Champions of the Pokémon League, (Belated) Part 7: Iris

Original recipe Iris, in the relatively simple clothes she wears in Black and White.

As odd a time as this is to be talking about Iris, my next post is going to be on Diantha, which would otherwise make Iris the only Champion I haven’t written about, having discussed all the previous ones about two years ago now, a possibility that makes me feel a little twinge of unfairness in my normally blackened iron heart.  For the sake of completeness, then, let’s give some thought to the fifth generation games’ portrayal of the dragon master Iris, our second female and first dark-skinned Champion (yay diversity!).

Iris first shows up when the player reaches Castelia City in Black and White, where she enthusiastically volunteers to be Bianca’s bodyguard after the latter’s Munna is abducted, and takes part in the standoff with Team Plasma.  She is here portrayed as passionate and firm in her convictions, reacting with anger and dismay when she learns of Team Plasma’s theft and bewilderment when the rest of the group agrees to let Ghetsis and his minions leave without a fight, but is also extremely ready to help people in need, and perhaps a little naïve (Burgh suggests that Iris will need Bianca’s help finding her way around the huge city as much as Bianca will need Iris’s protection).  On White, Iris is subsequently revealed to be the Gym Leader of the ancient, traditionalist version of Opelucid City; on Black (and I say this as a player of Black version) one is rather left wondering what the point of her is supposed to be.  In both games, she also helps Drayden narrate of the story of Reshiram and Zekrom.  Since they’re both Gym Leaders of Opelucid City, it makes sense to look at Drayden in Black and White as something of a foil to Iris.  Compared to her older mentor, Iris stands out for her excitable speech patterns, liberally peppered with exclamation marks, and her emotional, evocative language.  Both are idealistic, but Iris is much more liberal in showing it.  On Black, the Opelucid Gym gives Drayden, as its leader, the epithet “the Spartan Mayor,” announcing him to be hardworking, physically strong and austere, as well as reminding challengers of the respect he commands as Mayor of Opelucid City (also, almost uniquely for these titles, it makes no reference to his elemental specialisation).  On White, where Iris is the Gym Leader, she is referred to as “the Girl Who Knows the Hearts of Dragons,” a description that focuses instead on her capacity for empathy and intuition, her deep connection with one of the most mysterious Pokémon types, and possibly her raw talent as a Pokémon trainer.  It may also be worth comment, in connection with Iris’ characterisation as energetic and youthful, that the only difference between the teams they deploy as Gym Leaders (aside from the gender of their Pokémon – Drayden’s are male; Iris’s are female) is which abilities their Druddigon possess; Drayden’s has Rough Skin, reflecting endurance and severity, while Iris’s has Sheer Force, suggestive of potency and vitality.  A minor difference, but when everything else about their Pokémon is kept the same, one little change feels that much more purposeful.  Even the city itself may contribute.  Drayden is the Gym Leader of a futuristic, technologically advanced Opelucid City, the result of industrious dedication to progress, while Iris’ Opelucid City is peaceful, quiet and very traditional, in keeping with her emphasis on closeness to Pokémon and nature (though her ‘nature girl’ traits, it must be said, are much less noticeable than in her anime incarnation).

Iris in the extravagant, flowing dress she wears as Champion of the Unova League.

At some point before the events of Black and White 2, Iris replaces Alder as Unova’s Champion.  As it did for Wallace in Hoenn, this apparently occasions a change of costume, with Iris’ relatively plain beige sweater being replaced by a frilled pink dress like something out of a fairy tale (appropriately enough, given her specialisation), complete with a golden, emerald-studded tiara.  We first encounter her, again, in Castelia City.  She retains her desire to help people in need, immediately volunteering to assist in your search for Team Plasma despite her belief that they are no longer a threat – but in a pointed contrast to her last appearance suggestive of her greater experience and maturity, she now appears to know the city very well, and is immediately able to direct the player to the most likely site of any suspicious activity, namely the Castelia Sewers.  She does very little else in that game, however, appearing again only in Opelucid City for a brief and not especially revealing conversation about Drayden (if nothing else, we learn here that although she calls Drayden ‘grandpa,’ they aren’t actually related).  At the time of Black and White 2, Iris was the only Champion since Blue not to take an active role in fighting the primary villains (she is now joined by Diantha), which, given her keen interest in the legends of Reshiram and Zekrom, is baffling.  Her initial scepticism at the possibility of a Team Plasma comeback goes some way towards explaining this, but the flying battleship shelling Opelucid City with ice cannons must have been one hell of a wakeup call.  Having said that, I’m not sure what her presence would have added other than opportunities for characterisation – unlike Alder, whose own personal flaws and troubled past complicate his opposition to Team Plasma, Iris’s involvement in that plot would have been fairly straightforward, so in some ways it’s perhaps better that she wasn’t there to take the spotlight from Hugh.

