, and Piplup is the best Pokémon of all. Ergo Diamond and Pearl are pretty darned good games, and remaking them was always going to be the right thing to do.
But seriously, I do have a strong personal attachment to the original games. The first time I went to Japan was around the time that Diamond and Pearl landed on the DS, and I, having been a life-long Pokémon fan, naturally wanted to visit one of the Pokémon Centre stores that are dotted across the country. That was a mistake in the sense that I was also a cadet journalist at the time, getting by with a true pittance of an income, and Game Freak is second only to Disney for its ability to suck money out of people with merchandise. I blew a week’s worth of my budget for the two week trip on that store, including a giant stuffed Piplup, and at the time felt like a real idiot (since it meant I had no money left for a trip to Akihabara later on in the trip).
With that being said, fifteen years later I still have that stuffed Piplup, and so I look back at that spending extravagance with some warmth. And now I’m playing the Pokémon Pearl remake, which has ended up being quite the nostalgic entry in the long and storied history of Pokémon.
The first thing that struck me is how, beyond the new aesthetic engine and one gameplay feature that I absolutely hate (and we’ll get to that soon), how little has actually been changed for this remake. In the very first town, for example, one of the NPCs that you can chat with enthuses about how amazing technology is because you can now trade and fight Pokémon wirelessly. In the original Diamond and Pearl that was a big deal, but leaving that dialogue untouched in the remake seems odd today. Just for the heck of it I did a side-by-side replay with the original Pokémon Pearl, and I really was amazed by just how little has been changed to the fundamental experience.
Later on you do get access to the Grand Underground, which is a souped-up version of The Underground from the original game. There you’ll find all kinds of treasures and fossils, and in fairness this improved version is a good addition to the game, but otherwise this remake is riding on a lot of nostalgia for hooking people in, as well as that new art style.
At first, I wasn’t sold on the aesthetic, but then I’m still one of those people that would be happy if every Pokémon game looked like Pokémon Blue and Red. The monsters themselves are perfectly pleasant in 3D, and there’s a colourful simplicity to the ‘mon models that is pleasing on the eyes. The actual human characters in the overworld, however, are of a chibi build that I didn’t personally find appealing. I think the developers are going for a similar vibe as what Nintendo did when updating Link’s Awakening in that remake from a few years ago, but I didn’t get a great sense of personality about how the characters moved around, and the occasional moment where a “cinematic” camera angle cut in and close was quite jarring. Over time I did get used to it, but I hope this is the only time we see this particular aesthetic approach in a Pokémon game.
The really big problem I have with this game is the way that all the Pokémon in the party share experience, whether they fought in the battle or not. Traditionally – including in the original Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, a ‘mon only gets them sweet XP if they showed up in a battle, and this affected everything in how you played through the game, from the pacing of progression through the gyms and into the final battles, through to the way you raised up newer and under-levelled Pokémon.
With this system, however, things go fast. Gym and key battles can be challenging, but grinding up experience happens in a fraction of the time, and so it feels like you move from area to area so much more quickly, and the need to battle random Pokémon does feel significantly de-emphasies – the various trainers you meet along the way are enough to keep the party levelling chugging along. I understand why the developers did this, so that players don’t feel like they’re slogging their way through, but it also feels like the development team has overcompensated now the game moves so fast that it’s all inconsequential.
Worse, though, is the impact to the growth of the Pokémon. An under-levelled Pokémon can simply be left in the party to accumulate experience points, and that meant that a few times I had Pokémon evolve, learn and forget moves before I ever had them summoned to the playfield. It means that raising the Pokémon becomes much more hands-off, and I cared less about my favourite ones. In fact, I left my very favourite Pokémon in storage for the post-game precisely because I felt like I was using them as utilities, rather than carefully curating a party and taking ownership over each critter in my group.
I should emphasise that, again, I understand why the developers went this way, and there has almost always been experience point sharing tools available in Pokémon games. It’s just that in those other games this was an optional thing and people who preferred to play Pokémon as I do, by individually raising each monster, had the option to do so. I see no reason why this needs to be an either/all thing since the only thing that turning experience point sharing off would do would be to make the game longer for someone like myself, and so I do think that forcing players to play this way, while something that the majority might prefer, is an error in game design.
It’s also a little surprising that Pokémon Pearl and Diamond was considered for a remake at all, given that the stuff that these two titles were best known for have largely lost their impact. At the time people were most impressed by the way that it had an expanded Pokédex that basically had every ‘mon to date in there (no longer relevant given how much further the range of Pokémon has grown in the years since), and there was the online play, which is obviously no longer the exciting step up for the series that it was then. My gut tells me that Pokemon Black & White would have been the better candidate for the remake here. That’s not to say that Pokémon Pearl lacks for qualities or a reason to play it, it’s just that it’s best seen as a shot of pure nostalgia (which makes the decision to prevent players from playing in the more traditional way all the odder).
These gripes aside – and I realise that I’ve griped a lot in this review – Pokémon Pearl remains an excellent game, and the remake is of a very high quality. I’ve been able to reunite with Piplup, relive a very fondly-remembered adventure, and while there have been some tweaks that I’ve been less than amused by, on balance the developers have retained the qualities that made that game such a fondly remembered one.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb