Bloody hell, if I don’t hurry this up they’re going to announce another damn generation before I’m done with this one; we’re already expecting whatever this bull$#!t is supposed to be and I’ve got eighty whole Pokémon to evaluate in the next couple of months, as well as talking about Team Skull and the Aether Foundation, and Hau, and maybe Lillie too, and whoever I decide counts as the Champion, not to mention answering the neverending tide of ridiculous banal questions that keep pouring out of my goddamn inbox (obviously, gentle reader, I’m not talking about any questions you might have submitted, which are of course consistently insightful and thought provoking; it’s all those other bastards that are the problem).
Let’s talk about Rowlet.
If you pay any attention whatsoever to this blog for any length of time, one of the first things you discover is that I like Grass-types. The Grass-type has been my go-to starter for my first playthrough (and most subsequent playthroughs) of every generation since the first. Rowlet’s fate was bound to mine by destiny long before I ever laid eyes on him. And I’m basically okay with this. Rowlet isn’t really in contention to unseat Bulbasaur and Turtwig as my favourite starter Pokémon, but he’s fine. He’s easy and fun to use in a playthrough, we’ve never had a birdlike Grass-type before, it doesn’t hurt that he’s just objectively adorable, and in abandoning his Flying-type Decidueye becomes the very first Ghost-type starter Pokémon ever, which is neat. Rowlet and Dartrix are clearly barn owls, with the barn owl’s distinctive pale heart-shaped face, whereas Decidueye is maybe more of a hawk owl, although I wouldn’t read too much into that. Comparisons to Hoothoot and Noctowl, who seem to be horned owls, are in order, as one of my usual criteria for evaluating new Pokémon is “is this actually new?” and I think the answer there is… probably??? Part of the problem there is that Hoothoot actually has a much more clearly-defined and interesting “personality” than Noctowl, with his heavily stylised cuckoo-clock aesthetic and metronome-like rocking from side to side (actually though, as long as we’re here, why doesn’t Hoothoot get Metronome? I mean, I get that Metronome was still super-exclusive when Hoothoot was introduced, but they gave it to Snubbull and Chansey as an egg move). Noctowl is kinda just a big owl that does owl things. Rowlet, Dartrix and Decidueye are a bit deeper than that, which I generally tend to think is good. Decidueye’s arrows and archery are an odd touch, but as with Talonflame, you can link birds and arrows conceptually via feathered fletching, so that makes sense. What might not immediately makes sense to some of us is the switch from Flying to Ghost when Dartrix evolves, and this gives me an excuse to begin one of my patented Bull$#!t Lore Digressions™, so let’s learn some more about owls.
Owls are associated with the spirit world in several different and unrelated cultures, and there are some pretty good reasons for this. Owls are night hunters, but more than that, they’re silent hunters – owls’ feathers are softer and smoother-edged than those of other birds, so the flapping of their wings is much more difficult to hear, giving them a ghostly, ethereal quality. Also, like many nocturnal animals, their eyes reflect light and seem to glow in the dark in a disconcertingly eerie manner. Not for nothing are owls omens of death in sub-Saharan Africa, of sickness and bad luck in the native cultures of the American southwest, or of catastrophe in ancient Rome. In ancient Greece, of course – mainly in Athens – owls had a more ambivalent role as the sacred birds of Athena and symbols of wisdom (an association that persists today and gives us Noctowl’s famous intellect and minor psychic abilities). Even there, though, the sinister scops owl was seen as a creature of the underworld, and the owl’s reputation for knowledge subsequently made it the familiar of witches and warlocks in mediaeval Europe. In New Zealand, where I come from, the small brown hawk owl known as the morepork or ruru is believed to be an oracle of the future in Maori culture, its different cries portending either good fortune or disaster. Finally, and perhaps most relevant for us today, on several of the islands of Hawai’i a species of short-eared owl called a pueo is one of the more common shapes known to be taken by ’aumākua, the spirits of a family’s honoured ancestors, who return to serve as guardians and as a link to the spirit world (sharks, lizards and turtles are also common; families must show respect and deference to all animals of a similar form to their ’aumākua). An owl Pokémon thus becomes an intermediary between this world and the next, a sort of warrior-shaman that protects its trainer from spiritual threats using powers of its own that are more than a little dark and sinister (we see a similar theme with Hoothoot in the anime, where he has the unique power to force hidden Ghost-types to reveal themselves with Foresight).
