A few hours into Pokémon Brilliant Diamond, I met a girl in a meadow of flowers. What followed, however, was not the bloom of romance; something more wistful had taken root. “I simply love it here,” she said. “The atmosphere is so uplifting.” This is a prime example of Pokélogue—it’s like dialogue, only pumped up with near-dangerous levels of positivity and hurled forth like a capsule. Then, as we were parting ways, she said, “You came to get emotionally healed too, didn’t you?” How the hell did she know? Such is the mission of many who make the pilgrimage to Sinnoh, the region in which Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and its semi-precious twin, Pokémon Shining Pearl, unfurl. What we have is another brace of remakes, bringing the series’ first main entries on the Nintendo DS up to date. And, with them, the chance to be loved, uplifted, and healed anew.
We play a youngster, loosed into the itinerant life of a trainer, whose job is to befriend, ensnare, and battle the animals of the world. The one who does the loosing, this time around, is the frowning Professor Rowan—who wears a blue waistcoat, black necktie, and a grey-white combination of moustache, mutton chops, and mullet that suggest a highly academic steam train. Rowan and his assistant, Dawn, are carrying out research by a lake, when he leaves behind his suitcase. You, being of noble—and, let’s face it, nosy—heart, decide to return it. But, before you can, you are attacked by a wild Pokémon. Thus, you have no choice but to borrow one of three available creatures from the professor’s case: Turtwig, a smiling and verdant turtle; Chimchar, a small chimp with a flame rippling from its rump; and Piplip, a baby penguin without any obvious elemental twists.
I chose the latter, on the principle that the unadorned penguin is one of the few animals truly beyond improvement. As a rule, the best Pokémon are the ones that look to the beasts of the field for inspiration. When we start getting to the likes of Klefki (for which we were fobbed off with a jangling key ring), Trubbish (a pile of rubbish), and Rotom (a spark of ghostly vapour that possesses household appliances, like ovens, washing machines, and lawnmowers) we are in trouble. Mind you, spare a thought for the bone-tired artists, cloistered in a conference room with their imaginative juices at low ebb, peering into bins and across to the office fridge for ideas. No wonder we end up with a few discardable designs that leave us cold.
Pokémon Diamond and Pearl had a decent yield, though not as rich as the offerings of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire. I am a big fan of Mamoswine, a woolly mammoth, luxuriously tusked and snouted, with a frosty blast of blue eye shadow. And Bastiodon, a cross between a dinosaur and a bulldozer, sweeps me away every time. But we also have to contend with the likes of Bidoof, a permanently dumbfounded beaver; Buizel, a kind of watery weasel; and Stunky, a skunk with—to put it bluntly—an arse on its face, which seems like a bit of a cheek. Is the humble skunk not already the butt of nature’s jokes? One of the quirks of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond is the look not of its critters but of its humans, who are bouncy and bobble-headed, with jumbo feet, and who unfurl into full-length proportions only during combat. It is as though the originals hadn’t been remade so much as inflated, from flat and pixelated sprites into springy 3-D.
The developer is not Game Freak—which has made every core title in the series, including remakes, up until now—but a Tokyo-based studio, named ILCA. The name, though it has the deadening ring of a talent agency or an insurance firm, in fact stands for “I Love Computer Art.” It is a support studio, and its only previous involvement with the series was in creating Pokémon Home, a cloud-based storage app, allowing you to zip your captured pets between games. Indeed, it is in that spirit that ILCA has gone about its task: ferrying in features from various entries in an effort to make us feel at home. Hence the Grand Underground, a network of tunnels beneath Sinnoh, bustling with rarer catches, which nods to the Wild Area, from Pokémon Sword and Shield, in showing off its fully rendered monsters as they cavort in the open.
Elsewhere, we get the Exp. Share as it was manifested in Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!—not as an obtainable item but as an inherent setting, which, bafflingly, cannot be turned off. This means that your entire team, even the really lazy ones, will fail upwards through the levels, despite not emerging from their plush little Pokéchambers. The reason for this, I would guess, is an attempt to smooth the rougher quarters of the series for the benefit of younger players, especially the ones who were coaxed in by the mobile game Pokémon Go, and were used to the frictionless swipe of its play. The problem, for those of us who have done the gastly thing and grown older and more hauntered by experience, is that we remember when the rougher quarters were smoothed only by grinding—in subjecting ourselves to extensive battles in order to buff our stats. Can you not please both crowds by simply giving us the option to turn the setting off?
As a result, I drifted through much of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond, dodging patches of tall grass, where free-range beastlets lurk, and besting the eight gym leaders with ease. Curiously, this didn’t dent my enjoyment as much as I thought it would. This is due in part to the villains of the piece, Team Galactic, who sport turquoise bowl cuts and babble about the universe, and are therefore all the more fun to smash your way through. And it has something to do with why one would play Pokémon at all. If you relish the tooth-and-nail feel of a tough fight, and the requirement that it breeds to train and studiously cram your head with knowhow, you will feel, as I do, shortchanged. Likewise, if you have particularly fond memories of these games, then you may also feel irked at some of the decisions here. A friend of mine was deeply galled by the reduction of the Super Contest—a Crufts-like pageant, wherein your chosen Pokémon are festooned in finery and trotted out to perform for the judges—to a string of timed, button-tapping minigames.
But there remains about Pokémon Brilliant Diamond the glint of something far gone. Sinnoh was the last setting to be based on one of the islands of Japan—in this case Hokkaido—and I much prefer Game Freak, a Japanese studio, when it is on home soil. And there is something warmly reassuring and timeless about the place. Take note of the names of its cities: Hearthome, Eterna, Jubilife, Pastoria, Sunyshore. It sounds like the sort of place to which ageing trainers might retire for a spot of emotional healing, their memories of hard-fought struggle and bitter defeat softened into a happy, faintly restless, haze.
Publisher: Nintendo, The Pokémon Company
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 19, 2021
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