For reasons I’ll get to later, this one’s a bit of an odd duck (I mean this figuratively, of course, in contrast to Psyduck, who actually is an odd duck). Allow me to introduce the Zen Charm Pokémon, Darumaka, and his evolved form Darmanitan… two Pokémon that I personally find tremendously annoying, because if you fail to deal with them promptly they can and will leave huge smoking holes in your team. Most Fire Pokémon are very active but these guys are turned up to eleven, their internal fires producing enormous quantities of energy that they will burn up by any means necessary – and I do mean any; they even use their droppings as a way of offloading excess heat; I know this because the Pokédex tells us that people used to carry Darumaka droppings in their pockets to keep themselves warm (Pokémon: it’s kind of like that). Heaven help you if you get into a fight with a Darumaka while it’s fired up, so to speak – but, that said, they’re not by nature aggressive Pokémon, just overwhelmingly energetic. Eventually, of course, their energy runs out, and that’s when Darumaka earns his name; while asleep, he tucks his arms and legs up inside his egg-shaped body, rocking gently on his base and steadfastly refusing to be pushed over because of his low centre of gravity, exactly like a traditional Japanese doll associated with Zen Buddhism called a daruma. Daruma are popular as good luck charms and make a cute and culturally interesting basis for a Pokémon. It’s odd that a Pokémon based on a Zen charm should be so different from what most people picture when they think of Zen Buddhism – calmness, introspection, peace – but more on that later. Now, if Darumaka is turned up to eleven, Darmanitan just plain blows up the meter. With a disturbing manic grin, a core temperature well in excess of 1000º C (for reference, this is about the temperature of lava) and a right hook that can take out a bus, this is one orang-utan you don’t want to mess with. Normally I might be complaining about how insane Darmanitan looks (compare, for instance, my reaction to Patrat) but I think that’s what they were actually going for this time – and it worked. Dear gods it worked.
Darmanitan’s stats back him up on everything I just said; he’s not very tough but he’ll take a hit or two if he really has to, he’s fast but still slower than a lot of other Pokémon, and he hits like a SCUD missile. His attack stat is high by the standards of legendary Pokémon; there are embodied divinities that don’t hit as hard as Darmanitan. Flare Blitz, a high-powered physical Fire attack with significant recoil damage, is Darmanitan’s standby (although Fire Punch is workable as well; it’s normally a tad on the weak side but Darmanitan’s passive ability, Sheer Force, exchanges Fire Punch’s chance to cause burns for extra power, and the lack of recoil damage will allow him to last longer). As we’ve learnt from the example of Emboar and his predecessors, Fighting attacks are a great complement to Fire attacks, and Darmanitan has two or three good ones to choose from. The good old standbys Earthquake and Rock Slide are on his list too (don’t use Stone Edge on Darmanitan; Rock Slide is better on him because it has an effect – a flinch chance – to swap out for damage using Sheer Force), as is U-Turn, which runs somewhat counter to the prevailing instinct to stuff as much damage into Darmanitan as possible but is useful for its secondary effect: switching the user out after the attack lands. Other than the possibility of using U-Turn, Darmanitan is really just a point-and-shoot Pokémon; you aim him at your enemies (be they other Pokémon, buildings you need demolished, aberrant geological formations, or small nations) and get out of the way. Or at least… typical Darmanitan are like that. See, like most Pokémon, Darmanitan has a hidden ability, an alternative passive skill normally possessed by Pokémon from Black and White’s online area, the Dream World (although you can actually find wild Darmanitan with this ability in-game). It’s this ability that makes Darmanitan, as I said earlier, a bit of an odd duck…
Darmanitan’s Dream World ability is Zen Mode. When a Darmanitan with this ability loses more than half of its hit points in a fight, it will suddenly metamorphose into a stone statue, totally abandoning the manic hyperactivity that characterises Darumaka and Darmanitan and becoming preternaturally calm and focussed.
Told you it was odd.
This metamorphosis changes Darmanitan’s powers completely. His attack and special attack stats reverse, making him physically weak but granting him phenomenal energy attacks. He slows down and can no longer outrun much of anything at all but, being made of stone, becomes very resilient. Finally, he picks up a second type, becoming a Fire/Psychic dual-type. From a flavour perspective this is a tremendously interesting ability that makes for a wholly unique Pokémon. It’s just a really cool idea, and nicely ties into the Zen theme I was talking about before.
The problem is that mechanically it just doesn’t work.
There’s two major problems with using a Zen Darmanitan. The first is that, like all Pokémon, Darmanitan can only memorise four different moves. While he’s healthy, he’ll want moves like Flare Blitz and Superpower to make use of his monstrous attack stat. While he’s injured, he’ll want moves like Fire Blast, Psychic, Focus Blast and Grass Knot or maybe Solarbeam to exploit his monstrous special attack stat. Splitting his move-set up sharply diminishes the type coverage he can achieve in both forms. The other problem is to do with training… if you know what the acronym “EV” stands for in this context, you already know what I’m going to say; if you don’t… well, without getting into detail, Pokémon can be trained to focus on two or three of their stats to the exclusion of the others, and are almost universally more effective if you do just that, since it helps to tailor them to the specific roles you have in mind. The issue for a Zen Darmanitan is that the transition from physical glass cannon (a role which prioritises attack and speed) to special tank (a role which prioritises hit points, defence, special defence and special attack, in no particular order) when he hits 50% health is so jarring that it’s all but impossible to train one that will work effectively in both states. Moreover, the Zen form is shot in the foot from the beginning by being a defensive Pokémon that, by default, starts with half of its health missing (and if you heal him up somehow, he’ll just shift back to his normal form). It’s an awesome idea but making it work as intended would have required a far more complex implementation.
Here’s the thing. I think that Darumaka and Darmanitan are cool, interesting Pokémon, but the idea that makes them cool and interesting just hasn’t translated properly into the game mechanics. Zen Mode is what makes Darmanitan truly unique but honestly he’s much better off without it, and since there is another choice available (and Sheer Force is indubitably a strong option) there’s not much of an argument for using Darmanitan as anything other than a fairly generic Fire-type. He’s a Pokémon that is actively punished by the game mechanics for trying to be different, and this is (I declare with all the authority of a random blogger on the internet) Bad Design and a depressing waste of a good concept. It’s not his fault, but I have to be cruel here or they’ll never learn.
I hereby deny this Pokémon’s right to exist! Let it be mercilessly graffiti’d in its sleep and then buried forever in the desert sands!