Pokémon Brilliant Diamond Review

Brilliant as a boulder, shining like a stone.
The depths of my patience are finally known.

I previously talked about my relationship with Pokémon Diamond and Pearl back in Natalie Rambles About Pokémon in 2019. And the short version is that these games almost killed my interest in the entire Pokémon series. I found Diamond to be a lacking, iterative, and shallow experience due to its miniscule roster of Pokémon, bland environments, and a glacial battle system that reminds me of watching water boil. …Then HeartGold brought me back into things by remaking and enhancing the most content-rich Pokémon game at the time. 

For the next decade, I considered Pokémon Diamond and Pearl to be the worst mainline Pokémon games and… I still do. However, also in 2019, I decided to play through Pokémon Platinum, and thought it was a quite good JRPG, only held back by the mechanical advances the Pokémon series has made since its inception. Because of this, I was… theoretically interested in a remake of Diamond and Pearl. Though, I would not say I have much nostalgia for these games.

I say this to give some context for how I am viewing these remakes. Remakes that,  after the debut trailer, I felt the need to approach with the lowest expectations possible. A belief that the game was going to be outright bad— This is a critical luxury I rarely afford to any game. But I’m doing it here because I wanted to make the experience as enjoyable as I possibly could. Did I succeed? Well, this is me we’re talking about, so the answer is probably a more complicated version of the word ‘no.’

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: ILCA and GameFreak
Publisher: Nintendo

I think the hardest thing I have to wrap my head around when analyzing Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is that the games were not designed with the intention of reinventing or necessarily improving Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. They were designed as straightforward and direct remakes that only changed a highly specific list of things. They are, barring presentation and mechanical changes, roughly identical to Diamond and Pearl. A fact that made it… difficult for me to enjoy myself while playing this game.

To me, Brilliant Diamond is a conceptually wrong video game. It is a project that began with an incorrect goal. The game should have had the goal of following up on the enhancements introduced in Pokémon Platinum, using its expanded Pokédex, improved balancing, improved structure, revised environments, updated script, and other features I’m probably forgetting. By choosing to remake what is near-universally considered an inferior version, the developers made their first pivotal mistake. …And this one was far worse than omitting the Battle Frontier in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire.

The second mistake was choosing to make the game a direct remake, instead of using this as an opportunity to build upon the original. Admittedly, I stopped playing 15 minutes into the post-game, so it is possible that there are some subtleties that I am missing. But based on my own faded memory and cataloged changes I could find, there are only a handful of alterations beyond more general mechanical and moveset carryover from prior games:

  • Walking Pokémon are available starting in Hearthome City, but players can easily ignore this afterthought of a feature if they do not know to look for it..
  • The player can choose the race of their player character and select between 12 extra outfits… which is even more limited than the Let’s Go titles.
  • TMs have been updated, replaced, and are once again single-use items instead of permanent items that can be used an unlimited number of times, as they have been for a decade now.
  • All HMs are now TMs, but the player can now use the likes of cut, fly, surf, and strength via a Pokétch app, where a Bidoof, Bibarel, or Staraptor acts as the player’s personal HM slave.
  • Contests were replaced with Super Contests, which are different and… about as entertaining as regular contests were in the old games. Which is to say I do not like them one bit.
  • The Sinnoh Underground has been reworked into the Grand Underground and now features areas where wandering Pokémon can be found via Pokémon Hideaways, which players can manipulate by customizing their secret base.
  • Players can no longer decorate their underground secret bases with furniture. Just statues of Pokémon and statue pedestals.
  • Rematches were added for gym leaders and the elite four.
  • Players can access their PC from nearly any location, just like they could in Let’s Go and Sword/Shield.

Are these changes enough to make the game better than the original Diamond and Pearl? Yes, because the combat is not agonizingly slow and things are better balanced with regards to movesets and the like. Is it better than Pokémon Platinum? Um… yes. Because Platinum was still a frustratingly slow game, and I only enjoyed it because I fast-forwarded through literally every battle in the game. The combat is still way too slow in Brilliant Diamond, but I could tolerate it… mostly. …But is it better than Pokémon Platinum when played in an emulator? No way in hell. Not even close. If you want to revisit the Sinnoh games, just play Platinum using an emulator, specifically this version of DeSmuME. It makes the 3D environments look extra crisp!

So, how does Brilliant Diamond fair as a game? Well, it’s a Pokémon game, so the core tenants naturally carry over. A young child decides, or is coaxed, into venturing across the region they live in and tasked to do as follows: Defeat a series of 8 gym leaders. Defeat a gaggle of thugs who, despite starting as a group of petty crooks, are actually plotting to destroy and remake the entire universe using the power of deific beasts. Defeat the region’s champion. And collect as many Pokémon as you feel like. 