This “mystic guardian” aesthetic is conspicuously undercut by what Rowlet and Dartrix seem to be doing, because they have more of a “dapper gentleman” style in play – consider the Pokédex line that describes Dartrix as “a bit of a dandy” obsessed with keeping his wings groomed, or their leafy bow-ties (in Decidueye, that evolves into something more like a brooch or the clasp of a cloak, which has a more mediaeval-fantasy feel to it). It feels like a very odd fit for the direction that Decidueye moves in. If you had just given me Rowlet and Dartrix, and told me to come up with ideas for a final evolution, I might, after substantial umm-and-ahh-ing, have pitched a kind of James-Bond-esque super-spy-in-a-tuxedo concept. That seems like a more natural continuation, but easily could have turned out looking rather stupid without some very clever way of unifying the design elements (and if there’s anything this blog should teach us, it’s that I’m not quite that clever). The self-important “dandy” aesthetic, after a bit of thought, is oddly reminiscent to me of the vain, professorial Owl from Winnie-the-Pooh, genuinely wise (…relatively speaking) but perhaps just as much concerned with the appearance of wisdom as with wisdom itself, and eager to look the part of the sober, intellectual scholar of the arcane. Decidueye’s own description from the Pokédex tells us that this wise Pokémon is nonetheless easily startled and flustered (try slapping him awake in PokéRefresh and you’ll see what they’re getting at). It’s still incongruous with Decidueye as mystic archer and night hunter, but it is at least giving me a common aesthetic thread to follow through all three evolutionary stages, something that’s quite important for a starter Pokémon to maintain. Which is enough for the purposes of this review, I think.
Stats-wise, Decidueye seems to be built as a mixed attacker, with strong offensive skills, but isn’t very fast. That doesn’t bode particularly well, since he can’t really afford to not max his speed in training, leaving less to split between attack and special attack. There’s a passable physical movepool here, which includes Leaf Blade, Brave Bird, Sucker Punch, U-Turn, and… I guess Steel Wing if, like, you really hate Alolan Ninetales or something? There’s also Decidueye’s signature move, Spirit Shackle, which has several advantages. It’s a reliable Ghost-type physical attack, which a) is a rare sort of attack for anyone to have access to, and b) is something Decidueye clearly needs, c) it traps its target in play with Decidueye (unless the target is a Normal-type or Ghost-type, or has some escape mechanism), limiting your opponent’s options, and d) it fires a spiritual arrow that nails the target’s soul to the ground, which is super badass. This move is easily Decidueye’s biggest edge; you want to use him to set up critical moments where you can switch and your opponent can’t, then pressure their weak points with one of Decidueye’s teammates, or try to Swords Dance while they’re off balance. Leaf Blade and Spirit Shackle are actually a pretty solid combination; neither Grass nor Ghost gets a lot of super-effective hits, but Ghost has strong neutral coverage, so basically you’re resisted by all the Normal/Flying birds and a bunch of Dark dual-types. Sucker Punch is mostly redundant with Spirit Shackle in terms of type coverage, but it’s also Decidueye’s only priority move, and he’s fairly slow and doesn’t have any speed buffs, so at least considering it is sort of obligatory (just remember that it only works on targets preparing a direct attack, so be careful using it against support Pokémon). U-Turn is just generally a good move, because the free switch-out gives you a lot of flexibility in responding to your opponent’s actions (and especially switches), and it covers your ass against Dark-types, whom Decidueye tends to have trouble with. Trapping something with Spirit Shackle and then bouncing out with U-Turn is a decent little combo, if you like that sort of thing. Brave Bird adds a bit more of a sting than Decidueye’s other options, but lacks their utility. Some combination of four of these, or three plus Swords Dance, should probably be the default go-to. Decidueye’s kit lends itself to switching in and out a lot, and he doesn’t really have the speed to try and sweep a significant chunk of an enemy team, so I’d be more inclined to slap a Choice item on him than bank on Swords Dance, but to each their own.
