Now that I think about it, it’s kind of strange that there aren’t really many Electric Pokémon based on real-world methods of electricity generation; for the most part they just conjure up electrical energy through – one presumes – a similar kind of biochemical process to that used by the electric eel, only turned up to eleven. Well, either that or magic. Let’s be honest; for at least some of them it’s probably magic.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Helioptile.
Prior to X and Y we hadn’t really seen an Electric-type shackled to the same limitations as us mere mortals for power generation, which is interesting because Diamond and Pearl actually seemed really interested in showing different ways of producing electricity, with the coal mine in Oreburgh City, the wind farm near Floaroma Town, and the solar panel network in Sunyshore City (which, yes, is spelt with one n, to my annoyance). The fact that they bothered to show all of this is doubly interesting when you consider that, if we never saw a single power plant in the Pokémon world, most of us would probably just assume that they used Electric Pokémon for electricity (as they seem to do in at least some limited situations) and give it no further thought. In contrast – no Pokémon. There are no Electric-types who convert electricity from the power of wind, the tides, or burning coal (all of which could be neat places to start from!), but we do now have one who uses sunlight. It makes a sort of sense that this would be a lizard, since lizards, like all living reptiles, are ectothermic or ‘cold-blooded’; unlike birds and mammals, they don’t bother expending metabolic energy to maintain their own body temperature, and just let themselves heat up or cool down with their surroundings, becoming more vigorous and active when they’ve had time to bask in the sun. Of the lizards, the Australian frill-necked lizard, whom Heliolisk closely resembles, is an especially apt choice since the frill can be explained nicely as a solar panel-like structure that maximises surface area for absorbing sunlight – it’s also very easily adapted into a solar motif, which you can’t really see in the official art but becomes obvious in the game whenever Heliolisk uses a special attack and his frill flares out into a sunburst. In short, a solar Electric-type is very different from what we’ve seen in the past and a cool little niche to fill, and in Heliolisk, Game Freak came up with a fairly clever and aesthetically pleasing way to do it. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it just doesn’t mesh very well with the set of skills they’ve chosen to give Heliolisk (which is a very different question to whether or not those skills are any good, which as always we will talk about in due time). Heliolisk is a very solar-oriented Pokémon – sunburst frill, derives energy from a photovoltaic process, evolves from Helioptile using a Sun Stone, has the root helio- in his English name from the Greek word for the sun, ἡλιος, doesn’t learn Sunny Day… wait, what? That- huh? Now… you can make the argument, I suppose, that Heliolisk’s inability to use Sunny Day is supposed to represent solar power’s unfortunate dependence on the uncontrollable external that is fine weather. Like a real solar panel, Heliolisk needs sunlight but can do nothing to ensure he is exposed to it (aside from, y’know, live in the desert). This would be interesting enough that I would totally buy it, if Sunny Day had ever been a move Game Freak was inclined to be stingy with. It’s not; a huge majority of all Pokémon can learn it, including dozens who have absolutely no business doing so. One of the few restrictions on its otherwise extremely liberal distribution is that most Electric-types don’t get it, presumably because their strongest move, Thunder, is made more accurate by rain and less accurate by sun. Even to that, though, there are exceptions – for instance, Magneton can learn Sunny Day, and I can only conjecture that this is because of its mysterious link with sunspot activity. Normally the move is only denied to Pokémon who would very obviously be disadvantaged by it, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to count Heliolisk among those purely on the basis of his normally sun-averse type… except that… actually, Heliolisk kind of isn’t at his best in the sun.
Heliolisk has three abilities, of which only one – his hidden ability, Solar Power – benefits from strong sunlight. His other two are Sand Veil, which makes him prefer sandstorm conditions, and Dry Skin, which actually causes him to take damage in sunlight while being healed by rain (so in fact many Helioptile will suffer and die if they act in the way the Pokédex describes as natural). Add to this the fact that he can learn Surf, but not Solarbeam or any Fire attacks, and you’ve pretty much clinched it that Heliolisk is generally at his best in wet, rainy conditions, not the bright sunlight he craves or the dry, sandy deserts in which he lives. This, in my informed, quasi-professional opinion, makes no f#$%ing sense. I can understand not necessarily wanting to push the boat out and make Heliolisk ALL SUN ALL THE TIME, BASK IN THE GLORY OF RA FOOLISH MORTALS, and I can even understand giving him Surf because he reminds me a lot of a basilisk lizard http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_basilisk, but the fact is that just being an Electric-type already means he has a slight but tangible reason to prefer rain, and if you want to design a Pokémon around the ideas of solar power and sun-loving lizards, it’s going to be necessary to put a little bit of thought into giving that Pokémon reasons to favour the sun and be strongest in the sun – not give it more reasons to favour the opposite. Deciding that he shouldn’t learn Sunny Day (even though Heliolisk isn’t really the best Pokémon for setting up weather anyway) just completes the bizarre clash between the messages of the design and the gameplay. This shouldn’t even have been hard; there’s no reason for Heliolisk not to learn Fire attacks and Solarbeam (not that Solarbeam is a great move, but it’s something, and plenty of other stuff that makes way less sense can learn it). The abilities are admittedly tricky because, aside from Solar Power, all of the abilities that grant bonuses under Sunny Day are plant-themed, but why not come up with a new one? Part of the beauty of abilities is that you can have Pokémon with traits or behaviours that don’t necessarily follow from their types, which is exactly what Heliolisk ought to have.
