Game Review

by Myles Gibbs,

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl

Nintendo Switch

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl
With Pokémon Legends: Arceus right around the corner, it seems fitting to assess the series' last foray into the Sinnoh region before welcoming this new overhauled structure for the franchise. November's Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl marked the fourth remakes in the mainline Pokémon series, aiming to introduce 2006's Diamond and Pearl to the Nintendo Switch. For better or for worse, these have been marketed as decidedly “faithful” remakes, but did this decision give fans of Pokémon's fourth generation the experience they were hoping for?

Unlike animation, video games are in large part a disposable medium. Games once hailed as era-defining breakthrough titles upon their release often become antiquated and awkward within a little less than a decade. And so we see a plethora of remakes and remasters across the industry, giving fans a chance to experience the games they love once more in a quality that meets modern expectations. Even for more mechanically-reserved franchises like the Pokémon series, remakes are not just commonplace – they are necessary. As a fan myself, I'm happy to say that the Pokémon remakes have a generally positive track record. Fire Red and Leaf Green, Heart Gold and Soul Silver – even arguably Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. These are all, in my opinion, the definitive ways to experience each respective slice of the Pokémon world that they present. With that in mind, I was understandably excited for Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. They were advertised as pointedly “faithful” remakes, which gave me some hope that they might avoid some of the missteps that Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire made.

So does Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl uphold that esteemed quality of the Pokémon remakes? No. Not at all. Not only did studio ILCA make the blunders I knew to expect, they failed the series in ways I never could have foreseen. Unlike every other remake in the franchise, this one is an objectively less complete experience than the original version of the games. As a fan, it pains me to see an entry to one of my favorite franchises fall to such low lows. But what exactly are the decisions that got us here?

The visual department is where I have perhaps the most good things to say about BDSP. The toy box overworld a la 2019's Link's Awakening is a great way to evoke the 3.5D style of the original game while updating it to contemporary standards of visual fidelity. As another boon, there are also noticeable updates to the 3D models and animations of the Pokémon that we see during combat. These might be as subtle as the way that certain Pokémon flap their wings or soar or stand on the ground, or even in the way that they idle; regardless, I found it to be much improved from what I saw in Sword and Shield. That being said, I feel that this visual style would benefit from a clearer artistic direction than just dropping the models into the world without any remarkable visual flair. During cutscenes and moments when the camera pulls in close, that aesthetic emptiness of the overworld feels unnatural and forced, creating a sort of dissonance in moments where attention to the screen is meant to be at its peak.

Probably the biggest step forward made by the new game is in the updated following mechanic. This achievement should not be understated by any means. Every obtainable Pokémon in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl has unique walking, running, and idling animations in the overworld, and trail at various speeds. Some can keep up with you on a bike while others struggle to hold pace with a jog. This feature is not closed off to arbitrary DLC areas and feels executed with a care for the essence of each Pokémon involved. For all the criticisms that I am about to throw at this game, I'm really impressed with ILCA for making this happen and I definitely want to see it continued in future titles.

But that's about as much as I can say on BDSP's behalf. I want to get into my biggest personal gripe with these remakes: the soundtrack. Something that has always impressed me about top-down JRPGs is their ability to evoke intense emotion with extremely limited tools. Without the use of voice acting or real facial expressions in cutscenes, titles like Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, and Grandia conjure up feelings in me that most games could never hope to. I think that music has a lot to do with this. It's the primary tool – besides writing – that top-down JRPGs have to convey to players what a moment really feels like. Music is even more important in a series like Pokémon where writing and dialogue arguably play second fiddle to the soundtrack in any given scene. Entering Eterna Forest. Exiting the caves of Mt. Coronet into the snow-laden Route 216. Challenging Cynthia for the first time. Receiving the Pokédex from Professor Rowan. These are all memorable moments in the original, and they sounded like it.

Past Pokémon remakes have aimed to capture the essence of these moments without literally copy/pasting them into an updated machine. The National Park theme in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, "Vs Steven" in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, and the Champion theme from Fire Red and Leaf Green are all phenomenal examples of this. BDSP's soundtrack, however, it plays as though each song has had its parts lifted into a MIDI meant to orchestrate the bit-crunched soundtrack and left alone from that point. The real sin is not so much the new soundtrack being underwhelming as it is the original soundtrack being actively tarnished within this game.

