Ghost/Grass – another of those never-before-seen combinations that always make me so excited. What’s more, we get not one but two interpretations of it – Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist, whom we’ll probably be looking at next time, and today’s Pokémon, Phantump and Trevenant. These two Pokémon go for ‘sinister,’ and boy, do they nail it (I… immediately regret using the expression ‘nail it’ to describe a vengeful Pokémon made of wood). Ghost Pokémon get to play with some of the most evocative ideas in the book, balancing between life and death, on the edge of the great unknown – let’s see where Phantump and Trevenant can take that.
As far as I know, these Pokémon aren’t based on any specific folkloric creatures (though Trevenant’s body shape and English name do seem to reference the treants of modern fantasy), just on more general ideas, fears and superstitions about old, dark forests. How many fairy tales centre around dark and dangerous creatures that lurk in the deepest part of the woods? The theme is a particular fixture of northern and eastern European tradition – Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Baba Yaga, to name a few – but is far from unique to that region. Phantump aren’t really dangerous as far as we know, but their origins are pretty sinister and sound a lot like the bad ending we’re supposed to be scared of in some of those dark forest fairy tales. Like Yamask, these Pokémon are explicitly believed to have once been human (raising all kinds of questions even more thorny than usual about the ethical position their trainers are in) – Phantump are said to be born from rotten tree stumps possessed by the spirits of children who died lost in the forest. In fact, Phantump’s spiritual form, a thin black wisp, does look a lot like poor, haunted Yamask, as well as giving it a somewhat childlike appearance, helped by those wide, staring eyes. As with all Ghost Pokémon, it may be worth questioning how seriously we’re supposed to take the ideas in the Pokédex – which is not above reporting myth and folklore as fact – but whichever way you slice it, Phantump is pretty creepy. I see it quoted everywhere that Phantump can imitate the sound of a child’s voice, although I can’t figure out where that information is supposed to come from (no, internet, “[Source: Bulbapedia]” is not helpful); it’s not in the Pokédex, and Phantump hasn’t appeared in the anime yet. It certainly sounds plausible, though, and it would explain how, rightly or wrongly, people came to believe that they were the spirits of lost children – if a mysterious creature with spiritual powers lives in the forest where your kid got lost and never came home, and sounds exactly like him or her, a grieving parent isn’t going to have a lot of time for scepticism. The more worrying question is why Phantump have this ability. Are they really just lost souls calling out for help, are they malicious spirits luring others to their deaths in the dark heart of the forest, or are they just pranksters looking to have a little fun? None of these options, on the surface, strikes me as particularly implausible.
When they mature, Trevenant take on the role of protectors and avengers of the forest, and fill that role with a much more frightening tone than Phantump. Where Phantump is maybe a little cute if you look at it in a certain light – or at the very worst, pitiable – Trevenant is like something out of a nightmare; crawling spider-legs, long, grasping claws, a single glaring red eye, and darkness obscuring the inside of its rotting wooden body. They can curse people who harm the forest and cause them to become trapped there forever… which, as a reader pointed out to me a while ago, could potentially mesh with Phantump’s origins in a slightly horrifying way: this is how they reproduce. Phantump are the spiritual remains of children who did something to attract the ire of powerful Trevenant. Well, okay, they are a gendered species, so we know they can also produce eggs, but there’s no reason both couldn’t be possible, and this way is much cooler; besides, it’s not like anyone has ever claimed that the basic concept of Pokémon breeding makes a whole lot of sense. If it’s true, it lends a lot of weight to a more malicious interpretation of Phantump. There’s a lighter side to these Pokémon, though. Trevenant also possess the ability to control the trees in its forest by connecting to them with its roots. At a glance, this is just a really cool power that explains how it can trap people in the forest; by controlling trees, it can rearrange and obscure pathways at will, weaving branches together to block safe routes while creating appealing trails that just lead you spiralling into a thicket. Perhaps even cooler though, it also sounds like it could be a reference to colony-trees like Pando in southern Utah – things that look like huge forests made up of hundreds or thousands of trees, but are actually single organisms, genetically identical and connected by enormous interlinked root systems. These colonies are among the largest and oldest living things on the planet, and a potent symbol of the interconnectedness of all life. Like Torterra, Trevenant is also said to provide homes to smaller Pokémon that live in its leaves, branches and hollows, and is supposedly very kind to them despite its fearsome exterior. Trevenant are deadly when called upon to protect their homes, but as always in Pokémon, we shouldn’t necessarily take their actions towards humans as the whole picture. Powerful Grass Pokémon are often portrayed as mediators of the balance of nature, and even rot is just another form of life.