Anyway. We’ve been wandering around Heliolisk’s skills for a while now; let’s take stock. Heliolisk is fast and powerful, but also takes physical hits worse than Dedenne, and when Pokémaniac Chris is willing to use the phrase “worse than Dedenne” to describe any aspect of your life, you know something has gone horribly wrong. Luckily for Heliolisk, he can couple those excellent speed and special attack scores with Volt Switch to get himself out of play before being hit by anything; he’s one of the better Pokémon out there at using this lovely move. Heliolisk should mostly be played glass-cannon style – standing still long enough to use his support moves will often be a bad idea. Thunderbolt or Thunder can be used either instead of Volt Switch or alongside it, to your taste, with Grass Knot, Surf or both to handle Ground-types. Dark Pulse is nice, but its main benefit is strong neutral coverage, which Heliolisk has already, and Focus Blast is… well, hit-and-miss. If you can be bothered breeding for it, Hidden Power [Ice] is pretty much the only way he can deal with Dragon-types, but the low power is a serious turn-off. Speaking of power… Heliolisk isn’t exactly a great candidate to use Charge Beam, so to buff him up you basically have two options. The first is to use him on a rain team with Dry Skin, so his Surfs will be stronger. This will also grant him some regeneration, and Dry Skin is just a helpful ability all around because it lets you absorb Water attacks for healing, giving him excellent opportunities to switch in, which is why this is probably the go-to ability, in spite of leaving his other attacks a bit short of oomph. The other choice is to use him on a sun team with Solar Power, which gives him a big special attack bonus in exchange for burning some health every turn, just to really push the glass cannon angle. Surf obviously doesn’t work so well here, but there are still plenty of special attacks to fill him out. Either weather condition can be active at the same time as the new field effect Electric Terrain, making Heliolisk’s Electric attacks much stronger if you can set it up and then get him into play while there’s still time to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, it will be fairly obvious what you’re doing and Heliolisk may find himself running straight into a counter, while his own vulnerability makes using Electric Terrain himself unappealing.
In the ‘other stuff’ department, Heliolisk shares the draining attack Parabolic Charge with Dedenne, and pretty much the same goes for Heliolisk as for her: it’s probably a move you want to use in a double or triple battle – if at all – to take advantage of its unique ability to steal life from multiple targets at once, although it could potentially work with a Substitute set as well (they couldn’t have given it to a Pokémon that’s actually tough enough to play endurance, of course; that would have been far too sensible). There might also be a niche for it on a Solar Power set, since his special attack will be through the roof but his health will be sapped quickly, especially if you’re crazy enough to stick a Life Orb on him as well. Its power is still disquietingly low, though. He also has an actual signature move, exclusive to him, called Electrify, which changes the type of a single target’s incoming move to Electric. If the target is faster than Heliolisk, it does nothing. This move puzzles me a bit. None of Heliolisk’s abilities allow him to absorb Electric damage, so in a single battle all you can do with it is stall, and not even very well. Again, you probably want it in doubles or triples, where it can intercept attacks targeting a partner, preferably either a Ground-type or something with an electricity-absorbing ability (but not Lightningrod – it just sucks in the Electrify attack!). You ideally need to be absorbing something that would otherwise be super-effective in order to really get good value out of it – healing a Pokémon with Volt Absorb is nice and all, but you could just… y’know… use a Pokémon with Discharge. Still, I suppose I can see this being the centrepiece of some tricky doubles combos if you play it cleverly. All in all, being short of defensive skills makes Heliolisk extremely vulnerable, and he’s not quite powerful enough to laugh it off.
I like what Heliolisk was trying to do – I just get the impression that, for some reason, Game Freak didn’t. He’s a Pokémon that breaks a stereotype of his element in order to fill a perfectly natural but hitherto vacant design niche, and then… doesn’t exactly get punished for it, but is very strongly discouraged from playing into it, which strikes me as a very weird way of doing a Pokémon. I find it similarly weird that they were willing to give him that rather odd niche signature move, but not a move or ability that would actually make him good at using the sun to his advantage. There are just many ways in which this Pokémon could have made a lot more sense, put it that way.