In this particular rendition, there are some flakey themes tying back to a creation myth, the philosophic diatribes about humanity’s right to rend the natural world as they see fit, and the evolution of energy-producing technology. But none of it is particularly developed, and aside from stray seconds of potential, I found the game to be incredibly light in regard to any sort of narrative personality. It often felt like the story was merely going through the motions without ever aiming for any greater aspirations.

Gameplay is pretty much what one would expect at this point. It carries over mechanics directly from Sword and Shield, but is the same core type-based, one-on-one or two-on-two, and limited turn-based combat the series has always been known for. Which always made for a decent combat-based backbone, and here it works fine, but merely fine.

Let’s start by discussing the balancing. The game only has 150 Pokémon inside of its initial Pokédex, arbitrarily discouraging, if not preventing, the player from getting a wider variety of Pokémon. Certain wild Pokémon are repeated ad nauseam across the entire region, while others are frustratingly rare for… no good reason. To the point where a casual player might not even find them without consulting the Pokédex or an external resource. 

Outside of catching Pokémon, Shining Diamond features a difficulty curve that keeps things relatively easy due to how experience is distributed to all party Pokémon. This, combined with the same trainer line-up from the original game, makes the game middlingly easy for much of its campaign, as players are amassing 2.5 times more party-wide EXP from every encounter. Despite this quality of life feature, many players have been struggling with these games during instances where the difficulty peaks. Namely, when gym leaders and the Sinnoh Elite Four. 

This comes from the fact that the game does not adequately prepare the player for these battles. These battles feature Pokémon the player has never seen up to this point, Pokémon of a significantly higher level, and Pokémon with some truly aggressive movesets. Such as how the second gym leader’s level 22 Roserade has access to Petal Blizzard, and a Sitrus Berry equipped. This trajectory just does not make the game feel balanced. Especially with the regional champion, Cynthia, and her level 66 Garchomp. For reference, the highest level Pokémon you can find in Victory Road, the final dungeon of the campaign, is level 47.

This could make the game quite the challenge, and it has been for many people. Though, I personally wound up getting 10 levels above the competition pretty early on in my playthrough, and I stayed there for most of that game. 

Now, you might be asking how I did that, and the answer is twofold. One, I decided on a team early on in my playthrough and, despite a last-minute switch from a Staraptor for a Togekiss, my team stayed largely consistent, which is an uncommon, but efficient, way to play Pokémon. And two, this game throws a monkey wrench into the balance of Diamond and Pearl with the introduction of Pokémon Hideaways and the Grand Underground. 

In the Grand Underground, the player can do two things: Waste copious amounts of time fannying about with RNG-driven mining puzzles for prizes they can exchange for overpriced goods of nebulous value (which I spent a solid 6 hours doing). Or they could travel into Pokémon Hideaways, where they can battle high level wild Pokémon, some of whom are Pokémon Hideaway exclusives. This is how I got half of my final party (Ralts, Togepi, and Houndoom), and I periodically hopped in here to grind a level or three. I did this because the Pokémon found in this area are almost always stronger than the strongest common trainer the player encounters. Assuming the player finds Pokémon with high EXP yield, such as Mr. Mime, then they can pretty quickly get the power they need to steamroll through most challenges.

I appreciate the addition of Pokémon Hideaways, but they bring up a problem I’ve had with Japanese RPGs for years. And it’s the obsession with rarity. Most of the Pokémon you find in Pokémon Hideaways are schlubs with low EXP yield, and who you can find in 5 other routes outside of here. The actual unique Pokémon only spawn sometimes, and the player is supposed to manipulate spawn rates by fannying about with the aforementioned mining puzzles in order to find statues. Players can then arrange these statues in their personal hidey holes, or secret bases, to boost the spawn rates for specific Pokémon.

I look at this and just see a wet, sloppy, and wasteful deluge of busywork, because that’s what this is. Wet, sloppy, busywork. I get that there is a certain thrill and joy with finding a rare thingamajig in a video game. But you know what is the opposite of this thrill? The tedium that comes with searching for statues to make certain Pokémon appear, and then walking through an area, dozens upon dozens of times, waiting for the desired Pokémon to spawn.

Using the guide at Serebii.net, I spent at least 3 hours hunting for Ralts, Togepi, and Houndoom. I could have technically stopped before then, but I wound up catching multiples of each of these Pokémon due to something I have learned to loathe about the Pokémon series. Natures. There is nothing more frustrating in Pokémon than getting a Pokémon and immediately realizing that it sucks. Getting a Pokémon with a boon to its weaker attack stat and a bane to its weaker defense state is a frustrating and crushing experience. As is getting a Manaphy with a bane to special attack and a boon to special defense, with no recourse of obtaining a duplicate.