On the face of it, Trevenant looks like it should be a fairly lacklustre Pokémon to use, because it seems to be basically a slow, fairly tough physical attacker. Its Ghost/Grass typing comes with some nasty common weaknesses, but useful resistances and immunities too (including the new Grass-type immunities to things like Sleep Powder), so it’s not terrible. The problem with being a Ghost-type is that physical Ghost attacks remain few and relatively poor – their new attack, Phantom Force, which is effectively a powered-down version of Giratina’s Shadow Force, has decent power behind it and is perfectly fine for fighting AI opponents, but because it takes two turns to use (even if you are invulnerable on the first turn), it means giving a human opponent a turn when they know exactly what you are going to do, without question, and that is rarely a good idea in this game. Unfortunately, the next alternative, Shadow Claw, is almost unacceptably weak; pick your poison. Wood Hammer, its strongest Grass attack, is much more powerful, but on the other hand it’s, y’know, a Grass attack. Trevenant’s physical coverage options aren’t great either – Earthquake is always nice to have, but beyond that… well, Rock Slide is relatively weak, X-Scissor has quite a bit of redundancy with Grass attacks, and Poison Jab is Poison Jab. It’s not really good at being a physical attacker – Grass-types usually aren’t. This brings us to Trevenant’s real niche, though: again like many Grass-types, it can actually put together very nice support-oriented sets. Will’o’Wisp makes Trevenant much more difficult and dangerous for physical attackers to take down by threatening to burn and cripple them. Leech Seed is a Grass-type staple that needs no introduction. Horn Leech isn’t a powerful attack, but it adds nicely to Trevenant’s survivability. Reflect is an option, though Will’o’Wisp will usually be a better choice for dampening physical attackers since you don’t have to keep setting it up again and again. Trevenant is also capable of using Trick Room, which is unusual enough to be worth consideration, and benefits from it quite a bit too since it’s quite slow. It’s not an incredibly tough Pokémon, though Will’o’Wisp helps a lot and allows you to focus on its special defence. Its poor speed is also detrimental. It’s not an amazing Pokémon, but it’s certainly not bad either, if you stick to what it’s good at.
The real draw to Trevenant is that it has two fairly rare and rather lovely defensive abilities, both of which can make it a lot harder to kill. Natural Cure heals a Pokémon’s status problems when it switches out, which is just generally useful since it means you don’t care about Will’o’Wisp, Thunder Wave, Toxic and the like, and also adds Rest to Trevenant’s list of usable healing options. The other one is Harvest, which is Trevenant’s hidden ability and worth mentioning mainly because so few Pokémon get it – it’s shared only by Tropius and Exeggutor. What it does is give Trevenant a 50% chance every turn (100% under Sunny Day) to regenerate a berry that it has previously used during the battle – the most obvious applications are self-replacing Sitrus Berries for extra healing or self-replacing Lum Berries for instant Rests and status recovery. There are probably weirder options out there to explore, involving things like resistance berries and stat boost berries, but for the most part you probably want to go with something that increases your survivability, since Trevenant is giving up Natural Cure for this. The fact that Knock Off got a huge damage buff in Generation VI (with an extra bonus for hitting an item!), and is also strong against Ghost-types like Trevenant, also makes Harvest a little more iffy since you can swat Trevenant’s berry and deal horrible damage in one move, but it’s still not like everything uses that. Phantump and Trevenant, like many of X and Y’s Pokémon, also come with one more thing worth talking about: a nifty little signature move called Forest’s Curse. Like Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist’s signature move, Trick or Treat, this thing works by adding an extra type to its target, namely Grass, until that Pokémon switches out. The target keeps its original type, and in fact will be treated as having three types at once if it was a dual-type already. Unfortunately, while it’s fairly easy to see how Trick or Treat can be useful – Ghost-types are weak to Ghost attacks, which of course Gourgeist uses – the only things Trevenant has that can take advantage of giving a Pokémon Grass-type traits are X-Scissor and Poison Jab. Turning something into a Grass-type also confers Leech Seed immunity (it won’t remove an existing seed, though). This is another one of those moves that has its greatest potential in doubles, where you can easily set up a partner to take advantage of its effects; in a single battle I’d stay away from it.
I love these two. They hit all the right notes and are some of the creepiest Pokémon we’ve seen yet, with stunningly eerie design, chilling backstory, and potential for a complex portrayal with strong positive and negative aspects. Their battling abilities are kind of niche, but they have an interesting combination of skills, and I’m curious to see whether anyone’s been able to make anything clever out of Forest’s Curse. All in all, they’re definitely among my favourites from X and Y (and no, I’m not just saying that because they’re Grass-types. Well… okay, maybe a little bit).