Pokemon: Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl Review
Being a Pokemon fan is exhausting, especially recently. If it wasn’t the adverse reactions to Pokemon Let’s Go in 2018, Sword and Shield’s release in 2019 was an absolute minefield – regardless of how you felt about the game (I was personally quite mixed), all of the discourse surrounding the launch made things uneasy, to say the least. Now we have Pokemon: Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl, the first mainline Pokemon release from a studio besides Game Freak - and a remake of Pokemon Generation IV's Diamond and Pearl, respectively.
First things first; let's address the Donphan in the room. Much like 2014's Pokemon: Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire, once again the original duology has been remade instead of the plainly superior 3rd version. This means that many of Pokemon Platinum's defining features are entirely missing from these remakes. No Battle Frontier, a lack of Pokemon variety in each of the game's primary routes, and all of the remade gym layouts are also absent - for better or worse, developer ILCA has attempted to adhere to a tile-for-tile recreation of Diamond and Pearl unless explicitly impossible to do so.
I'll get back to that last point in a bit, but I want to make one thing clear before I dig deep into my issues with the game - I enjoyed my time with Brilliant Diamond. Despite wishing that the games could've been less strict 1-to-1 remakes, much like with all of the other remakes in the series' history, it's clear that ILCA put a ton of passion into the project. Chibi artstyle aside - which will be a love-it-or-hate-it aesthetic - the team has done a fantastic job with the game's remade soundtrack, the little animation flourishes from trainers leading into battles, and especially the battle system's presentation. Special shout-out to all the battle backgrounds - it's hard not to wish the rest of the game could've gone with the artstyle present within battles, seeing how absolutely gorgeous some of the vistas on display are during encounters.
Even if ILCA deliberately remade Diamond and Pearl, and not Platinum, that's not to say that they didn't add some changes of their own - both gym battles, as well as the Elite Four + Champion, have had their teams tweaked; the Elite Four, in particular, have now seen their teams tweaked to be much more representative of a modern competitive Pokemon team. All of their Pokemon are sporting perfect IVs and appropriate movesets + Effort Value spreads. The AI for these battles has seen special attention this time around as well, with an especially devious example where Cynthia had the foresight to use Rock Tomb on the turn when I switched my Electivire out for a Flying-type, fearing an Earthquake from her Gastrodon. Even with the now-standard forced EXP Share, I wouldn't be shocked if many kids getting these remakes for the holidays will find themselves running up against a brick wall upon reaching Cynthia.
As for postgame additions, this was actually one aspect that I was never truly worried about. While Platinum added the Battle Frontier, it's more than fair to say that Diamond and Pearl's original postgame was already one of the better in the series' history. Not only do players gain access to a handful of new routes in the Battle Zone, but you also are offered several new legendary encounters; the Lake trio (though, technically, you can tackle these as early as right before the 8th gym), Cresselia, Heatran, Giratina, and more. Replacing the Pal Park from the originals and Platinum is Ramanas Park - where players can exchange Mysterious Shards from the Grand Underground for key items called Slates, which can then be used to challenge legendary Pokemon from Generations I, II, and III. Gym Leaders have multiple rematches this time around, each sporting competitive teams much like the Elite Four; allowing players another set of challenges for their teams besides yet another Battle Tower (which is, of course, present as always).
The Grand Underground is clearly the game's defining feature and is without a doubt the largest deviation from the original releases. Much like in Diamond, Pearl and Platinum - Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl features a sprawling underground section of Sinnoh directly underneath the main map, filled with corridors, mining segments, and offering multiplayer interactions between players where they can visit each other's secret bases. New to the remakes, however, are sections where wild Pokemon can spawn on the overworld. These Pokemon can include those not found in the Sinnoh Pokedex, extending the number of usable Pokemon by a large amount - at least on paper.
