Fennekin, Braixen and Delphox

Official art of Fennekin by Ken Sugmori (praise be to Nintendo, etc).Probably one of the most popular commonplaces of fan-made Pokémon design for years and years has been the Pokémon with pyrokinetic abilities – the use of psychic power to manipulate heat and fire – and it looks like we’ve finally got one.  I’ll be honest, though: when I first saw Fennekin I was not optimistic.  A fiery fox Pokémon with a mystical streak?  That… sounds awfully familiar.  When all’s said and done, Vulpix and Ninetales are a lot more straightforward as far as their physical design goes; aside from the split tail thing they are basically foxes, and what’s interesting about them is mostly in their mystical powers and their obsession with vengeance.  Fennekin develops into something a bit more complicated with more of a mixture of influences going on, eventually ending up looking more like Lucario or Zoroark than anything else (Japanese sure do like their magic foxes).  That’s something we should probably talk about first, actually; let’s talk about the anthro-fox thing.

I know there are people who don’t like Lucario or Zoroark, or presumably Delphox either, because the anthropomorphism offends their sensibilities on some level, which is something I don’t quite ‘get,’ personally (now, whether we really need quite so many fox-like Pokémon is another matter entirely, but I spend enough time bitching about that kind of thing already).  The concept of anthropomorphic animals is literally as old as civilisation, even if depicting them physically as human/animal hybrids isn’t quite so universal, and I think everyone recognises the apparent callbacks from Lucario to Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of burial and funerary rites.  It’s not just some weird fetish thing of the last couple of decades, it’s actually kind of a millennia-old universal mythic archetype that resonates with people of radically different cultural backgrounds all over the planet.  Just to prove my point, I would like to note that, in fact, if you Google the phrase “anthropomorphic fox,” the first result is the Wikipedia page for a mediaeval French trickster-hero named Raynard or Renart (so an anthropomorphic fox actually makes a great deal of sense in a region based on France), whose principal rival is an anthropomorphic wolf named Isengrim.  It’s really quite amazing how much I learn from writing this bull$#!t.  The trope also makes a lot of sense in the context of some of Pokémon’s core themes, like the desire for balance between civilisation and nature – anthropomorphic animals straddle the line and can symbolically act as intermediaries or go-betweens in much the same way as Pokémon trainers can from the other direction.  Foxes in Japanese folklore are regularly depicted as shapeshifters as well, and are often quite fond of assuming human form for a variety of whimsical purposes, so it makes a great deal of sense that we should see fox-like Pokémon in particular filling this role (even if, again, I might wish for more variety in that respect, as elsewhere…).  Basically what I’m saying is that any complaint that anthropomorphic foxes are just inherently a dumb idea will be met with several heavy and fast-moving books.  Moving on.

 Braixen.

My favourite thing about Delphox is probably her name, which evokes ancient Delphi in Greece, a place closely associated with oracular foresight – and, lo and behold, Delphox can see the future by staring into the flames at the tip of her wand, and also learns Future Sight (though of course among Psychic Pokémon this is far from an unusual attack; it’s much more interesting with respect to flavour when it appears on a Pokémon of a different element).  Maybe it’s just me, but I also can’t help but see one of the ancient Greek words for fire, phlox, in there.  In contrast to Ninetales, who is a very faithful rendition of, essentially, a purely Japanese kitsune spirit, Fennekin and her evolutions seem very keen to bring western ideas into the design – which, again, makes sense both in the context of Kalos as a French-inspired region and of Pokémon’s growing interest in portraying itself as an international entity.  Braixen in particular, and Delphox as well to an extent, have a very strong east-meets-west thing going, combining the mystic foxes of Japanese folklore with the witches of European fairytale, whose signature broomstick is clearly visible in the shape of Braixen’s tail.  Delphox, likewise, directs her fire powers through a wand which also acts as a focus for her psychic abilities.  It’s a shame Braixen can’t use her ‘broomstick’ to fly, but then again, neither making her a Flying-type nor sticking Levitate on her would have been all that practical.  Potion-making abilities or herbal lore might have been nice too, but similarly difficult to reconcile with the Fire/Psychic typing, requiring a mixture of Grass- and Poison-type powers.

I cannot get over this line’s majestic ear hair.  I didn’t notice it at first because it just looks like they have big red ears at a glance, but when you actually look at them, it’s clear that those are huge bushy tufts of hair or fur sprouting from inside their ears, apparently meant to mimic the appearance of bursts of flame.  It confuses me so much because, although a fennec fox’s large heat-dissipating ears are one of its most noticeable traits and are referenced in the fact that Fennekin emits blasts of heat from her ears to frighten attackers, their ear hair, while admittedly impressive if you look at it with that in mind, is not really anything special.  In humans ear hair denotes age, so I guess you could say that it’s meant to be a sign of wisdom, but it’s usually in men that we think about prominent ear hair, and Delphox seems to very aiming at a feminine design.  Also, ear hair tends to be grouped with the less desirable traits of old age, like senility.  Maybe in Japan impressive ear hair is considered a good thing…?  Where does one go on the internet for information about the symbolic associations of ear hair in different cultures, anyway?  How has my life even gotten to the point where this is a question I am legitimately interested in knowing the answer to?