Like Heart Gold and Soul Silver, BDSP gives players access to a key item that unlocks the original soundtrack for their listening pleasure. When I discovered this feature was back, I was immediately excited to play through the game and earn it. Once I got it though, my joy quickly turned to disgust as I realized they had artificially altered the original soundtrack by putting it through a slight grain and removing the bass in order to mimic the low-fidelity DS speakers it was originally played upon. There's a reason that this sort of alteration wasn't made to Gold and Silver's soundtrack in the Gen II remakes. In my eyes, ILCA basically spat in the face of Go Ichinose's original score. They completely fumbled the aspect of Diamond and Pearl that I was most excited to experience again.

In terms of the gameplay, there are actually some interesting improvements, but I feel like for each step forward, ILCA has taken two steps back. Probably the most groundbreaking feature is the aforementioned following mechanic I went over towards the beginning of this review. I'll start my gripes with the Pokétch. Instead of putting any real effort into updating its mechanics for the modern layout of the Switch, it's simply been lifted from the bottom screen of the DS and dropped into the new console's top-right corner. Only one button on the switch has been allocated to the Pokétch, allowing players to scroll through apps in one direction and hide it from the screen (which I did through most of my playthrough). It feels mechanically ill-planned at best. When players are unable to use the touch screen, they have to scroll across it with the joystick at a slow, unadjustable speed.

Super Contests have been completely gutted as side content, inadvertently nullifying the purpose of the Poffin-creating minigames. Mind you, poffins are still effective; the super contests just aren't fun. The original was comprised of three stages – visual, dancing, and acting – that utilized the appeal of the Pokémon and the creation of poffins to create a strategic competition in which Pokémon used their moves to all-new ends and effects, essentially creating a reimagined type of Pokémon battle. All of this has been discarded and replaced with a two-minute-long rhythm game, leaving us with a mere shadow of what Super Contests once was.

Similarly gutted is the Grand Underground. Despite the notable improvements of underground Pokémon dens, players are now unable to set traps, play games, or decorate their hideouts outside of the gray statues used to shift the odds of encountering certain types of Pokémon. Both of these experiences – staples of the Sinnoh-era games – have been severely downgraded from their original form. Similarly, the way that difficulty has been handled in Pokémon is something I've had a growing problem with for a while now, but BDSP takes the cake: The new party-wide exp sharing system is impossible to turn off and the affection system that effectively makes Pokémon unkillable is still in place. I've been offsetting this by training Pokémon outside of the six in my party and feeding them things that make them dislike me just to make their levels and friendship artificially low, but it doesn't feel good to have to alter how I play so drastically just to mitigate the fallout from an option that was taken away from me.

The remainder of my complaints have to do with the fact that none of the gameplay features that Platinum brought to the Sinnoh region were carried over to BDSP. I want to preface this segment by dispelling the argument that these remakes aren't using these features because they have Diamond and Pearl on the box – not Platinum. This is a strange point to bring up. In both the Omega Ruby and Heart Gold-era remakes, features from the tertiary releases of the originals – Emerald and Crystal – were included insofar as they bolstered the present gameplay. It doesn't make sense for those to be missing here in BDSP. The types of inclusions that I'm looking for include Platinum's more fleshed-out post-game (the endlessly enjoyable Battle Frontier) or the additional accessible Pokémon that added more variety to team compositions and trainer battles (I was still fighting mostly Geodudes and Golbats more than halfway through the game). Story content from Platinum, like the character of Looker or events that fleshed out Cyrus and Team Plasma, has been cut as well. Frankly, these decisions don't make sense. They actively robbed the game of what it could have been.

This game is bad. It's a poor excuse for a remake and a transparent gambit for the wallets of diehard fans such as myself. Even glazing over missteps like its incompatibility with Pokémon Home upon release or the fact that the game was released in an incomplete form only to be fixed by a day-one patch that some players will never see, it's easy to say that this game is extremely disappointing as a remake that I have spent the better part of a decade waiting for. I remember the day I transferred my Pokémon over from Omega Ruby to Sun. I remember remarking how much enjoyed it, and how I couldn't wait for them to remake Diamond next. Now that they have, I wish I'd never played it at all.

Overall : C-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : D
Gameplay : C

+ There are a handful of updated features, and new visuals are pleasant enough to be considered and upgrade from what we had before.
Features from Platinum have all been left out, options have been taken away from the player, and content essential to the Diamond and Pearl experience has been gutted.

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