Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Review – Back to Before

Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are the best Pokemon games on the Switch so far.

Posted By | On 24th, Nov. 2021

Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Review – Back to Before

It’s not really a controversial statement that the quality of Pokemon games was at its absolute zenith back in the DS era. From Pokemon Diamond/Pearl, which kicked off the much beloved fourth generation of Pokemon, to Black 2/White 2, which wrapped up an incredibly ambitious and inventive fifth generation (the most the series has seen to date, in fact), the DS games were Pokemon at its peak as far as game design chops go. And really, while there may be some who argue that the decline in quality for the games that came after has been exaggerated depending on whom you choose to talk to, the existence of Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is a resounding reminder of just how great these games could be back in the day – and how much of that brilliance (pun unintended) was lost once they decided to transition to 3D spaces.

In case it’s not clear, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are really great. Now, they owe most of this to the simple fact that they’re incredibly straightforward and faithful to a fault 1:1 translations of the originals; but those fifteen year old originals still remain near the top of this series’ outings, so simply by bringing them over almost as is to the Switch, we end up with an entry that’s far more remarkable, satisfying, and fulfilling than most of its other recent ones have been.

The elevator pitch for Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is fairly straightforward – they are almost exact 1:1 recreations of the original games, with no attempt to try and integrate them into the modern stylistic or design sensibilities the series has adopted since. This could sound like an incredibly unambitious undertaking – and it is – but it is also precisely what helps these new releases remain so much fun and engaging. You see, rather than make unnecessary changes to the pitch perfect design of the original games, or try to recreate them in the style of Sword and Shield, ILCA Inc., led by Game Freak, have simply opted to not mess with what works. Given that trying to recreate older games in newer styles has led to some pretty divisive remakes in the series in the past – OmegaRuby and AlphaSapphire are both really good modern takes on the classics they are based on, but they end up sacrificing a lot that people loved about those originals in the process – this ends up working out really well here.

pokemon brilliant diamond and shining pearl

"The elevator pitch for Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is fairly straightforward – they are almost exact 1:1 recreations of the original games, with no attempt to try and integrate them into the modern stylistic or design sensibilities the series has adopted since. This could sound like an incredibly unambitious undertaking – and it is – but it is also precisely what helps these new releases remain so much fun and engaging."

So, we end up with Sinnoh, still the best map in the series, replete with an incredible amount of aesthetic and geographic variation, brought over as is. And Sinnoh is an incredible map. It has everything – underground caverns, frozen and snowy tundras, marshes and swamps, forests, grasslands, deserts, coastal settings and beaches, mountains, small villages tucked out of the way, giant urban centers that are the center of life in the region. It’s a massive map, with the trip between any two destinations being extremely long, full of dense and massive routes, which make every time you step out feel like an actual journey and an actual adventure (something that, again, the modern games in the series lack). It’s also designed to give the player a lot of agency. While Sinnoh is laid out with a lock and key design to channel player progress along an intended critical path, it also offers a lot to the player who is willing to step off the beaten path and go traipsing on their own, whether that be encounters with relatively rare wild Pokemon, to entire areas and dungeons that are optional and hidden, just waiting for the enterprising player who might be willing to step off the road and follow the trail to where it leads.

Sinnoh is an adventure, and a great map and setting, and that Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl bring it over as is without trying to, for example, recreate it in Sword and Shield‘s 3D style or as a Wild Area, works to these games’ benefit. As of right now, it is very clear that Game Freak does not properly understand how to design compelling 3D spaces – but they mastered the art of great design in 2D. So sticking to their best 2D map to date as is rather than trying to rebuild it in 3D was definitely a smart decision. 

In general, this means that Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl end up with almost all of the same merits that the original games had. They’ve got that great map, as I mentioned, and the great sense of progression and adventure it brings; they also are ridiculously full of content. The fourth generation Pokemon games were frankly absurd with just how much they had to offer to players – you had an extremely long mainline campaign, you had online trading and battles, you had an extremely fleshed out Contests tournament you could lose dozens of hours to, you had massive minigames and meta-progression frameworks, from the Underground (which hosted Fossil hunting, secret bases, and spelunking for treasures) to poffin cooking, you had a fairly expansive post-game with an entire new island that opened up once you beat the Elite Four, and as mentioned, you had entire dungeons and areas that were totally optional, just lying there out of the way, for players who bothered to go explore them getting some pretty incredible rewards (such as a wicked encounter with a Legendary). All of that is here, almost as is.

