I didn’t do the Unova Pokédex in order, and I’m not going to do Kalos in order either (more for variety than anything else). I’m planning to start with Central Kalos, then the Coastal Pokémon, and then the Mountain areas, but beyond that, I’m just going to play it by ear – starting today with the second Kalosian Pokémon to join my main party, Fletchling. For obvious reasons, Fletchling didn’t exactly move me to excitement when I first met him: “oh, here we go again; another Normal/Flying fast physical songbird-to-raptor progression with wind powers and no other remarkable traits to eat the local obligatory caterpillar.” One of the things I was particularly interested in decrying with my Unova reviews – something I’m still very easily annoyed by – is ‘template’ Pokémon, Pokémon who start not with an actual idea but with a principle that every game ‘should’ have a sequel to Pidgey, or Caterpie, or Pikachu. It’s lazy, it’s boring, and most of all, it doesn’t actually provide any benefit. There is nothing about these templates that makes the game better, except maybe that they provide an easy introduction to the concept that some Pokémon are just bad. Part of the reason I’ve always been so irascible about these things is that, although all generations have them, Unova was particularly obnoxious about it, needing stand-ins for things like Geodude and Machop in addition to the usual suspects, which made the absence of any older Pokémon feel like nothing so much as an irritating charade. Kalos is something else. Kalos has the templates, but it tries much harder than previous generations to play with them. On principle, we ‘needed’ a Normal/Flying songbird Pokémon for the early game – so Kalos decided to make one that was as badass as possible.
It’s a simple idea, really. Take the standard songbird-to-raptor pattern, and set it on fire. What could possibly go wrong?
The question here is, how far does a different type go? Fletchling, Fletchinder and Talonflame still share a lot of traits with Pidgeot et al. – does the fact that they also have fire powers make that okay? And what does that say about how we look at elements in Pokémon? Most Pokémon have supernatural powers of one sort or another, and as I’ve recently discussed, it is to an extent the powers that make the Pokémon, but if the essence of Pokémon design is just giving elemental traits to an animal, the Normal-types who mostly lack such traits are damned from the start. Part of designing these things is matching up the powers to the creature in a clever way. Birds with wind powers are very straightforward as Pokémon go, since wind and flight ‘go together’ intuitively, while birds with fire powers are a little more interesting, and Talonflame doesn’t just take the obvious phoenix angle, which Moltres and Ho-oh have already done to death anyway. On the other hand, what makes attaching fire-related abilities to a falcon particularly insightful? The most interesting Fire Pokémon aren’t just “this animal, but on fire;” they’re ones that play with the idea of fire, either by combining it with another element (like Magcargo, whose body of lava hardens into a stone shell, or Chandelure, whose ghostly lights lead wanderers into another world), or by focusing on an unusual aspect of fire (like Torkoal, who mines and burns coal for energy). If I like Fletchling and his evolutions, then I’m going to have to dig a little deeper than “new type” – I need to find the flourishes. Let’s have a look at them.
Fletchling, obviously enough, is a robin, while Talonflame has made the transition to peregrine falcon, while keeping the distinctive red colouring of his juvenile form that also evokes his fire powers. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exactly what Fletchinder is, but he reminds me very much of the hoopoe, a medium-sized bird common throughout most of Eurasia who shares the red colouring of his head, as well as the striking black-and-white striped pattern of Fletchinder’s tail. The hoopoe is also a larger and more powerful bird than a robin, but not a major predator like a falcon, so he’d be a sensible intermediate. All three stages incorporate arrows into the design as well, in the form of the distinctive shape and stripes of their tails, like the fletching of an arrow – perhaps making their beaks serve metaphorically as the arrowheads. The swept-back posture of Talonflame’s wings in the official art might even be meant to recall the shape of a bow, with an ‘arrow’ nocked and ready to fire, formed by the line from his beak to his tail… but maybe that’s getting a little far-fetched. The famed 310 kilometer per hour dive of the peregrine falcon (which Talonflame insistently one-ups, at 310 miles per hour) is reminiscent of a falling arrow too, particularly in its effects on the health of whatever stands at its destination. As generic bird Pokémon go, this is already quite a good one, without even mentioning the fact that it’s on fire. What’s more, Fletchinder and Talonflame’s fire powers do relate in some ways to the rest of their design, adding a little depth to them. Fletchinder supposedly flies faster the hotter his fire burns, for instance (linking the Fire and Flying elements, the way I talked about with Chesnaught), which makes a good tie-in to the presence of Flame Charge on his level-up set. The assumption of fire abilities as the Pokémon ages could also be linked to his taking on a more predatory ecological niche as he becomes more powerful, and indeed Fletchinder hunts by starting fires to drive his prey out of hiding. Flaming arrows, of course, were also a staple of a wide variety of ancient and Mediaeval armies, so giving fire to a Pokémon whose name and appearance are intended to evoke arrows makes good sense. I actually would have liked to see a greater focus on the arrow motif, which is neglected in the English and French translations of Talonflame’s name, because that’s one of the cleverest things in terms of tying the whole design together. In balance, though, I think it works. Talonflame is far from a masterful Pokémon, but I can certainly appreciate the effort to do something unexpected with a highly standardised form, in a manner which integrates the new and different features with the common traits of the traditional early-game Flying-type.