The original Diamond and Pearl were infamous for having a rather limited selection of Pokemon for players to use throughout the main game - many of Generation IV's new Pokemon are either legendary Pokemon, or new evolutions/pre-evolutions for already existing Pokemon, many of which you wouldn't be able to catch until the postgame, and many of which required obtuse methods to actively evolve in the first place. Not helping matters was how many of the truly new Sinnoh Pokemon were locked behind non-standard mechanics; most of the region's Bug-type Pokemon could only be encountered using the Honey Tree system, and Spiritomb required players to complete a headache-inducing set of tasks just to battle in the wild in the first place. It's long been a meme that the only Fire-type that you could use in Diamond and Pearl was either the Chimchar evolutionary line or Ponyta/Rapidash, but it's not like the options for most other Pokemon types were much better if you were aiming for purely new Pokemon during your playthrough.
Much like with Platinum's changes to the regional dex to accommodate more variety - the Grand Underground offers much of the same effect. The problem is that without deliberately going to outside sources to check what the spawn tables for Pokemon are ahead of time, it's incredibly aggravating to run in and out of these Pokemon Hideaways to respawn Pokemon, hoping for a specific Pokemon to appear. It doesn't feel nearly as organic for the team-building experience as I thought, and while placing specific Pokemon Statues can help push the odds in your favor for specific Pokemon typings, it's to the point where it almost feels like the odds are deliberately stacked against you at the start to force you to want to use the statues at all.
What sticks out even more, are the concessions that ILCA made to Secret Bases to better implement Pokemon Statues in general. Gone is the ability to decorate your base with furniture and decorations, and to even play Capture the Flag with other players locally. Instead of being proper bases for you to express yourself like in the original games and Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald (and Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, for that matter) they've been retooled to simply work as an avenue to stack the cards in your favor for Grand Underground Pokemon spawns. Whether or not the loss of the original feature will bother you is inevitably going to be hit or miss, but I would've preferred that there was still the option to forego the new system in exchange for the ability to spruce up my base in a manner of my choosing.
That's the long and short of it for new content - which leaves the rest of the package. My personal preference that ILCA could've made the game's aesthetic something entirely new instead of basing it so closely off the DS aesthetic's is merely an opinion, but so much of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl's more objective issues stem from the weird method in which ILCA tried to stick to the old tile-based structure of Diamond and Pearl's world with these remakes, while also allowing for players using the analog stick. If you've been around on social media for the last week or so, you've likely seen your fair share of bugs, many of which result from idiosyncracies due to the game attempting to juggle the traditional tile structure (which the game will attempt to lock the player to whenever they use the dpad) and the more free-form motion of analog movement.
Players getting stuck behind characters is one thing, but I ran into several cases where I wanted to use the d-pad for more precise movement in small hallways, just for the emulation of the classic tile movement to backfire, leading me off a cliff. It's a clunky experience, which I don't think I can say about any of the Pokemon releases of the past - no matter any of the issues I might've had with the content of them, Pokemon has always felt like it controlled well. Even when Sword and Shield's performance tanked in the Wild Area whenever you connected online, it still felt decent to control under all the lag spikes. I'm not sure if I could say the same, here. It's trying to fit a circular peg in a square hole; sure, it fits, but it doesn't feel right.
At the end of the day, I can't help but feel that Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl offer a bit of a disjointed experience - and while some parts make sense (I'm sure the buggy nature of the release comes due to the double-whammy of this both being ILCA's first attempt at a Pokemon release, as well as a direct result of the pandemic), I'm still left wondering why they chose to keep things so rigidly close to the originals. A more liberal reinterpretation of the game's map would've done wonders for the game feel on its own, for example. Were the games held back in scope to not step on Arceus: Legends' toes? I don't know, and I doubt we ever truly will. It's a shame either way - when it's firing on all cylinders, ILCA's first outing shows loads of promise and offers one of the most engaging Pokemon releases in years. I just wish the game itself didn't feel like it was constantly running up against limitations of its own design. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are good, but they could've been so much more.