There have been a few changes made, some for the better. The Underground is hugely expanded now (and it knows it, because it’s called the Grand Underground now) and plays host to everything it did in the originals, while also including caverns for encounters with higher leveled Pokemon, which can usually end up being stronger than ones you find in the wild, and also end up including some rare Pokemon you can’t find elsewhere. In a way, this helps address the issues of Pokemon availability in Sinnoh – famously, for example, the Sinnoh Dex did not offer any Fire type Pokemon until you beat the Pokemon League, unless you really liked Ponyta and Rapidash. That sort of gets addressed with the Grand Underground.

pokemon brilliant diamond and shining pearl

"In general, this means that Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl end up with almost all of the same merits that the original games had. They’ve got that great map, and the great sense of progression and adventure it brings; they also are ridiculously full of content."

Other changes are decidedly for the worse – for instance, contests in Diamond and Pearl were a step down from how perfect they had been in Ruby and Sapphire (which introduced them), but they were still really compelling – they’ve been totally ruined in Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl to just being a rhythm minigame. I’m sure a lot of people may still enjoy them, but I personally definitely found them to be a step down from the originals.

Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl also make the curious decision to eschew the content and improvements Pokemon Platinum (the much improved third version for Diamond and Pearl) made. This means that progression, mechanics, and the story all revert to how it was in the original pair of games. Which is extremely disappointing, to be clear, because so much of what Platinum brought to the table, from the improved story climax towards the end to the excellent post-game in the Battle Frontier, has needlessly been ignored. But to these games’ credit, they actually end up bringing a lot of their own alternate set of improvements to the table to compensate. Some of these are very basic QoL changes that can nonetheless have far reaching repercussions on how the games play moment to moment – such as the decision to not tie HMs (the hidden field moves you need to use to progress past obstacles) to the Pokemon you are carrying in your party, or the ability to customize your character (with some really great customization options offered to boot). Others bring back long requested features to the series – such as allowing the ability to have your Pokemon follow you in the overworld. They add an extremely substantial post-game, including allowing the ability to legally catch most Legendary Pokemon (but after completing some quests to get them first), as well as the ability to rebattle Gym Leaders, and the Elite 4 in extremely challenging encounters, where they have perfect team compositions, and AI dialled up to very difficult.

Actually, that’s another great area of improvement in these games. The original Gen 4 Pokemon games were fairly challenging. Like, they would never get mistaken for Dark Souls, but they did push back on the player a little, and some fights, such as Cynthia, were legendarily relentless if you went in unprepared. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl actually retain that aspect. Enemy AI, team compositions, and move pools are some of the best the series has seen, and fights can end up being fairly challenging as a result. Now, these buffs to the enemies are almost necessary, because the game retains the controversial EXP Share from Sword and Shield, which will give every Pokemon in your party EXP points after you finish a battle, regardless of whether or not they actually participated. There is, frustratingly enough, no way to turn it off either.

pokemon brilliant diamond and shining pearl

"The game retains the controversial EXP Share from Sword and Shield, which will give every Pokemon in your party EXP points after you finish a battle, regardless of whether or not they actually participated. There is, frustratingly enough, no way to turn it off either."

To the game’s credit, the EXP Share here feels better balanced than it has been in other games, but it can still be really easy to get really overleveled and trivialize a lot of the encounters in the game. Which is almost a shame, because as I mentioned, some of them are really well designed. It’s easy enough to circumvent the EXP Share gains – you can keep a rotating team of more than six Pokemon at a time, and keep swapping them in and out to basically have a bigger roster you are working from. And to be fair, I ended up enjoying using a lot of Pokemon I have never used before because of this. But again, I would much rather have made that choice for myself, rather than being forced into it because the game was handing out so much EXP that the only way to maintain challenge for a lot of it was to resort to workarounds like these. Game Freak already had the perfect solution to this problems through to Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, which let you turn off the EXP Share if you didn’t want it (but left it on by default) – why not just offer players that option again?

Even with a lot of the encounters in the game being trivialized, however, the late game ones hit hard, with the Elite Four and Champion battles in particular being extremely challenging, and the post-game battles being the best NPC battles the series has seen. It’s just really a shame that so much of the good work that must have surely gone into designing these encounters has been unnecessarily compromised by this insistence on not offering players options.

There are some other problems. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are actually the buggiest Pokemon releases we have had in a while. They aren’t anything game breakingly bad, but you’ll often see random stuff like textures not loading, or characters getting stuck in the geometry (a consequence of adding full analog movement to a grid based map without properly accounting for it, I guess), sound randomly cutting out, or even just outright crashes. The good news is, the game has a really aggressive autosave, so you never really lose a lot of progress when this does happen – it’s just a shame it happens at all. A day one patch has already made things better, but there’s still a long way to go, and hopefully ILCA and Game Freak continue patching the game, because while Pokemon games have never been paragons of good programming, they at least don’t let their messy coding get in the way of the player’s experience too much. Right now, that’s decidedly not the case, and while none of these glitches and bugs are too frustrating, that doesn’t really absolve their existence to begin with.