Another common thread with Pokémon from the Pidgeot mould is that they are not normally very powerful. Staraptor excepted, none of Talonflame’s predecessors have ever been important Pokémon for the competitive scene, though Swellow is a persistent dark horse. The difficult thing about Talonflame, of course, is the double-weakness to Rock associated with his otherwise strong Fire/Flying type combination, because Stealth Rock is showing every sign of continuing to be a thing. Like all Pokémon with this trait, Talonflame needs diligent Rapid Spin support to keep him from dying painfully, and also needs something pretty special to make him worth that support. Good news: he’s got an amazing hidden ability. I don’t want to knock Flame Body, because the combination of Flame Body and Fly makes Talonflame one of the best solo Pokémon to keep with you while hatching groups of eggs, like Volcarona on Black and White (Flame Body causes eggs in your party to gestate at twice their normal rate), but Gale Wings is where it’s at. This ability gives all of Talonflame’s Flying-type attacks priority, which means, combined with his already excellent speed, that almost nothing will ever be able to outrun his devastating Brave Bird attack – he can beat higher base speed, he can beat Choice Scarves, he can beat Agility, and he doesn’t even care if you paralyse him (but he can’t beat Extremespeed, so watch out for that). In flavour terms it’s an odd ability because Talonflame doesn’t really have wind powers (‘Gale Wings’ sounds like something Pidgeot should get), but it also happens to make him one of the game’s best revenge killers – Pokémon whose job is to take advantage of the free switch you get after losing a Pokémon to come in and destroy a powerful aggressor – as well as just a frightening thing to face in general. Flare Blitz provides a secondary attack just as powerful which turns out to combine quite well with Brave Bird; stay away from Rock-types, Heatran, Lanturn, certain legendary Pokémon you shouldn’t be tangling with anyway, and toasters, and you’re golden (you can always take Steel Wing for the Rock-types, but the low power combined with Talonflame’s merely average attack score may disappoint). Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Talonflame still enjoys the one really spectacular feature shared by most bird Pokémon: U-Turn, which has been called ‘the best move in the game’ for allowing a player to postpone a switch until after seeing whether the opponent will switch that turn, and even doing damage into the bargain.
So, what’s the bad news? Talonflame’s other stats are mediocre all around; his attacks lack punch by the standards of offensive Pokémon, and he’s not tough either. However, these failings are not as significant for Talonflame as they are for most of his ancestors. The ease with which Talonflame can outrun his foes using Gale Wings, for instance, means that he doesn’t actually need the maximum possible training investment in his speed, and can afford to spend more time shoring up his defences than most offensive Pokémon (focusing on HP will make Flare Blitz and Brave Bird recoil sting less too). Furthermore, it’s worth bearing in mind that Roost enjoys Gale Wings priority too! This bird can be much tougher than his mediocre defensive stats suggest. He also has options to boost his own attack power – Bulk Up and Swords Dance – which Pokémon like Unfezant, Pidgeot and even Staraptor lacked. Talonflame really has to work for his power, though; a Choice Band makes Roost infeasible, and Life Orb recoil takes too heavy a toll when combined with Brave Bird and Flare Blitz, so things like a Sharp Beak, Expert Belt or Muscle Band will often have to do, supplemented by Swords Dance and the naturally high power of Talonflame’s main attacks. Remember that his attack stat is only average, and make sure you look for opportunities for him to switch in and scare something away for a free set-up turn. Other options… well, Taunt could be neat, to make Talonflame into a total nightmare for defensive and set-up Pokémon, especially with Roost to back him up in a more drawn-out fight, and Will’o’Wisp is weird on such an aggressive attacker but between the attack penalty from a burn and a potential Bulk Up boost Talonflame would actually be pretty hard for a physical attacker to take down. Talonflame’s special attack is actually not far off his attack, but sadly his special movepool sucks – it’s pretty much just Fire attacks plus Solarbeam and, critically, no special Flying attacks to spam with Gale Wings. In short, don’t go there. Finally, and bizarrely, Talonflame is said to prefer devastating kicks when striking finishing blows against its prey – bizarrely because Talonflame has no kicking attacks. A line like that seems tailored specifically to justify the inclusion of Blaze Kick on Talonflame’s level-up list, but the move fails to make an appearance, an odd lack of nuance for an otherwise quite carefully put-together Pokémon.
Talonflame’s effective movepool isn’t really very wide – basically everything he can do is variations on the theme of Gale Wings abuse – so finding something for your team that can take at least two of those Brave Birds and hit back is the key here. He’s not a subtle Pokémon, which makes sense for a bird of prey based on a flaming arrow, but he knows what he does, and he does it well. Talonflame makes me optimistic for the future. I feel like Game Freak is trying to say “we’re sorry for all the $#!t birds. We’ll make better ones in future, and we’ll even make them more than just birds! See?” Now, if only poor Pidgeot got Gale Wings, maybe he could feel slightly less miserable about himself…