Today’s Pokémon is Professor Kukui’s loyal partner, Rockruff, and his evolved form – or rather forms, as we’ll see – Lycanroc, the latest additions to Pokémon’s growing stable (or, uh… kennel) of dog Pokémon. Physically, Rockruff’s design is very straightforwardly based on a domestic dog, perhaps an Akita Inu (a large Japanese dog breed with a wolf-like countenance and a fluffy tail). Physically we’re looking at something quite close to Growlithe, with a different colour scheme and obviously very distinct powers, but very similar in terms of personality and behaviour. Rockruff’s most distinctive feature is a “collar” (or “ruff”?) of stones, which apparently has a social function – Rockruff greet each other by rubbing their stony collars on each other’s bodies. This little ritual apparently extends to their human friends as well, which can cause significant discomfort. Nonetheless, Rockruff is one of the Pokémon most favoured for beginners in the Alola region because they have a friendly and loyal disposition that makes them easy to train and command, and are also extremely tenacious in battle. In other words, they’re almost exactly like real dogs – energetic, devoted and affectionate to the point of being overbearing. A bit generic, slotting in alongside Growlithe and Lillipup almost unnoticed, but that’s sort of to be expected for the basic stage of an early-game Pokémon, and the Rock element is incorporated in a neat way with the “collar.” The meat of what this design is supposed to be doing comes with the evolved form: Lycanroc.
Lycanroc comes in two varieties, one associated with the day, and the other the night. The way its path is chosen is a new one for split evolutions: Rockruff evolves differently depending on which version of the game you have, Sun or Moon, though wild Lycanroc of the opposite form can be found on both games. This is put down to the “influence” of Solgaleo and Lunala, which could mean almost anything and doesn’t appear to have any effect on other Pokémon in Alola. In future generations we can probably expect this to become a straightforward day/night fork like Espeon and Umbreon. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon are planned to add a new Dusk form with characteristics of both, which requires a unique Rockruff with the Own Tempo ability to evolve between 5 and 6 pm, on either game. The solar “Midday” form is wolf-like, and feels to me like a more “natural” evolution of Rockruff than the lunar form, keeping Rockruff’s colour scheme and emphasising his most distinctive feature, the “collar” of stones. The lunar “Midnight” form is werewolf-like, as hinted by Lycanroc’s name, which seems to derive from “lycanthrope” (from the Greek λύκος/lukos, wolf, and ἄνθρωπος/anthropos, person); the same connotation goes through all of his alternative names in other languages, some of them via the French loup-garou. Modern werewolves tend to have a specific laundry list of traits like vulnerability to silver and the ability to transfer their curse via a bite, which are not properties Lycanroc shares, although his posture could be taken from the human/wolf hybrid forms of many modern werewolves, and of course he has the most important feature of all: a connection to moonlight (werewolves transform when exposed to the light of the full moon). He also gets eyes that glow blood-red in battle, for an added sinister air.
The lunar form seems like a much more drastic change from Rockruff, with a shift to a hunched but bipedal posture and an obvious colour change from brown and cream to a striking crimson, as well as the replacement of the stone “collar” with an impressive and luxuriant white mane. I’m not sure how I feel about one of these evolved forms being clearly so much more divergent than the other – like the solar form is the “true” one and the lunar form is “deviant” – because the whole context of their links to the two versions of the game implies that they should be “balanced,” equal and opposite, but both obviously natural progressions from Rockruff, in the way the “Eeveelutions” are. This comes through quite strongly with the twilight form, which you can tell is supposed to be a merging of the sun and moon forms’ traits by the way they talk about it, but comes across as much closer to the sun form (and might even work as a Mega Evolution of the sun form). I’m not sure whether the design has messed up the ideas it’s trying to convey, or I’ve just misunderstood what it’s trying to convey.