…yeah, I’m just going to talk about Delphox’s battle capabilities now.

 Delphox.

Delphox has an unusual type combination, shared only by Victini and Zen Darmanitan (who, of course, doesn’t count): Fire/Psychic, which comes with quite a lot of resistances but also some very nasty weaknesses, particularly Rock, Ground and Dark.  Offensively it’s a viable combination but not a brilliant one; Fire and Psychic share no weaknesses, but don’t cover each other’s weaknesses particularly well either.  Overall, it’s sort of a mixed bag as far as type combinations go, and the rest of Delphox’s traits follow suit.  The odd thing about this Pokémon is that her stats suggest a special sweeper – very good speed and special defence with excellent special attack, and poor physical stats – while her movepool and hidden ability are very much those of a supporter.  Aside from her core attacks – Flamethrower or Fire Blast, Psyshock or Psychic – Delphox really only has Grass Knot and Shadow Ball for coverage.  Grass attacks go great with Fire, but Grass Knot’s dependence on the target’s weight makes it a bit of a tricky move (the types that are weak against Grass – Ground, Rock and Water – do tend to have disproportionately heavy Pokémon, though, so it can work pretty well as a secondary attack).  Ghost attacks are also moving up in the world now that Steel-types no longer resist them, leaving excellent neutral coverage, but that’s not really a huge priority for Delphox, who already has a pretty solid offensive type behind her.  Calm Mind is difficult for a Pokémon whose physical defences are as weak as Delphox’s, although she’s pretty frightening with a special attack boost behind her.  Her support movepool has some great stuff: Light Screen, Will’o’Wisp, Switcheroo, Hypnosis, hell, if you’re good at reading your opponents she can even muck around with Magic Coat (although, if you really want to reflect status effects back at their users, just using a Pokémon with the Magic Bounce ability is a lot easier, albeit predictable).  Switcheroo could make for a neat Choice Specs set.  It’s worked for other Pokémon in the past and Delphox certainly has the stats for it; act as a traditional special attacker with a nasty Choice Specs power boost until you see a support-oriented Pokémon who won’t deal well with being locked into a single attack, then swap items with Switcheroo and hopefully cripple them.  The other moves are just universally useful, although it’s not exactly easy to see why you’d pick a relatively frail Pokémon like Delphox to use them.

Like Chesnaught and Greninja, Delphox enjoys access to a signature move, Mystical Fire.  This attack looks decidedly underwhelming at first glance since it’s simply much less powerful than the traditional ‘gold standard’ moves like Thunderbolt and Earthquake.  What’s interesting about it, though, is that on top of its damage Mystical Fire also reduces its target’s special attack, which is a surprisingly rare effect; only a handful of moves can do that, and many of them will not do so consistently (Moonblast only does so 20% of the time, Captivate only works on Pokémon of the opposite gender, and so on).  Considering that Delphox can also partially neutralise most physical attackers with Will’o’Wisp, the ability to reliably dampen special attackers as well is pretty cool.  In a similar vein, her hidden ability, Magician, is almost unique, shared only by the mischievous Klefki (who really has better things to do, since his other ability is Prankster, the greatest blessing any support Pokémon has ever received).  Magician basically adds the effect of Thief to all of Delphox’s direct attacks for free – if she’s not already holding an item, she’ll steal whatever her target is holding.  A lot of Pokémon rely quite heavily on their items, and being able to nab these reliably without taking up a moveslot is pretty cool, especially if you happen to gank something Delphox can actually use herself.  Combine this with a consumable item like an Air Balloon or a Fire Gem (once Fire Gems actually exist in X and Y) and you could seriously mess with even Pokémon who don’t think Delphox can harm them.  All in all, it’s probably best to think of Delphox as a special attacker whose greatest strength is actually not her special attacks, but her capacity to screw with people.  Make sure to pack at least one nasty little spell, and spring it when your opponent is least expecting it.

Delphox might actually be my favourite Fire starter so far – and only partially because we have finally broken the curse of Fire/Fighting.  She balances power and cunning in a way that’s quite rare in a Fire-type, and just being able to shrug off her attacks doesn’t necessarily mean she can’t leave your head spinning.  Like mythological foxes the world over, she’s clever and possesses mystical insight into the world of spirits and magic, embracing the magical quality of fire like few of her predecessors ever have.  You know, I think I’m good with that.

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