November 20, 2021

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Review

Developer Game Freak has been doggedly committed to churning out a Pokémon game nearly every year for more than a decade now, but it has seemingly conceded it can’t do it all anymore. For the latest Pokémon remakes, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, it put one of the world’s best-known game series into the hands of a support studio many had never even heard of: ILCA. So what does a Pokémon remake look like without Game Freak in the driver’s seat? Turns out it looks a lot like the Pokémon game that Game Freak made, tip to Tail Whip, without the adventurous differences that defined prior remakes.

Past Game Freak remakes such as Pokémon Let’s Go, HeartGold and SoulSilver, and Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire have tried, for better or worse, to be ambitious and bold with their reinventions as they revitalized what is now ancient Pokémon history for a new generation. Perhaps because this set of remakes is in different hands with more at stake, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are neither ambitious nor bold. Like the themes of their story, they are solid and enduring – leaning on the past, with all of its triumphs and tripwires.

In its marketing materials, we were promised a “faithful remake” of 2006’s Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, and by Arceus, that’s what we got. It’s admittedly hard to look at Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl and not imagine that Game Freak and The Pokémon Company weren’t leaning forward in the back seat, frantically yelling directions. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are, in almost every respect, meticulously faithful. Fortunately, Diamond and Pearl were pretty darn good games to begin with.

Battling Down Memory Lane

Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl tell the same story of a kid going on an adventure to catalog monsters before accidentally becoming the strongest fighter in the region and taking down an overt death cult with weird hair – you know, standard Pokémon stuff. There are no earth-shattering surprises, even after you beat the Elite Four and unlock the National Dex, and for the time being the Pokémon roster is limited to just the Pokémon that were available in Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum back in the day, so don’t expect newer favorites like Corviknight, Wooloo, or Toxtricity.

What We Said About Pokémon Diamond and Pearl

After ten years of Game Boy Pokémon catching and battling, the core game mechanic still holds up as an addictive game design -- tons of strategic depth and gameplay that's incredibly rewarding; it's one of those games that offers an enormous sense of accomplishment for even the littlest things performed. And the touch screen functions of the Nintendo DS help move things faster and easier with simple navigation menus. The developers more capitalize on the system's capabilities in function and interface rather than visual and audio presentation. Sure, there are elements going on here that couldn't be done on the Game Boy Advance, but it's hard to argue that the game looks and sounds a heck of a lot like the past portable versions. 8-bit limitations drove the game's original style, but now that the limits are no longer there it's a little bit of a letdown that Game Freaks played the whole Pokémon production conservatively instead of pushing something more epic. The gameplay holds up incredibly well a decade later, but we're still looking like a 10-year-old portable game here. - Craig Harris, April 20, 2007

Score: 8.5

Read the full Pokemon Diamond & PEarl review.

That may sound rather disappointing on paper, but in practice it’s just dang nice to revisit a simpler time in the Pokémon world without the 900-something Pokémon to keep track of or a bunch of weird, special mechanics – especially because it turns out that what the original Diamond and Pearl lack in modern complexity, they more than make up for in depth. The fourth generation of Pokémon is stuffed with things to do, and so too then is Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. Its story takes its time in a way the series has largely forgotten, sending you through personable little hamlets with smaller attractions and no gyms, as well as long, winding routes full of trainer battles that will have your Pokémon gulping potion after potion before you reach the next story destination. As an old geezer in Pokémon terms, I’ve missed these gauntlets ever since the series phased them out in favor of shorter stretches, fewer distractions, and more healing breaks. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl seem meatier for it, too, landing at around 40 hours if you’re at least dabbling in everything you come across, and longer if you dig in.

It's around 40 hours if you’re at least dabbling in everything you come across, and longer if you dig in.

These lengthy hikes are made longer and more complex by the ways in which their design incorporates puzzle-solving moves (HMs) like Rock Climb, Surf, Defog, and so forth. Did Diamond and Pearl, and by extension Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, have too many HMs? Oh heavens yes – but the remake cleverly relegates these moves to the smartphone-like Pokétch menu, rather than making you carry a Bidoof in your party at all times to cut down trees for you. That allows the many hidden areas of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl to be transformed from unrewarding chores to exciting little spelunks for treasure as you hike your way under, over, around, and through the Sinnoh region’s centerpiece, Mt. Coronet.

The post-game is even more packed with things to find. Just like the originals, Brilliant Diamond and Shining pearl have tons of legendaries to track down, rematches with some of your toughest adversaries, sidequests, a whole extra island area after you finish the National Pokédex that’s full of challenging battles, and a wealth of additional Pokémon to catch that don’t appear until you’ve at least seen the first 150. Again, this was all present in the original, but it comes off as even more impressive in 2021 when we’re accustomed to Pokémon games that either make you pay for DLC or write off the post-game entirely.

We Didn’t Start With Fire

ILCA’s faithfulness to the original Diamond and Pearl extends to the original pair’s weaknesses, too, and nowhere does the commitment surface more conflicting emotions than in the roster of Pokémon you can build your team from. Diamond and Pearl have an utterly bizarre slate of Pokémon partners, skewed heavily toward a handful of types (where are the fire Pokémon?) that make it challenging to assemble anything resembling a balanced group without being railroaded into using a few specific staples (shoutout to Ponyta).

