Review: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl

 Faithful to a fault.

Console: Nintendo Switch

When I was young, nearly every kid in school had a Nintendo DS and a copy of either Diamond or Pearl (DP). With how easy it was to connect the games over the DS' built-in Wi-Fi you bet we played these games a heck of a lot. From battling to trading to just playing the games while sitting together. Almost 800 hours was the playtime of my childhood Diamond savefile before I finally started up a new. It's all of these memories that made me very excited when Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl (BDSP) were revealed.

However, from day 1, there were things to be concerned about. The poor-looking graphics and the 'faithful' buzzword in the marketing didn't give fans, including me, a lot of hope. It seemed like these games were going to be a one-to-one redo instead of the improved and reworked Pokémon remakes we've gotten in the past. Would they even be better than the 2007 releases?

I think that BDSP are, yes, an improvement over the originals, but not by a wide margin. They stick very close to the originals while only bringing in some improvements, leaving something to be desired.

Let's dive in.

This is a core series Pokémon game so the story is just what you´d expect. You’re a 10-year-old kid who, after receiving their starter Pokémon, sets out on their journey across the Sinnoh region. Your goal is to become the best there ever was by obtaining 8 gym badges, becoming the Sinnoh Champion and completing the Pokédex. Along the way, you compete with your childhood friend and rival ´Barry´ while also dealing with the nefarious Team Galactic.

Who is this mysterious man and what is he planning? OK, yeah. He's the leader of Team Galactic. That's not very subtle.

The story is Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl is fine. It's that basic Pokémon plot without many differences. And differences is the right word. BDSP's narrative is the exact same as the originals. No additions or adjustments have been made. That's my first gripe with these games. The narrative, especially if you keep in mind that the games are aimed at kids, isn't bad. A story that´s not taxing to follow, fun looking characters and whatnot. However, it is also rather lacking.

The pacing is off. The big story developments are all lumped together while the rest is just. moving from one gym to the next without many interactions. Platinum, the third version of the original pair, fixed both these issues by introducing more characters, more story interactions and diving deeper into some of its main characters such as the big-bad Cyrus. By not including this Platinum improvement, these problems of the originals persist here.

And this is a trend of BDSP; not including improvements made in Platinum. I've multiple problems with DP that make me hesitant to revisit them. The biggest is the very lacking Pokédex. Only 151 critters and not only that: the balance is off. For instance, there are only 2 fire types in the entire Pokédex including the Chimchar starter line. This results in a lack of variety for players when it comes to building your team. BDSP doesn't expand the Pokédex but does bring in more Pokémon through the Grand Underground. Pokémon such as Ralts, Houndoom (a Fire-type!) and Magnemite can be found in the Grand Underground as rare spawns and are catchable for you to diversify your team with.

Non-Sinnoh Pokédex Pokémon, such as Houndoom, can be found in caves deep beneath Sinnoh in the Grand Underground.

It's an improvement, but not a fix. This method comes with its own share of problems. Platinums expanded Pokédex wasn't just advantageous to your team, but the teams of your opponents as well. Even in the late game, Team Galactic grunts still use the weak bug type Pokémon while some Gym Leaders and Elite Four members have Pokémon not of their type speciality because there are too few of them in the Pokédex. That has not been fixed here.

Graphically the game is fine. Instead of using the same visual style as Sword & Shield this game instead opts for a chibi style that is more reminiscent of the pixel graphics of the originals. It's a controversial decision, but I'm fine with it. Where BDSP improves over Sword & Shield in the graphical department are the battle backgrounds. They are much more detailed than before, with many more layers and matching the overworld better.

The gameplay for BDSP is unchanged. Exploration in the overworld, turn-based battle system etc. It's Pokémon, you know the drill by now. There are genuine problems with this system, like the pace at which it crawls by, but it has persevered for over 25 years for a reason. Catching Pokémon and building up your team and such. It´s fun and a good gameplay loop.

Too bad these games are way too easy. Thanks to the EXP. Share you'll be over levelled which takes away the challenge in battles. I had trouble engaging with the game as I didn't need to think about what moves to use, which turned battles into a monotonous slog. However, to my surprise, there are points in the game which are genuinely challenging. The Gym Leaders and Elite Four are noticeably more difficult. Not just highly levelled but withheld items and strategies beyond 'hit hard'. I understand these games are, first and foremost, for kids but couldn't they at least give you the option to turn the EXP. share off?

Thankfully, Champion Cynthia is still as tough as nails. Strong and diverse team, well thought out items and movesets and even a near-perfect IV and EV distribution for her Pokémon.

Yet another problem is that BDSP doesn't include all quality of life updates the series has made since the originals. For instance, TM's are back to a one-time-use and random encounters are back. A lot more frustrating and less engaging than the roaming model from Let's Go onwards. It's not an engine thing as in the Grand Underground and with Pokémon, Swarms are shown roaming in the overworld, so what gives? Oh, right. 'Faithfull remakes'. When in battle you also can´t view the stat changes the Pokémon undergo anymore, a UI change which I find rather annoying.

Not everything in BDSP has a caveat to it. The Grand Underground is an improvement over the originals. In the underground, you dig for fossils, can make your own space, play a Diglett mini-game and interact with other players. They also introduce Pokémon Hideaways, rooms where Pokémon roam free. The Underground is much more seamless here as it was in the originals, no more mandatory saves, and the Pokémon Hideaways breathe new life into its exploration element while giving it much more worth.

Pokémon Contests are more involved, more enjoyable than they were in the past. Walking your Pokémon is back which is always a fun addition and trainer customization is here as well. HM's are removed in the traditional sense. No longer bound to Pokémon moves, they are simply an app on the Pokétch. A smartwatch device that's a neat tool to your arsenal with many different applications. The switch from sprite-based to vector images for items and such is a small but welcome change. And the game has a surprising amount of little details and easter eggs.

And the music! Before release, I really wanted to know how the updated soundtrack would sound and I'm glad to say it sound excellent. I always found that Diamond & Pearl's music was too ambitious, felt watered down on the DS. Now on the Switch, which can play actual musical instruments, it sounds really good.

Conclusion

I'm a big Pokémon fan with a lot of Pokémon experience under my belt. That made it very easy for me to pick BDSP apart. I would like to stress: this isn't an indication that Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl are terrible games. They are unambitious and stick so close to the originals so that they fail to address many of the problems. They have a lot of caveats but none of the problems is that terrible in the grand scheme of things. The core of the game remains fun and strong and these games are enjoyable.

I think Brilliant Diamond & Shining Pearl are better than the originals, are enjoyable games and are a fine purchase for the younger crowd and/or if you know what you're getting into. They are better than Diamond and Pearl in my opinion. However, if you can, Platinum is still the definitive way to experience Sinnoh.

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