Probably the most interesting bit of characterisation Iris gets in Black and White 2 is not actually in the events of the games themselves but through a Memory Link scene (if you’re not familiar with these, they’re scenes which take place between the original Black and White and the sequels, which you can only view if your Black 2 or White 2 game is associated with the same Global Link account as a Black or White game which has completed certain parts of the storyline).  In Opelucid City, you can hear from Drayden about how Iris became his student and eventually the Champion – a position she has apparently been groomed for by Drayden since she first came to Unova as his successor.  In fact, having the opportunity to challenge Alder and become Champion was apparently her condition for leaving her home in the distant Village of Dragons, hinting at ambition, vigour, and possibly (as we’ve already seen from her) a touch of naïveté about the magnitude of this goal, though it appears she was an exceptionally talented trainer even before she met Drayden.  The fact that Alder, in consultation with Drayden, apparently chose his successor is interesting, although it appears that actually defeating him was still a requirement for Iris to take up the position and, far from considering it a formality, Alder actually put himself through a special training regimen (“ghastly,” according to Drayden) to prepare himself for this final duty, intent on pushing Iris to her limit.  Now that she’s there, Iris declares that her mission as Champion will be to help people and Pokémon continue to grow ever closer (a pledge that is not without resonance in the overarching themes of the fifth generation).  We also see in this flashback that the enormous pink dress Iris wears as the Champion was actually Drayden’s idea, a gift from him upon the completion of her training; now that she’s the Champion, he tells her, it’s okay to dress up – her hard work has earned her the right to a little frivolity now and then.

Iris' astronomically-inspired throne room.

When we finally meet Iris again in the palace of the Elite Four and battle her for the championship, the game pulls out all the stops.  Not only is Iris’ chamber particularly spectacular in comparison to those of past champions, with a huge throne in the shape of a dragon silhouette and a rotating circular backdrop apparently meant to represent the planets in orbit around the sun, the battle scene itself is marked by eye-catching streaks of rainbow light flashing across a twilight background.  The battle scenery of X and Y, of course, put it all to shame, but it was quite spectacular compared to everything that had preceded it, making the battle with Iris a unique and memorable one.  Nor does Iris herself let us down.  The game designers, apparently ashamed at their decision to neuter Ghetsis’ Hydreigon with a bizarre physical attacker moveset, have Iris open with a proper special attacker Hydreigon, as deadly a foe as any you’re likely to face in this game.  The rest of her team illustrates nicely that it’s quite easy to design a varied and balanced line-up for a Dragon master, simply because there are so many ‘dragon’ Pokémon who aren’t actually Dragon-with-a-capital-D Pokémon.  Iris uses three of them: Aggron, Lapras and Archeops.  Lapras ensures that she has an answer to Water- and Ice-type Pokémon who think they can sweep her team with Ice attacks, while Aggron covers up her defensive weakness to opposing Dragon Pokémon, and Archeops is simply vicious, and even carries Endeavour to help compensate for the Defeatist ability that normally renders him harmless when his health is low.  Druddigon would be the weakest member of her team, but the designers apparently realised this and gave him a Life Orb (making him the only member of her team aside from her partner to use a held item) so as to abuse the way Life Orb and Sheer Force work together – Sheer Force negates Life Orb recoil damage, but only on attacks that Sheer Force applies to normally.  Finally her partner, a Pokémon that needs no introduction, is a Dragon Dance Haxorus, complete with an Earthquake that can bring down even Levitating Pokémon thanks to Mold Breaker.  With the possible exception of Lapras, all of Iris’ Pokémon and their movesets are ones which emphasise overwhelming force; no stalling Spiritomb, Recover-spamming Milotic or defence-buffing Vanilluxe for her (even her Lapras exploits its powerful special movepool in preference to, say, a more sedate and arguably more effective Rest/Sleep Talk strategy).  Iris is all about enthusiasm and passion, and her first priority is to jump right in and blast away from start to finish.