That’s still mostly the case in the Brilliant and Shining versions. ILCA devoutly stuck to the original roster monsters for the main story, with the rest unlocked in post-game – and, frankly, some of the original Diamond and Pearl Pokémon line-up kind of stinks! While Platinum’s expanded roster is available for capture if you make enough visits to the Grand Underground and hunt long and hard enough, they don’t appear on the surface where most of the story takes place, and it can be tricky to sniff out the exact partners you want to balance your team. Meanwhile, above ground, every other Pokémon is a Geodude, and there still aren’t enough fire-types to properly counter the hundred or so Bronzor you’ll inevitably have to fight.

That said, there’s admittedly something really, legitimately fun about trying to craft a team around type and roster limitations that the series has tried to avoid creating since Pokémon X and Y. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl feel slightly more difficult than other recent Pokémon games as a result, as the remakes seem at least somewhat (if not entirely) rebalanced around the addition of the controversial Experience Share mechanic that gives your entire party experience from battles rather than just battle participants. Those newer to Pokémon or used to Let’s Go or Sword and Shield might be caught off guard, but this grizzled veteran enjoyed the genuine challenge of compiling a crew that wouldn’t get curb stomped by the Elite Four the second I walked in.

Those newer to Pokémon or used to Let’s Go or Sword and Shield might be caught off guard.

The smaller roster also makes PokéDex completion and collection much more fun and straightforward. While Diamond and Pearl pioneered the series’ online play, they still recognized its limitations, and thus monster collection is still designed around catching ‘em all yourself and maybe trading with your one friend who has the other version. Again, this is all just incidental to the remake being a pretty faithful one, but when the Pokémon series has about doubled the size of its creature index since the last time most people played Diamond and Pearl, the pared-down roster takes on a new, nostalgic light. You know, for the good ol’ days before Pokémon were ice cream cones (okay actually I like the ice cream cones, sorry, sorry).

In The Shadow of Mt. Coronet

Despite an almost fanatical faithfulness, there are a handful of places where ILCA was able to put its own, clear stamp on what Pokémon can be, albeit to mixed results. Its remixes of the original Diamond and Pearl soundtrack, which admittedly wasn’t giving ILCA one of Game Freak’s best albums to work with, are almost entirely forgettable. And the tapping rhythm game mechanic added in Pokémon Super Contests doesn’t lean into actual rhythm game goofiness nearly as hard as I wished it had. Without the delightful excess of the original’s dress-up, dance, and performance phases, the whole activity loses its allure.

The Grand Underground

One of the biggest changes in Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is to the Grand Underground, a cavern maze you can access anywhere in Sinnoh once you acquire an Explorer’s Kit. Like Diamond and Pearl, you can dig into the walls and play an amusing little minigame to find treasure – but unlike Diamond and Pearl, you’ll also stumble upon rooms filled with wild Pokémon wandering on the map that you can encounter, battle, and catch. These Pokémon’s levels will scale up with you as you progress, and even more kinds will appear after you finish filling the Sinnoh PokéDex. You can also create a Secret Base in the Grand Underground and fill it with special statues you dig up to lure certain types of Pokémon. It’s a delightfully massive space, easy to get lost in for hours as you try to scope out that next hidden cavern up ahead, and a marked improvement over the already-excellent Underground of the original.

Finally, look out for Diglett and Dugtrio randomly popping up in the tunnels. Maybe if you find all of them, something interesting will happen…

But to its credit, ILCA actively shows up Game Freak in a few other areas. The aforementioned tweaks to the Grand Underground that add areas where wild Pokémon roam freely on the map, and I could spend hours running around that maze. Its recreation of Diamond and Pearl in a 3D, chibi style is darling and surprisingly good-looking in action – with the exception of a couple brief, serious moments where it zooms in a bit too close on a too-cute villain monologuing about ending the world. I especially loved the cheeky opening moments of trainer battles in which the full character model would faithfully strike the exact (often silly) pose their Diamond and Pearl sprite used to take at the start of each battle before throwing their Pokéball and resuming more natural movement.

I want Game Freak to let ILCA take on future Pokémon games in the old top-down tradition.

Sinnoh in general also looks quite nice within the stylistic bounds ILCA set for itself. Though I wish it hadn’t just replicated the same standard tree every time it wanted a copse or had been a bit more creative with grass and flowers, other elements like Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl’s rippling lakes and detailed water and other surface reflections are so impressive and unlike anything I’ve seen in other Pokémon games that they warranted a moment of admiration. A similar amount of care and love was put into the diverse and detailed battle backdrops, both indoor and outdoor, which is another touch that feels especially poignant given the many battles that took place in white voids in Sword and Shield. I especially loved the thematically appropriate way Mt. Coronet looms in the background during all the outdoor fights, and the lovely lighting adjustments to the same spots at different times of day.

Those, combined with other small, thoughtful touches (like having Pokémon follow you outside Amity Square and the ability to change outfits so Dawn doesn’t have to walk through waist-deep snow wearing a miniskirt) made me wish ILCA had either been given the freedom or had the desire to push a bit further outside the bounds of Diamond and Pearl for this remake. I badly want Game Freak to let ILCA take on future Pokémon games in the old top-down tradition, and I want to see what ILCA is willing and able to do with that tradition once the gloves come off. Go on, Game Freak: give ILCA the keys to some Black and White remakes too. Let ‘em go nuts. I dare you.

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