Where the sun and moon forms do act as opposites is in their personalities. Lycanroc’s solar form, provided it is raised well, retains and even accentuates Rockruff’s loyalty and sense of duty, but becomes disciplined and honourable instead of playful and affectionate. The lunar form, on the other hand, becomes aggressive, violent, and uncontrollable, with a battle style that centres on goading opponents into reckless attacks and then crushing them with overwhelming force. The Sun and Moon website is careful to point out, however, that a good relationship with this Pokémon in the Rockruff stage will carry over to a strong bond with a lunar Lycanroc. It further claims that Rockruff will often leave their trainers for a short time to evolve (regardless of which evolution it takes), which could be a reference to “lone wolves” that have left their packs to avoid competition with their parents and siblings. This is generally a temporary status; a lone wolf can find a mate and start a new pack, and Rockruff will return to their trainers after evolving. However, there are also wolves that remain solitary indefinitely, and there is a kind of mystique that surrounds them as symbols of individualism and dark, brooding strength. That seems to fit Midnight Lycanroc – but it’s actually Midday Lycanroc that are explicitly said to hunt on their own rather than in packs. I don’t think there’s any official word on lunar Lycanroc at all – on the one hand, their sociopathic disposition seems like it wouldn’t lend itself to complex social behaviour, and in the absence of any other information maybe we should assume they act like solar Lycanroc… but on the other hand, maybe it makes just as much sense to assume the reverse, since these forms are paired opposites. The description we’re given on the website says that Midday Lycanroc “lives solo in mountains and deserts, not creating a pack… and they live without interfering with one another, which helps to avoid unnecessary fights,” which seems like it’s meant as a contrast with a Pokémon that does create a pack and embraces unnecessary fights – otherwise, why else would you mention it? Maybe Midnight Lycanroc have super-complex social structures mediated by constant supremacy duels? I don’t know, and I don’t think Lycanroc wants to tell me.
The distinction between the solar and lunar Lycanroc forms’ battle roles is mercifully straightforward. Both are powerful physical attackers with mediocre defences, which is not a terrible thing for Rock-types to be, since Rock hits a lot of things for super-effective damage. The Midday form is much faster than the decidedly average Midnight form, but that extra speed comes at a fairly steep cost to its defences, leaving Midday Lycanroc quite fragile, while Midnight Lycanroc can at least claim to be passable. No word yet on the new twilight incarnation, but it seems like a reasonable guess that it will have stats midway between the other two. The solar Lycanroc, then, is fairly specialised towards a sweeper or revenge-killer mindset, whereas the lunar form’s natural inclinations are a bit less clear. Each form gets three attacks that aren’t accessible to the other: Quick Guard, Quick Attack, and the signature move Accelerock for Midday; Counter, Reversal and Taunt for Midnight (at least, in theory – Taunt isn’t on Midday’s level-up list, but is available as a TM, and to add insult to injury, Midday is probably the better Pokémon to use it because of his high speed).
Midnight Lycanroc’s exclusive moves produce exactly the fighting style described in his flavour text: forcing foes to attack directly with Taunt, turning their physical strength against them with Counter, and becoming ever more incensed as the battle goes on with Reversal. The only problem is that Counter and Reversal are not great attacks. Reversal requires you to hang around at 1 HP, or close to it, for multiple turns to get any benefit, while Counter will probably only work once in a battle, has to be timed perfectly if you want to actually kill something with it, and doesn’t do anything to special attackers. Neither of them are actually terrible moves, just very tricky to use to their full potential, and if you’re going to take either, Lycanroc should probably be equipped with a Focus Sash to improve your odds of surviving a strong attack with 1 HP so you can retaliate at full force. The only really important thing on the Midday form’s exclusive list is Accelerock, best described as a Rock-type Quick Attack. I’m not entirely certain a Pokémon as fast as Midday Lycanroc actually needs a move like this, especially since his best ability, Sand Rush, doubles his already impressive speed in a sandstorm. On the other hand, Lycanroc is not a Pokémon who is prone to having a super-packed moveset, so you can just stick Accelerock in as insurance against something even faster than you, or with priority moves of its own (Talonflame, I’m looking at you).
Details are still sketchy on Dusk Lycanroc. We know he gets both Accelerock and Counter, though it remains to be seen whether he’ll have access to Quick Guard, Reversal, etc, and again, we don’t know exactly what his stats will look like. We do know he’ll have the useful Tough Claws ability, a hefty +33% damage bonus for “contact” attacks – this doesn’t apply to Stone Edge, Lycanroc’s primary attack, but will significantly improve most of his other physical attacks, making it probably the best ability available to Lycanroc of any form. Unfortunately, without knowing his exact stat profile, it’s hard to know how this will affect Dusk Lycanroc’s fighting style right now.