I have previously voiced my discontent with the semi-hidden stats used to diversify every Pokémon in the game. I think that Effort Values, Individual Values, and natures all make the Pokémon experience worse, as they make it possible for players to obtain objectively bad Pokémon. I have previously offered solutions to this problem, such as having Pokémon gradually accumulate Individual Values as they level up, before universally reaching max IVs after reaching a set level. Removing the universal cap on Effort Values. And giving players a way to change a Pokémon’s nature by talking to a man at every Pokémon Center.

To me, these things would simply make for a better player experience, and on that note, I want to loop back to the idea of Pokémon being “challenging.” Something that I do not think people emphasize enough is how unlike most other RPGs Pokémon truly is. Most RPGs have the player act as a glass cannon who fights against tanks that fire bags of sand instead of ballistics. But in Pokémon, every encounter is one where the player and enemy are meant to be on the same plane.

However, the game design actively discourages the player from allowing themself from being on the same plane. Because, in the event that the player does not one-shot every enemy, they will take damage, and there are only two ways to recover from damage. To book it back to the Pokémon Center and heal, or dig through the player’s inventory and use items to heal Pokémon. Going back to the Pokémon Center costs time, and using items costs in-game currency. As I was juggling these two things in Victory Road, I could not help but ask myself why the game does not have some sort of auto-heal feature to prevent the player from making this worthless decision.

Now, you might say that this is just how RPGs work, but that is not the case. Most RPGs feature some sort of healing magic, health or MP regeneration, or health drops that the player can make use of. But not Pokémon. Pokémon does not give players this luxury and forces them to make the decision of time or money over, and over, and over again. Thus encouraging players to adopt strategies in order to minimize the time and resources wasted. Such as trying to one-shot every enemy possible. Which I think makes for a lame and mockable combat system.

I think that Pokémon as a series should try to make trainer battles more challenging and mechanically interesting, making each of them feel substantial, instead of feeling like a momentary roadblock in their journey. And I also think this nonsense with healing items and going to the Pokémon Center is just a waste of time, because it is. As such, I propose two things. 

Automatically heal the player’s party after each encounter. And remove any and all penalties for failing an encounter. Instead, allow the player to try again, or leave the encounter and come back to it at a later point.

These changes would have ripple effects, and there is an argument one could form against such a radical departure. However, at this point, I am pretty much convinced there is something wrong with the Pokémon series that needs correcting. And I am constantly thinking of these ideas while I’m playing these games. Ways in which they could be improved… if the developers had the opportunity to make improvements.

Heck, Brilliant Diamond actually ditches a lot of improvements from prior titles with the removal of reusable TMs, reusable HMs, and roaming Pokémon in every route (meaning that random encounters are back, and I hate them). It is enough to make the title feel regressive instead of stagnant. Which is actually a pretty good way to sum up my thoughts on this game. While every mainline Pokémon game added something fun, novel, or interesting, Brilliant Diamond offers nothing innovative or interesting to the table. It merely echoes ideas from prior titles, without ever doing them as well as its predecessors.

Now, that should constitute a review so… Okay, fine. Let’s talk about the graphics. 

I think Pokémon Brilliant Diamond might be the worst looking mainline game in the entire series. I am not saying this on a technical level, but rather how the developers presented things, and how the game looked as I played it. Not unlike Link’s Awakening (2019), the title makes use of a depth of field effect and bloom in order to add more… texture to its image, and in execution, I just think this makes the game look terrible. Hell, I think the game actually looks worse than it did in the debut trailer.

Textures are muddy and look like they would be more appropriate in a standard-definition game. The character models and general shading lack the same detail seen in Let’s Go and Sword/Shield, giving the game this bland and plastic look. And while I am not completely certain about this, the game’s low image quality gave me the impression that this game does not run at as high a resolution as its predecessors.

It is obvious that a lot of work went into certain things, such as the time of day lighting effects, the reflective surfaces abundantly available throughout the game, and the sloshing nature of large bodies of water. But effects such as these all bear a certain uncanny element to them, and remind me more of a technical demonstration than an example of how you should implement technology like this in the actual game.

While there are a few instances where I think its presentation succeeds, such as the snow effects in the northern routes, they are easily outnumbered by other areas that did not receive as much attention. Such as how the lighting works while in a rainy route, as it casts the entire environment in an oppressive shadow that does little more than make the already flat visuals look even flatter.

I would be willing to (partially) cast these criticisms aside if this game boasted interesting world designs, but it really doesn’t. The game staunchly follows up on the presentation of previous Pokémon games and does little to spruce up or diversify its locations, as it truly is a lot of green plains, blue seas, and brown caves. There are occasional bouts of something theoretically interesting, but aside from the aforementioned snow environments, nothing struck me as creatively designed or inspired in regards to either layout or aesthetics. Hell, at the game’s absolute worst (Wayward Cave), I would argue that the maps are aesthetically and structurally on par with something that a 14-year-old would make in RPG Maker in the mid-aughts.

