Time for Alola starter number 3: the Water-types, Poplio, Brionne and Primarina. I have something of a history of being distressingly lukewarm on Water-type starters, whom I’ve often put in the “fine” basket with little further comment, and for a while it looked like Poplio was going to go the same way, if not worse. I know I’m not the only one who was less than enthusiastic about Alola’s Water-type starter initially. After all, we’re onto our fourth pinniped Pokémon now (that’s seal, sea lion and walrus Pokémon, for the uncultured masses), they’re all Water-types, and this is even the second starter among them. But even Poplio has design elements that show a different direction to Dewgong, Walrein and Samurott, which only continue to diverge through evolution, and this has turned out to be one of those Pokémon that feels weird to me at first, but makes more sense the longer I keep looking at it.
Poplio, Brionne and Primarina, above everything else, are performers. They progress through different performing arts as they evolve, which can give the design a sort of patchwork feel when you look at it from certain angles, especially the middle stage. On the other hand, the progression from frivolous clownishness to “high” art, along with the fact that all three forms are appropriate to seal Pokémon in different ways, helps tie it together. Poplio is a typical performing seal who entertains crowds with ball and balloon tricks, with the twist that her powers let her create bubbles of water where a real performing seal would use a rubber ball. As Brionne, she picks up a sort of “tutu” and becomes a dancer, though she doesn’t lose her clown nose, which… y’know, ballet clowns are totally a thing, right?
…okay, I googled it and I’m just not even going to question this stuff anymore.
Primarina takes the final step on this “career” to become an opera singer, who controls her bubble attacks with her voice. Balloons and bubbles, to dance, to opera feels a bit pasted together at first, but I’m beginning to warm to it; Poplio’s tricks are exactly the kind of thing we expect from a performing seal, and seals undeniably have the grace (in the water, anyway) to be appropriate as inspiration for a dancing Pokémon, while Primarina’s songs have a more indirect link that we’ll get to later. The three stages are also tied together by their shared attitudes to life and their respective arts. As performers, these Pokémon emphasise looking and sounding perfect for their adoring public. We’re told that Brionne will never let herself appear sad in front of anyone but a trusted trainer, maintaining a happy pop idol persona at all times regardless of her true feelings, while Primarina is, well, a prima donna. According to the Pokédex, Primarina’s trainer “must prioritise the daily maintenance of its throat at all costs,” presumably by taking pains not to overwork her voice, and… I don’t know, maybe using some kind of throat spray to relax the vocal cords? It’s a line that paints a picture of a very demanding, high-maintenance Pokémon, much like a pop idol or a famous opera singer. In fairness to Primarina, her song is what controls her Water-type techniques, so if she sings herself hoarse, it’ll all be over before the proverbial fat lady gets to her first note. As with whales, their songs are shared amongst their social groups so that different colonies have different musical traditions, like different human languages or cultures – a core part of their identity. It’s not really clear what all these different kinds of performances are actually for, though we could imagine (as with most animal traits that seem manifestly impractical) that they originally formed part of mating displays, and have now been adapted to new purposes with Poplio’s integration into human society. I’m writing this from Sydney, Australia, where I’m applying for a Greek visa (don’t ask), and just yesterday saw some sea lions perform with their keepers at Taronga Zoo. There’s something almost doglike about their playfulness, intelligence, and willingness to take commands (which sort of makes sense, since pinnipeds are related to dogs). What’s really striking, though, is how much they seem to revel in the attention of spectators – I imagine this is more a product of their upbringing and training than anything innate to the animals themselves, but still something that Primarina captures and exaggerates in quite an interesting way.
Primarina’s magical song also has a hint of the siren or mermaid – alluring creatures whose beauty, enchanting voice, or both (accounts vary as to whether they are really attractive or simply possess enthralling magic) can bewitch sailors into veering off course and wrecking their ships on jagged rocks. The sirens of Greek mythology originally seem to have been birdlike in Greek art, but subsequent ages have morphed them so that they often appear more like mermaids today, and they give their name to the order of marine mammals that includes manatees and dugongs, the sirenians (as well as, for that matter, Primarina in Japanese – Ashirene). Now, Primarina is obviously much more seal or sea lion than dugong, but on the other hand, Dewgong (or Jugon, in Japanese) makes it quite clear that Game Freak’s designers have never really known what a dugong actually is, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep over that one. Besides, seals have their own mythological link to mermaids, sirens and the like via the selkie, a Celtic water spirit who can shed her seal form to become a beautiful woman, and will be forced to stay with any man lucky enough to find her skin before she puts it back on and returns to the sea (because, you know, what better foundation is there for a relationship than stealing someone’s skin so you can hold them against their will?). Primarina’s sort of a kid-friendly version of all this, with neither seduction nor abduction coming into it, but bears a distinctive mermaid-like tail and feminine-coded characteristics. And of course I keep calling Primarina “she ” even though the Poplio line, like all starters, have a 7:1 male-female ratio in the games. Maybe we should think of her as a drag queen – after all, if nothing else, it would fit the theme of performance (not to mention sassy prima donna personalities)…
Turning now to her gameplay characteristics, Primarina’s Water/Fairy type combination invites comparison to Azumarill, but with a look at her stats it’s clear she’s trying to do something quite different. Primarina has one of the most skewed stat lines of all the starter Pokémon (who are typically very rounded), with the highest special attack and special defence of the lot, and tied with Incineroar, Swampert and Empoleon for second-lowest speed (after Torterra). She’s much too slow to sweep a team on her own, but can help wear down your opponents to clear the way for another member of her team. Her Moonblast can blow massive holes in just about anything that doesn’t resist Fairy attacks (and not much does), and her Water attacks, Surf, Scald, Hydro Pump and Sparkling Aria (more on which later) will hammer almost anything else. You’re sort of almost fine with just two attacks, but Primarina has a surprisingly thin support movepool, so most likely you’ll end up loading a couple of coverage moves onto her. Ice Beam and Psychic are both viable choices for the Grass/Poison Pokémon that resist both of her main attacks (Psychic is probably to be preferred because it hits Water/Poison as well), while Energy Ball gives her a nasty sting for rival Water-types. Shadow Ball is also there, but isn’t conspicuously great against anything that Primarina needs to watch out for, unless for some reason you’re particularly worried about Shedinja, who is immune to all of Primarina’s other attacks.