Lycanroc gets Swords Dance, and unlike most of the Alola Pokémon we’ve seen together so far, he’s actually fast enough to make good use of it – or, at least, his solar incarnation is. In theory that should suggest a pretty straightforward moveset; Sand Rush for your ability with some kind of set-up from another Pokémon, Swords Dance, and then three solid attacks. The trouble is, Lycanroc doesn’t really have three solid attacks. Your primary attack is Stone Edge, which is great; then there’s Crunch, which is nothing to write home about but basically fine, and then… well, there’s Brick Break, which combos well with Crunch but is starting to get on the low side for power, and there’s Fire Fang and Thunder Fang, which are so weak you’re basically taking them just to victimise Pokémon with a double-weakness, like Scizor. This is far from an inspiring movepool. Still, at least solar Lycanroc’s strategy is straightforward. The poor lunar bastard isn’t fast enough for a Swords Dance sweep to make sense, doesn’t get Sand Rush either, and without Accelerock or Quick Attack, his only priority attack is Sucker Punch, which suffered a power nerf in Sun and Moon, has limited PP, and can be countered by using non-damaging moves. Lycanroc can also learn Rock Polish, so you can boost his speed that way, but then it becomes almost impossible to justify having Swords Dance as well, and Lycanroc’s base attack stat isn’t high enough to outweigh his lacklustre physical movepool without some kind of boost. What Midnight Lycanroc does have over his diurnal counterpart is No Guard as a hidden ability, which sets the accuracy of all his moves – as well as all moves that target him – to 100%. For the most part, the benefit of this is having a 100%-accurate Stone Edge. That’s not nothing; in fact it’s pretty awesome, but it’s also not Machamp’s Dynamicpunch (the traditional use for No Guard), or even Golurk’s, and remember that it also makes incoming attacks 100% accurate against you (Focus Blast, anyone?).
This is normally the point at which I would describe other options that are probably terrible but at least seem amusing enough to be worth mentioning; the trouble is that not only have I still not come up with anything worth doing with the Midnight form, Lycanroc in general just doesn’t have all that many interesting options. He is, at present, one of only a handful of Pokémon that can learn Stealth Rock within generation VII (though a bunch of older Pokémon have access to it from the Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby move tutors), which could be important if you don’t have the older games, but it’s a good bet there’ll be a Stealth Rock tutor in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. Bulk Up is there, but I doubt even the slightly tankier Midnight form really has any business trying a Bulk Up set, since Lycanroc has no healing. And… I honestly think that’s about it. Lycanroc’s overall movepool is surprisingly shallow and I’m not sure there’s more than one or two basic strategies for each form.
I really want to like Rockruff and Lycanroc, I really do, because Rockruff is adorable and the day/night thing is at least passingly interesting, but I’m having trouble. Lycanroc’s forms are both fine, I suppose, but I don’t think they work as well as a pair as they’re supposed to, and the addition of the twilight form doesn’t really change that. Maybe when we actually see Dusk Lycanroc it will make sense; maybe Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon will reveal some new information about them, or about their relationship with Solgaleo and Lunala, that will make the whole idea seem perfectly elegant in hindsight; heck, maybe there’s even a fourth Dawn Lycanroc form that Game Freak are still hiding from us that will render everything pleasantly symmetrical. The other problem is that Midnight Lycanroc in particular just has so few options I’m genuinely not sure what we’re supposed to do with him, and the extent to which Midday Lycanroc clearly makes more sense is unfortunate. Part of me is left wondering whether Midday Lycanroc was originally designed on his own as a single evolution to Rockruff, and then Midnight Lycanroc was tacked on later and accordingly doesn’t mesh very well with the other forms – but then again, if we just take Midday Lycanroc as a stand-alone Pokémon, he’s simply not very interesting. What do you know? Maybe I do still have it in me to give critical reviews after all…