Or in other words, the visual effects are bad, the shading is poor, and the maps are not good (which is why many were replaced in Platinum). But what about the actual models? Um… people were pissed when Let’s Go adopted a semi-chibi art style for its characters, as that was the first HD Pokémon game. If this was the first HD Pokémon game, that vile would have been an order of magnitude more pungent.

The goal of the developers was to re-use the existing Pokémon models both in-battle and in the overworld. Iterate on the models and animations used in Sword and Shield for battles. And recreate the original overworld sprites from the 2006 original in 3D. This is frustrating due to how lackadaisical the goals of the developers were, and how they could have conceivably made something that looked better. They have most of the assets needed to scale the world and scope of the game up by using full-sized ‘real people’ models in the overworld, instead of these toyetic gremlins with drawn-on faces. 

I get that this is a classic JRPG trope, and you could point back to things like Final Fantasy VII and its use of overworld and battle models. But this is a trend that has largely been abandoned in modern RPGs, and its inclusion here makes a direct remake of a 15-year-old game feel even older. The developers are sticking to a trend that has been seen as ‘dated’ in console games for over 20 years.

I would say that this ‘aesthetic preference’ was the most dated thing about the presentation… but that is a lie. The most dated element is the Pokémon Watch, the Pokétch. A feature that used to occupy the lower screen outside of battle, and was GameFreak’s attempt to make the most of new hardware by emulating mid-aughts portable technology. It was novel at the time, but here the Pokétch returns, largely unchanged, except now it occupies a spot in the corner of the screen, and is infinitely less intuitive to use.

Holding the R button can hide and show the Pokétch, while tapping the button causes the watch to occupy half the screen. Thus giving the player the ability to interact with the current Pokétch app and move onto the next one. And I do mean the ‘next’ one, as there is no home menu or previous button. It is a one button device, and… it is not very intuitive to use. It was never that great in the first place, more of a novelty of a pre-smartphone-era, and here… I kind of wish they just ditched this mechanic, because it simply does not feel natural on a single-screen display like this

This is one major UX issue, but the UI is generally one of the few things I think this game nails. Menus are painted in pleasing colors. 2D elements remain crisp and pleasant to look at, unlike the 3D elements. And I even like how they replaced the iconic (at least to me) menu sprites with slick high-resolution icons that I think look better. But there are still some very questionable moves, such as how they limited the textbox to only display two lines at a single time. While this worked in older games with screen crunch issues, here the textbox is so small and constrained that I found it difficult to focus on what anyone was saying…. Though, part of that has to do with how little personality is given to the cast as a whole.

Moving to the other end of things, the soundtrack, I mostly played this game with the sound turned off. With my Switch projecting to my secondary monitor, my headphones plugged into my computer, and my Switch Bluetooth audio connection disabled. This was a decision I made early on, after I heard the music both in previews and tried playing with the sound for roughly half an hour. 

The original soundtrack was limited by hardware constraints and has a discernibly ‘skunky’ MIDI quality to it, but it nevertheless has a lot of little bouts of personality with the sounds chosen. The remakes try to retain this personality, yet in recreating these compositions, they fail to advance them, and the end result just feels… flat. It sounds as if the music is in some way limited or compressed. Also, I simply do not want to listen to the wild Pokémon battle theme again. After the Sword and Shield rendition of that song, I have minimal tolerance for that melody. 

Instead, I mostly played through the game while listening to a bunch of 90s and 00s rap music, because I figured I would have a better time that way, and I definitely did. Also, you probably noticed that I decided to name all of my Pokémon after 90s rappers, named my player character Wu-Wu-Chan, and named my rival character White Devil. I did this as a lark, and because I thought it would make the game more fun for me personally. I was correct; it did help, but it did not help much.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond is a conceptually wrong video game. It is a title that is less than it should have been, and while the developers of ILCA successfully delivered upon their goals and ambitions, offering precisely what they promised, that is effectively all they did. Throughout the game, my mind was filled with thoughts of frustration. Of ideas about how this game could have been more. Of theories or design changes that could have made the game better. Of comparisons between this game, its predecessors, and its original.

Upon taking all of this into consideration, I consider Pokémon Brilliant Diamond to be a subpar JRPG when divorced from its series, as it lacks in narrative, presentation, gameplay, and design. And as a Pokémon game, it could be seen as a title that epitomizes everything wrong with the series in the modern day. A conceptually lackadaisical rehash of a nostalgic property that updates the bare minimum and could have been so much more if the budgets of time, money, and people weren’t so limited. It is a frustrating title, something I wanted to be done with as quickly as possible, and… it makes me question whether it is healthy for me to maintain an interest in these games.

Leave a Reply