Decidueye’s special attack stat is pretty solid, so in theory you can use that to mix things up a bit. Unfortunately, basically his only worthwhile special attacks are Shadow Ball and Energy Ball/Grass Knot, and if you cut Spirit Shackle for Shadow Ball then you’ve sort of forsaken one of the most compelling reasons to use Decidueye in the first place. That’s not quite the end of the story; you might be gunning specifically for some big chunky physical tank with a Grass weakness like Hippowdon, who gets stung much harder by Grass Knot than by Leaf Blade even with minimal special attack training on Decidueye’s part. Also, most human opponents are going to assume Decidueye is a physical attacker, so if you can grab him a free turn to set up with Nasty Plot (which he also learns), you might just be able to catch someone with their pants down. I’m not sure this is particularly a good plan, and again I’m not encouraged by the fact that he essentially has no third special attack, but the possibility theoretically exists. Decidueye does have a support movepool of sorts, but you can probably find better Pokémon for any conceivable support role he might try to fill. Like, Baton Pass is there as an egg move (via Togetic or Oricorio), and again, Decidueye does get both Swords Dance and Nasty Plot, so he has perfectly sound options for using it, but he just looks so unlike my idea of what a Baton Passer ought to be (poor speed, average defences) that my mind sort of recoils from the notion. Alternatively you could try to ply Roost and Light Screen with some HP training into some kind of weird tanky Decidueye – give up trying to outrun things, since he’s slow anyway, and focus on your defences. Just don’t tell anyone it was my idea.
As well as a signature move, Decidueye has a unique ability; it’s his hidden ability and isn’t currently obtainable, but I think we’ll probably get it eventually, so we ought to talk about it before we finish up. This ability is Long Reach, which lets Decidueye treat his “contact” attacks as ranged instead, bypassing enemy effects like Static, Rough Skin, Beak Blast’s retributive burn, and so on. This… ehhh, I’m not really sure what this is for. I mean, I understand conceptually why Decidueye has this: he’s an archer, so he should be able to make what would normally be close-range attacks from a distance. But that aspect of the design is already expressed by his signature move, and by the fact that he can use ranged special attacks effectively. Most contact effects aren’t that big a deal, most Pokémon that get them have better abilities to choose from, and even when they’re likely to turn up, Decidueye would often prefer Spirit Shackle to Leaf Blade anyway. I think Long Reach would probably give Decidueye an extra edge against… Wigglytuff, Electrode, Parasect, Bewear, Stunfisk, and (lord help us) Delcatty. Being able to one-shot Bewear with Brave Bird after a Swords Dance is not nothing, but I suspect the more general Grass-type damage bonus from Overgrow would probably still be more useful, even once Long Reach becomes available.
So, all in all, this is a decent start to generation VII. Rowlet, Dartrix and Decidueye are nothing amazing; they have a couple of conflicting ideas in their design, and other than Spirit Shackle there’s not a whole lot to be impressed by in their skillset. They’re still interesting, though; as fighters they are at the very least passable, with an interesting niche courtesy of that neat little signature move, and I cannot stress enough that pinning a foe in place by the shadow is a very cool gimmick. I got my cool new Grass-type starter, all is right with the world, and I can now review the rest of the seventh generation joyfully and optimistically, without a hint of malice or discontent in my heart.
…well, I mean, I can try, anyway.