Well, this puts me in a rather awkward position.
See, my perspective on new evolutions of Eevee is pretty much diametrically opposite to the perspective of, as far as I can tell, the entirety of the rest of the Pokémon community – to whit, I don’t actually think we need any more. I like Eevee as much as the next guy, but her individual evolutions are not, in and of themselves, terribly interesting – in fact the recipe seems to be “Eevee + generic powers of type x” – they’re interesting by virtue of their common lineage, and that point was quite satisfactorily made long ago. Continuing to add more is just labouring it, I feel; I’ve never been able to think of Leafeon and Glaceon as anything other than Pokédex filler. So, while everyone else was ecstatic with the revelation of generation VI’s new Fairy-type Eevee and then bitterly disappointed that it wasn’t accompanied by a Dragon-type one, I’m sitting here wondering what the hell is so great about the one we did get. Right… now that I’ve made the majority of my reading audience utterly furious with me, let’s see whether I can redeem myself…
I feel like the most important thing about Sylveon is her status as the flagship Pokémon for the introduction of the Fairy type, because everything else follows from that, in a way. Sylveon, we remember, was the sixth Pokémon of this generation revealed (following the starters and the legendary mascots), and inevitably sparked a frenzy of speculation over her type, since type is far and away the most important feature of any Eeveelution. Normal and Psychic both seemed extremely unlikely, but nothing else really made sense, which was the first thing that got people thinking there might be a new type coming, and in retrospect it seems pretty obvious that this was exactly what Game Freak intended. In some ways, it was actually something of a troll move on their part, partly because of the people who immediately anticipated a second Eevee form to go with it, but also more generally because it prompted the expectation that generation VI, like II and IV, would include many evolutions. In fact, Sylveon was the only one – which is interesting in itself, because not evolving any old Pokémon is a major design choice for the feel of the generation and the region (probably something to do with not stealing the limelight from Mega Evolution), and breaking from that choice just for Sylveon seems important. I think it probably has something to do with their very clear desire to tie the new generation back to Pokémon’s origins, which they’ve also done by including unusually large numbers of existing species in Kalos, giving Mega forms to a large number of older-generation Pokémon (favouring I while neglecting V), handing out the first-generation starters in Lumiose city, and… well, Pokémon Origins. Making the first-revealed Fairy-type an evolution of the universally-adored Eevee, one of now eight, is a very solid way of making the new element ‘part of the club,’ as it were, smoothing over the jolt of a major change to a type chart that has remained static since generation II.
So, that’s how Sylveon fits into the grand scheme of what Game Freak are trying to do with X and Y. What is she in herself? As far as I can tell, Sylveon seems to function primarily on The Power of Friendship; she has a pacifying aura not unlike Milotic’s, and evolves from Eevee by building a moderate affection rating in Pokémon Amie, as well as learning a Fairy attack. I’m still not absolutely sure how we’re supposed to conceptualise the difference between ‘friendship,’ which prompts Eevee’s evolution into Umbreon or Espeon, and ‘affection,’ which prompts her evolution into Sylveon. Friendship is affected by a lot of things related to the Pokémon’s growth and performance in battle, so conceivably it might have more to do with trust and respect, while affection is mostly just about being pampered and fed delicious pastries, and probably represents a different sort of relationship. If we’re thinking about how Sylveon fits into Eevee’s ‘adaptation’ gimmick – the idea that Eevee’s multitude of evolutions are responses to different environmental pressures – then it seems likely that Espeon, Umbreon and Sylveon all have something to do with adapting to partnership with humans. Where Espeon and Umbreon were responses to different kinds of working partnership, though, Sylveon might be the end result of Eevee’s adaptation to life as an extremely popular and high-status pet, possibly as the result of selective breeding. What could be a greater advantage for a pet than the ability to magically cause positive emotions? This kind of power is also the defining feature of another Fairy Pokémon, Togekiss, and fits quite well with the empathic abilities of a third, Gardevoir, who also shares the unusual devotion to her trainer that gets called out in Sylveon’s Pokédex data. This might be a good thing to note down as a general theme of Fairy Pokémon, then: they can manipulate emotions, and draw strength from positive emotional relationships.
Turning to her appearance, Sylveon cultivates a similar kind of ethereal grace to Espeon and Glaceon. A pastel colour scheme gives her a slightly otherworldly feel, while her ribbons flutter as though in a fey breeze. They’re not ribbons, though, they’re ‘ribbonlike feelers’ – innocuous-looking fleshy tentacle-things that channel her powers… which… to be honest is almost worse than if they’d just put inexplicable ribbons on her and said “deal with it,” because now there’s this disconcerting element of tentacle-groping creepiness to a Pokémon that I don’t think is supposed to be creepy. Then again, toss in the fact that she can manipulate emotions, and those strange, pale, glassy eyes (they almost make me want to think she’s blind, which would suddenly make a worrying amount of sense of the feelers), and the way she seems to lead her trainer by the arm, as though using her ‘feelers’ as a leash, and there’s plenty of material in there for a very sinister artistic or literary take on Sylveon, if you’re so inclined – appropriately enough for a Pokémon representative of the Fey. Not sure whether this is some kind of uncanny perfect storm of accidental weirdness or a masterfully executed double entendre. I don’t think I want to know.
