When Kadokawa Games announced their multiplatform title Natural Doctrine, they said it to be essentially Tactics Ogre mixed with the brutal difficulty of From Software's Souls series. If nothing else, it was an effective marketing tactic as it got the game noticed. But similar to this year's releases of Watch Dogs and Destiny, Natural Doctrine ends up failing to reach the lofty heights it set for itself and ends up backfiring in terms of how they aimed to market the game.
Surprisingly enough for a dungeon RPG, Natural Doctrine actually ends up having a pretty compelling narrative. The overall story centers on various kingdoms battling for control over the extracting and exploitation of an energy resource known as "Pluton". An up-and-coming soldier named Geoff and his crew aim to free up the Pluton resources so civilization can advance from the backwards state it has been stuck in for years. And on the side, they're trying to use their exploits to gain entry favor into the last major fortress city, Feste.
Going any further after this point would open up spoilers, but talking in vague terms, I did like how they approached implementing said spoilers. The plot twists don't feel like they come out of left field and the character development at times is well implemented, if at times a little bit trope-y if you're aware of some of the common Japanese-developed RPG tropes. It's not the most well written narrative by far, but it doesn't feel like it's tacked on in any way.
But when the company first revealed the game, they focused on the gameplay, so we'll change our focus now to that particular feature of the game. In basic terms, the battle system is essentially Strategy RPG meets Dark Souls --- with all that infers included. The basic idea is to move your party members throughout the dungeon in a group, defending against enemy attacks and attacking back to go deeper into the dungeon with both sides exchanging turns.
While you can attack individually like other SRPGs, the game can and will punish you severely for doing so. The developers had a set goal in mind when developing the gameplay that really doesn't allow for any deviations whatsoever. The goal on your side of the field is to arrange your characters in such a way that they link together in lines, which activates the game's "Tactical Link" system between the characters. The ultimate goal, if possible, is to link everyone together so you can deal a massive attack against the enemy and ideally kill at least one of the enemies outright.
The problem is that this system is very poorly explained outside of its basic mechanics early on, but the enemies in just the first dungeon can and will use the system to its full advantages against you and in every dungeon following thereafter. Fully understanding the system through trial and error easily can take a good 9-10 hours, even following the rebalancing that was applied post-launch to the game in Japan and carried over into the Western release.
This even applies to the easiest difficulty option which was added post-launch, which is far from what most players would consider "easy". The levels also serve to hinder the player as there was more than once where I thought I had a clear firing range available with my sniper unit but the game decided I was just a little too off the mark and whiffed my attacks because I couldn't judge the distance properly with the game's camera. It's sad because there's quite a bit of subtlety in how these dungeons are designed which the game doesn't utilize properly in practice.
These design decisions essentially boil down to one key idea: play the game exactly how we intended it or else. Trying to think outside the box? Enemy AI somehow realizes what your plan is and obliterates you. The save points can be easily an hour back in terms of gameplay, so when you're on your third or fourth attempt at the same dungeon it begins to grate at you.
That said, there is some customization the game doesn't punish you for. You can customize your units' equipment without any penalties, so you can change up your approach as needed based on the enemies you'll encounter. There's an overworld map system also, but it's mainly a point-and-click affair that's meant to get you into the real meat of the game: the battles.
Natural Doctrine also has some multiplayer features, one involving co-op and another for player-vs-player battles. The co-op option has two players work together to explore inside multiplayer-exclusive dungeons. There isn't really much different here compared to the single-player mode except that you have another player to work with. The player-vs-player mode oddly enough uses a card game-based system that's basic but works well enough. Sadly there isn't local play for either option.
Graphically the game is a bit of a mixed bag. Since it needs to target the PS4, PS3 and the PlayStation Vita the Vita part of the port essentially holds the rest of the ports back as it appears as if that was their base platform in terms of scaling. That isn't to say they're horrible, but it's a similar situation to this year's earlier release of Ragnarok Odyssey ACE on the PS3 where it was evident the PS3 port was held back by the Vita's specs. On the flip side, though, this decision did let them have cross-save support between all three platforms so that may be a plus for some players.
The English voice overs courtesy of NIS America are surprisingly well done, with most of the voice choices matching the characters well. The music is fitting in-game, but isn't much in terms of memorable outside of it.
True to the goals the developers set out, Natural Doctrine is a punishing, cruel game that can and will punish the player for the slightest mistake. The issue is that the game doesn't reward critical thinking outside of the exact idea the developers had in mind to clear each level, so exploring becomes a chore after your third or fourth defeat until you finally realize how they wanted you to beat the level. If you're a masochist this is easily the game for you, but most players will likely find the barrier to entry too high to surpass before turning to other titles.
|Interesting multiplayer modes, although they're online-only.|
|Storyline is surprisingly good for what one would expect from the genre.|
|If you manage to learn how the developers want you to play the game, it can be fun.|
|You can and will die numerous times learning the game's sometimes obtuse rules.|
|The easiest difficulty isn't what you'd expect.|
|Tutorials could have been better.|