Iris may still be an AI trainer, but as AI trainers go, she’s very much at the top of her game.  As a character, she has an odd relationship with the story, spending as little time directly interacting with it as possible but managing to snatch a fair bit of characterisation anyway, courtesy of the greater screen time Black and White gave to most of their Gym Leaders.  Her beliefs and goals as Champion also make a very clear statement about the central theme of the games – whether humans should become closer with Pokémon or move further apart.  While I remain a bigger fan of Alder and Cynthia, she’s a neat character, and has little trouble stepping into the larger-than-life boots of her predecessors.  Will her successor, Diantha, measure up?  Only one way to find out…

White 2 Playthrough Journal, episode 6: The Plot Thickens

Team Plasma in their new trendy get-up.I hurry through the streets of Virbank City towards the ferry terminal, my eyes darting left and right, ever-watchful for Stu Deeoh’s accountants, whose wrath shall surely follow me to the ends of the earth.  As I safely draw near to the docks, however, I am confronted with an obstacle: a six-way Pokémon battle in the open streets.  To my surprise, Jim, Hugh and Roxie are all involved, and are being pressed hard by a trio of ginger ninjas.  No, really; I mean actual ninjas who happen to be ginger.  I realise that I know one of the ginger ninjas – the fellow who lobbed a DVD at me back on Floccesy Ranch – and reason that this must be Team Plasma.  I briefly weigh up in my mind the relative importance of following Pokémon League rules, helping my friends, my distaste for Roxie, fighting crime, and my own massive laziness and apathy.  Eventually I realise that Hugh, Jim and Roxie are battling with Pignite, Falk the Magby and Whirlipede, respectively, and that Pignite and Falk will be absolutely fine if I tell Barristan to scorch the area.

When they realise they’re outnumbered, the Team Plasma goons quickly recall their Pokémon and scatter.  Hugh, not missing a beat, chases after one of them, screaming something about never forgiving them.  Hmm.  Forgiving them for what, exactly?  Come back, Hugh; I think we’re on the verge of a real breakthrough here!  No, never mind, he’s gone.  Well, now that that’s taken care of with absolutely no negative consequences, I guess we’re off to Castelia City now, right?  No… no, Jim wants to help Hugh look for Team Plasma.  Come on; are we running a charity here now?  I elect to wait at the ferry terminal for him to get bored.  Jim, meanwhile, pursues the Team Plasma goons out of Virbank City into Route 20.  He manages to track down one of them, about halfway back to Floccesy Town, and knocks him to the ground with Elisif’s Thunder Wave.  As he flops around helplessly, Jim manages to extract a little information – the man was trying to come around and head back to the coastline.  Unfortunately, the Team Plasma grunt manages to flail onto a hillside and starts rolling before Jim can get anything else out of him.  He disappears into the bushes at the bottom of the hill, and has recovered from the Thunder Wave and scarpered by the time Jim gets down there.  Still, he and Hugh agree that the man’s comment can only mean Team Plasma are travelling by ship.  They return to the ferry terminal and are met there by Roxie.  Roxie thanks both of them on behalf of Virbank City and presents them with a pair of Cut HMs.  She presents me with a death glare and a silent threat to break her guitar over my head if I ever return to her city again, then departs.  Well, it’s not like I wanted that particular HM anyway.  The three of us board the ferry at last, and reach Castelia City before the day is out.

 Castelia City, in all its glory.