Quick aside: has anyone seen the argument on the Bulbapedia discussion page for Sylveon about whether Eevee’s evolved forms are feline, canine or vulpine? Wow. Such a tragic waste of good snark.
In battle, Sylveon operates as a highly effective special tank, making good uses of the Fairy type’s natural blessings. All of Eevee’s evolved forms tend to be limited mainly by their extremely narrow movepools, but special tank tends to be a role that they can fill extremely well, thanks to Eevee’s access to Wish and Baton Pass, both of which are regular staples for many members of the family. Sylveon also gets Calm Mind, and has an excellent special attack base to back it up, so some form of boosted Moonblast tends to be the core of any threat she presents – and an unpleasant threat it is. All of Eevee’s evolved forms get Shadow Ball, and for Jolteon, Espeon and Glaceon it’s something of a staple because there just aren’t very many other attacks they can learn. All of them are, of course, delighted that Shadow Ball can now penetrate Steel-type defences, and Sylveon is equally pleased with this state of affairs, since Fairy and Ghost make for a very strong offensive combination – I don’t think anything resists both aside from Pyroar, who is really not a good answer to Sylveon anyway. Brutal physical attackers – ones who are not Fighting-, Dark- or Dragon-types – are good answers to Sylveon. As is typically the way with such things, the idea is to make sure you Baton Pass away before one of those shows up – ideally getting off a Calm Mind or a Wish before doing so, to heal or buff a partner. Sylveon is short on other options – again, wide movepools are not normally a strength of this family – but she does get Reflect, which could be useful in a pinch against a physical bruiser and is always nice for team support, as well as Light Screen. Psyshock is in there too if you want to catch special walls by surprise, but Shadow Ball is the better option for type coverage and taking both will leave you with little room for support options, which are always the big draws for Eeveelutions. Espeon is a lot faster and can pull Magic Bounce bull$#!t to cripple enemy supporters, but Espeon also can’t afford to take a hit from… well, anything, really, unless she’s already had a Calm Mind or two. Sylveon’s maybe not quite as cool, but is also a lot more forgiving, particularly as her poor speed makes it attractive to invest much more in her defences than you might for Espeon, and Moonblast puts her in a much better position offensively.
Sylveon’s primary special ability is Cute Charm, a decidedly lacklustre ability that has a 30% chance to cause infatuation in Pokémon that make contact with an attack. To put that in perspective for you, you have roughly a 50% chance to be facing a Pokémon of the opposite gender to Sylveon, then your opponent needs to actually use a contact move, then you have a 30% chance to activate the effect, and then a 50% chance for that to stop the affected Pokémon from attacking. Coincidentally, this multiplies out to a 100% chance of Cute Charm being a dumb ability. Sylveon’s hidden ability is the far more interesting Pixilate, which transforms all Normal attacks she uses into Fairy attacks while also giving them a 30% power boost. Like its equivalents, Aurorus’ Refrigerate and Mega Pinsir’s Aerilate, Pixilate is an amazing ability, and one which Mega Gardevoir uses with relish – but Sylveon unfortunately doesn’t have any Normal-type moves worth using with it (it doesn’t help that she’s very much a special attacker – I’ve seen people suggest physical Sylveon with Curse and a super-powered Fairy-type Return, I guess for the surprise value, but… why?) unless you’re prepared to go through the hassle of getting an Adaptability Eevee on a Generation V game and teaching it Hyper Voice on Black or White 2. If you’re going to, then consider grabbing Heal Bell for more support while you’re at it. Otherwise, stick with Cute Charm. It mostly just has comedy value, but if Pixilate isn’t going to do anything, hey, why not?
I think I’m sort of resigned to Eeveelutions at this point. I don’t think more are necessary or desirable, but I’m also pretty sure we’re going to keep getting them anyway, and at least in Sylveon’s case I can see the point, more or less. If there was ever a time when we needed “Eevee + type x,” it’d be now, while we’re still feeling our way around exactly what “type x” is, what it does, and how it works. On the surface she’s so much of a walking stereotype that her body actually has ribbons and bows; she’s Jigglypuff, Clefairy or Togepi poured into a quadrupedal mould. At the same time she has the potential to be slightly off-putting in several little ways that might be entirely in my head, and I’m honestly not sure whether that makes the design better or worse. In battle, she’s… well, a Fairy-type Eevee evolution with Calm Mind; that pretty much tells you what you need to know – Moonblast, small movepool, good support options. Sorry, but I’m just not inspired.