Primarina’s support movepool, again, is surprisingly lacklustre, and you don’t want her massive special attack stat to sit gathering dust, so she lends herself more to being a blasty tank than a supporty one. If you want to fit some utility into her moveset though (and you probably can, if she’s not using a Choice item; she’s got pretty fantastic baseline neutral type coverage from Moonblast and Water attacks), Reflect can shore up her poor physical defence, or Light Screen can push her special defence to ridiculous levels. Encore is cute, but better on a fast Pokémon, Sing is garbage and always has been, and Perish Song is wonderful thematically but just doesn’t work without a trapping move or ability. She also gets Misty Terrain, which is worth noting purely because it’s still a fairly exclusive move; only a dozen Pokémon can learn it. It’s not a great field condition because its benefits are almost wholly defensive, and its dampening effect on Dragon attacks doesn’t help the Fairy Pokémon who actually learn it, since they’re immune to Dragon attacks anyway. Moreover, if you do want Misty Terrain, you’re almost certainly better off using Tapu Fini, who is the same type, gets Misty Terrain as a passive ability, and has better stats for a support role anyway. Probably the most conspicuous absence is that Primarina has no healing aside from Rest (well… I mean… and Aqua Ring… I guess…), which again makes her very much a blasty tank. She can take most special attacks all right (physical ones are another matter, but fortunately her weaknesses are to types with few powerful physical attacks), but she can’t recover from them, so play her cautiously and try to avoid taking unnecessary damage.
Like most Alolan Pokémon, Primarina has a signature move: Sparkling Aria. This is a Water-type special attack, as powerful as Surf and with the same range in a double battle. There are basically two differences, both of them fairly subtle and one of them a little bit useless. First: Sparkling Aria is a sonic attack, which means that it bypasses Substitutes (neat, since Primarina is otherwise the type of Pokémon to get screwed pretty hard by Substitute) and is blocked by the Soundproof ability (potentially useful if you pair Primarina with a Soundproof partner in doubles). Second: for some reason, Sparkling Aria cures burns. Not Primarina’s burns, but the target’s burns. There are occasions when you might want to heal an opponent’s burn, because a couple of abilities trigger while a target is burned, but if that’s actually important to a Pokémon’s strategy it’ll probably carry a Flame Orb, which will immediately inflict another burn at the end of the turn. In doubles you can use it to cure your partner’s burn… at the cost of hitting them with a strong Water attack from Primarina’s impressive special attack score. “Well,” you might be thinking, “at least I can use it to cure burns on allies with Soundproof or Water Absorb,” but no, that would clearly be much too useful; if you’re immune to Sparkling Aria’s damage, you don’t get the healing either. I don’t quite understand what this is for; the upside and the downside are both so tiny that they shouldn’t really influence the choice of Sparkling Aria vs. Surf, Scald or Hydro Pump, so all it really does is force me to waste time evalu-
…well played, Game Freak. Well played.
Liquid Voice, Primarina’s hidden ability, is just as weirdly specific. It turns all of her sound moves into Water moves, which… well, might be useful for a Pokémon that didn’t already get Sparkling Aria. I guess a Water-type Hyper Voice is nice in doubles because it doesn’t damage your partner – but if you go that way, you’ll miss out on Sparkling Aria’s totally sweet burn healing effect!
I can’t tell whether I’m being sarcastic anymore; it’s time to stop.
Overall, I’m fairly happy with this one. Poplio, Brionne and Primarina have flaws. I think Brionne could have used some more work to make the transition from Poplio’s playfulness to Primarina’s stately elegance a little smoother; there’s elements of the design, like the ‘tutu’ and weird bubble-string ears, that don’t seem to go anywhere. On the mechanics side, that signature move and hidden ability seem more like they’re here for the sake of giving Primarina something nominally unique than because the designers actually had an interesting role in mind for either of them (having said that, I’m glad Sparkling Aria exists, because it’s thematically important; I just wish it posed more interesting trade-offs, and weren’t somewhat redundant with Liquid Voice). But honestly, most of that is fairly minor quibbling. I don’t think there’s anything seriously wrong with any of them, even if Poplio did seem a little on the derpy side at first, and they take some characteristic of real sea lions in an interesting direction while distinguishing themselves from previous Pokémon of the same kind. So yeah. Good job, Poplio.