Castelia City is as absurd and wonderful as I remember from Black and White – the largest city in Unova, possibly in the entire Pokémon world, teeming with people and packed with businesses as absurd as they are numerous.  I pay a visit to the Battle Company, a huge corporation whose workers are devoted entirely to having Pokémon battles with each other and with visitors to their building, and Passerby Analytics, a group whose name, I can only assume, comes from the fact that they do absolutely no work themselves, but instead enlist random volunteers to conduct surveys for them.  We indulge in a few battles in the city, and little Tyrion evolves into a Whirlipede.  Eventually Jim suggests that maybe we should try to hunt down Team Plasma, and decides to seek the assistance of the Castelia Gym Leader.  I grudgingly agree and we head for the Gym – only to find it closed for business.  Luckily, help is at hand, in the form of… good grief, is that Iris?  The Opelucid City Gym Leader from White version?  What on earth is she doing here?  Is she after Team Plasma too?  Oh, whatever.  Iris confidently explains that she knows exactly where everything shady goes down in Castelia City (I can only presume she’s involved in half of it) and leads us to the easternmost pier of the city docks, where one can enter…

…the sewer level.

Why is there always a sewer level?

I refuse, point blank, to enter the sewer level.  The Virbank Gym was bad enough.  Jim and Hugh can muck around down there with the rats and the sludge monsters and goodness knows what else; I am going to the Café Sonata for antipasto and a glass of sweet white.  Iris doesn’t want to enter the sewer level either but she tries to hide it by claiming she’s standing guard on the surface, the sneaky little brat, so I do not invite her to join me.

 The Sewer Level.

Jim and Hugh enter the sewer level and, in fact, find Team Plasma remarkably quickly.  There are only two grunts in the area, who fall very quickly under their joint assault and flee the scene.  Burgh, the Castelia Gym Leader, emerges from the tunnel near where the goons were standing and declares that there are no other suspicious characters in the area.  Hugh’s thirst for vengeance is slaked for now, and he leaves, as does Burgh, who is returning to his Gym – well and good, but it leaves us no closer to finding their damn ship.  What kind of Bug Pokémon Master doesn’t keep a String Shot or Spider Web handy for just this kind of situation?  Immediately after Burgh leaves, having declared that there are no other suspicious characters in the tunnel, an extremely suspicious character steps out of the tunnel – the blonde white-coated scientist fellow who appeared in the games’ title sequence.  He reveals that he had been watching Jim and Hugh battle, and was impressed by their power, but slips away before Jim can call out a Pokémon to detain him for further questions.  Since Burgh has now been revealed as just about the most incompetent Gym Leader in the history of ever, Jim elects to remain in the sewer level for a while to make absolutely sure there’s no one else suspicious down here.  In fact, he finds that there are a great many suspicious people in the sewer level, though none of them seem to be affiliated with Team Plasma.  The tunnel, which is known as the Relic Passage, turns out to have been built by an ancient civilisation and links up to… somewhere, but Jim isn’t able to get very far inside.  He does find an extremely dodgy scientist who asks him, apparently in total seriousness, whether he is part of the sewer.  As fascinated as Jim is by the Relic Passage, he leaves as quickly as possible to search the sewers, making a mental note to report the scientist to the nearest asylum.

The sewers turn out to be full of Pokémon trainers, one or two of whom appear to have legitimate reason to be down there, though most of them just like hanging around in sewers.  Jim finds no trace of Team Plasma, although in one room, he finds a female scientist who claims to be attempting to create medicines from the venom of Poison Pokémon and other substances from the sewers.  She proclaims her day’s experiment a minor success, and hands Jim an oddly murky-looking Potion to test.  Jim smiles charmingly at her, saying that he’ll try it out later, leaves the room as quickly as possible, and promptly tips the Potion back into the sewer water from which most of it probably came.  He elects to get the hell out of this hive of madness and returns to the surface, where Iris congratulates him on whatever it was he just did and wanders off.  Jim scrapes the sewer muck off his shoes and decides to find me.  I have just finished my meal, and meet him on Narrow Street as I head back towards the Pokémon Centre.  We take a moment to discuss recent events before turning in.  Team Plasma is back, clearly, and they seem to have discarded their former facade of a movement for social change and Pokémon rights; now they’re just perfectly standard Pokémon thieves.  That’s fine by me; it makes them someone else’s problem.  Let the police deal with them.  Jim points out, not unreasonably, that teenaged Pokémon trainers are the closest thing this universe has to a police force.  I mutter that this is clearly the public’s own fault and the inevitable price of their low taxation, and propose returning to Aspertia as soon as we can use Fly to bypass Virbank City.  For now, though, we’re in Castelia… so we may as well stay long enough to take on that cloud cuckoo of a Gym Leader…