There are three other points I want to discuss, one extremely positive, one bafflingly negative, and one mixed. So let’s start with the negative one, because to be fair it’s also the most minor one. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl have frustratingly patchy touch screen support. Which is almost hilarious because the original games pioneered touch input for Pokemon to begin with, but that’s where we are. Touch input is supported for the Poketch smartwatch, and in some random and arbitrary areas such as for polishing up your gym badges, or minigames such as digging out treasure in the Grand Underground. But it’s not supported for input in battles or menus, and that’s almost the whole game

This isn’t a major problem, but it’s baffling – why is touch screen support so inconsistent and patchy? For example, I mentioned above that minigames like digging for treasures in the Underground support touch input. But poffin cooking, on the other hand, does not. Why? Why not at least be consistent within the limited scope of touch input implementation you did decide on? It’s just so unnecessarily confusing. Again, none of this is a major issue, because touch input is at best a convenience, and you get used to its absence in like three seconds. It’s just a curious and bemusing point of interest.

pokemon brilliant diamond and shining pearl

"The soundtrack for Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl remixes one of the best, most atmospheric set of tunes this series has ever had expertly. Almost every remix is a slam dunk."

Far more positive, and this one is for something substantially more important, are my impressions of the soundtrack. Patched in with the massive 8GB day 1 update, the soundtrack for Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl remixes one of the best, most atmospheric set of tunes this series has ever had expertly. Almost every remix is a slam dunk. I am sure there will be some changes that some don’t like, variously; I myself am disappointed with at least two songs’ remixes – but on the whole, the music here is a resounding triumph. Plus, much like HeartGold and SoulSilver (the beloved remakes of the equally beloved Gold and Silver), these games unlock the ability to play the original soundtrack later in the game as well – for those who simply prefer the sound of the DS games over the remixes.

As positive as I am on the soundtrack, I am more mixed on how the game looks. Now to be clear, I don’t think it necessarily looks bad – it definitely looks better than it did pre-launch, and I am a fan of the chibi style aesthetic for Pokemon, particularly when done well. In Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, it can help create a real sense of place for Sinnoh as well (particularly when paired with some gorgeous and extremely detailed battle backgrounds, which always include Mount Coronet towering in the background). But at the same time, I’m not sure I’m the biggest fan of how this game has done the chibi thing. I think something like the Pokemon Let’s Go look would have been the way to go for these games. By retaining super deformed character models that are decidedly not to scale, these games end up looking weird a lot of the time – particularly when the camera makes the misguidedly confident decision to zoom in on characters for close ups in an unfounded burst of cinematic confidence. This doesn’t happen often enough, but whenever it happens, it highlights how ugly the characters look – which is perplexing because the environments look cozy and great, and the battle backgrounds are gorgeous. It’s a mixed bag, as far as the visuals go.

In spite of a lot of missteps and unforced, unnecessary errors, however, Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl are excellent outings. By eschewing a lot of the modern design sensibilities the series imbibes, and hewing so faithfully and closely to the fifteen year old game often regarded to be as one of the series’ high points, they end up delivering an uncontroversial, safe, but incredibly fulfilling and compelling Pokemon adventure, the best one we’ve had in years. Perhaps there is something to be said about what it means for the Pokemon games that their best game in almost a decade is essentially an almost totally faithful 1:1 port of a fifteen year old DS game, and that’s definitely a discussion that needs to be and should be had. But this isn’t a review of the Pokemon series, it’s a review of just this one game. And this one game, by choosing to be unambitious and sticking with what has been known to work, delivers undoubtedly one of the best outings Pokemon has had in years – warts and all. May it remind Game Freak and The Pokemon Company why players fell in love with this series to begin with.

This game was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.


THE GOOD

The best map in the series, with a great sense of progression and adventure, brought over as is; loads of content in the game, from a meaty campaign, huge amounts of minigames, optional dungeons, local and online multiplayer, and much more; loads of great improvements across the board, including the return of your Pokemon following you in the overworld, the ability to customize your character's look, and HMs not being tied to the Pokemon you have in your party; the soundtrack is great, and overall a wonderful modernization of the originals; the environments and battle backgrounds look great; enemy AI, team composition, and move pools have been notched up, and some later battles in the game are among the hardest in series history; a fairly meaty and substantial post-game.

THE BAD

The forced EXP share implementation can trivialize some of the difficulty and encounters in the game; the games ignore most content and mechanics from Pokemon Platinum entirely; touch screen support is bizarrely patchy and inconsistent; loads of bugs and glitches; the visual style is inconsistent, and looks especially bad for character models, and during cinematic moments.

Final Verdict:
GREAT
By eschewing the increasingly controversial design sensibilities that modern Pokemon games have imbibed, and sticking close to the design and spirit of a beloved, 15 year old game, Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl deliver the most fulfilling and satisfying outing this series has had in a very long time.
A copy of this game was purchased by author for review purposes. Click here to know more about our Reviews Policy.

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