Natural Doctrine Review—the Dark Souls of Strategy RPGs

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Feste is now the last city and bastion of humankind. Goblins know how to process Pluton, a material which, when raw, is toxic to humans, into something that can be safely utilized. Bergmans traverse lands to find mines and acquire Pluton by raiding the goblins. You explore this world through Geoff and his crew as they accept an assignment to do just that.

Natural Doctrine, a strategy RPG behemoth, is developed by Kadokawa Games and localized by NISA. The game is available for the PS3, PS4, and Vita. I played both the Vita and PS4 versions. There’s some disparity between the Vita and the other systems. Graphics—which aren’t super-stellar in the first place—take a hit, and the game can stutter by a split second. Those of you easily put off by jankiness, beware of the Vita version. On top of that, frequently the battle system’s AI, when it loads its pathway to attack the player, will delay the game a bit more.

The battle system is turn based, and allows you to take a certain number of actions. At the start of a particular character’s turn, you have the liberty to move within a range and take actions, such as opening doors or a chest, which will end the turn.

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You can also—and this is where we start to wade into the deep end—perform what’s called a “Link action”, which allows other characters to move and perform actions, creating a chain reaction that does a huge amount of damage. However, when you utilize this action, if the characters used had not previously moved, the action will use up all of that character’s initiative.

On some blocks, if characters defeat that whole block with melee attacks, the characters automatically move one spot ahead, which voids any sort of defense they might have had. The damage dealt by ranged attacks takes into account such things as projectile trajectory, and the amount of distance between the attacker and other characters (the further away, the more potential damage output and critical chance). Friendly fire can happen, so positioning gunners and mages properly is crucial.

The positives of this battle system make it a resounding success for hardcore players. The game, however, does a few major things that make me hate it.

You’re taken through two very, very rudimentary tutorial scenarios which give you a breakdown of the system. These tutorials aren’t informative enough to give the player a full grasp of concepts such as the initiative system. This resulted in me dying a lot before I understood why, for example, I sometimes could act again after using a Link action and sometimes couldn’t. The tutorial gave me the impression that Link actions should happen all the time, but that’s not how it plays. The initial learning curve is incredibly steep.

From some, this will elicit a big Hurrah! because the game doesn’t baby you. I do appreciate that, but with other elements considered, it begins to become irksome. The battles take a long time to complete, very much like Record of Agarest. They require a lot of thinking and pre-planning to overcome. There are even scenarios in which the planned defending character will have bad luck, such as an enemy staggering them, and as a result get slaughtered by multiple enemies—which is a problem when even one character death equates to a game over.

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There is no avoiding that you are going to die, at least once, due to the sheer difficulty and bad luck in the battles. The game does add checkpoints but does nothing to indicate how or when that happens, so you could be 25 minutes into a drawn-out battle and die, only to start all the way from the beginning. This, in conjunction with the above points, is what discourages me and some other players from playing a title like this.

Even putting the initiative system aside, you’re at a distinct disadvantage. The ability to link multiple actions multiple times, based on whether an action is taken to not lose your turn, is probably balanced toward the player, and probably suits multiplayer perfectly. However, enemies usually outnumber the player by a magnitude of two to four, and this creates drawn-out enemy sequences that give the AI a lot of chances to decimate players.

The game does limit area occupation to four normal-sized characters at a time (large characters register as two normal-sized characters), but the designers enjoy throwing in many gunners and magicians all over the battleground that can attack from afar. The gunners also have the ability to attack from three spaces away instead of two, adding an even bigger distance bonus to damage/critical output. As if this weren’t enough, your team only acquires this much later than the enemies, through leveling.

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My biggest issue with the game is how the above design choices slow progress to a crawl. For example, I once prepped and opened a door only to be bombarded by gunners attacking from three spots away, with two magicians staggering any defense I had. I died. It had taken me 20-30 minutes to get there, and I had to start again. After retrying and failing again, I went up a pathway and opened a random cell, which resurrected two skeletons. Unbeknown to me, for killing them I was rewarded with a checkpoint, so when I fell to the gunners and mages again I was resurrected by the skeletons’ cell instead of in the earlier area. It’s infuriating to not know whether you’ve gained a checkpoint before taking the risk of opening a new path.

After 2-3 hours of play, you do improve, especially as you level up and gain new abilities, but I would suggest avoiding non-story based caves altogether, or at least not venturing very deeply into them, in order to avoid frustration. There are multiple difficulty levels ranging from easy (you enjoy some share of difficulties) to infernal (you’re masochistic).

I gave the title to my dad to try. He does dabble in Ninja Gaiden and some other games, but is a slightly more casual player than I am. He was completely lost, partly as a result of the aforementioned points, but also because of the game’s weird UI design, which becomes more chaotic the more characters there are in a battle. After trying about four scenarios he just gave up. So this game definitely caters specifically to the hardcore strategist, not just the hardcore RPG player.

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The story is actually pretty decent. It delves where most RPGs tread only lightly, into racism, politics, survival … It reminds me of Attack on Titan in attitude, but more minimalistic, dark, and gritty. In the course of the game, you discover and handle a new species of monster, the Gorian, and have to deal with deep-seated hatred within the Feste region. I can’t really praise the voice acting or dialogue but I think it’s serviceable.

Aesthetically, the character designs aren’t particularly strong or interesting. The simple monochromatic palette is acceptable, but it’s everywhere, from the environment to the characters, even the main character. This gives a bleakness to the game, what’s supposed to be dark and gritty realism with an anime flair, which is fine, but does become overkill.

Character movement in the game is a little arbitrary. Trying to rearrange positioning in a Link action requires a few presses to actually fully reset a scenario. If you progress and regress in an action players can be moved in all sorts of positions and in an organizational sense can be a bit all over the place. Especially trying to get proper defensive and offensive coverage can be frustratingly arbitrary, as a slight misplacement can leave a character open to gunfire.

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Some of the design decisions are a bit perplexing. For example, loading screens will give you tips. (This is a game where it actually helps to read these little tidbits.) But a bunch of tips have text which continues past the bottom of the page, and the player actually can’t scroll to read the rest. There’s a grading screen that displays how much Pluton is used, the time spent on the game, kills, etc.; but for some reason they added deaths, which is an unusable grade in the story mode as one death is game over anyways. Little things need to be given more attention.

The deaths grade is probably used for multiplayer, which sadly I haven’t had the chance to fully try. You can acquire cards to build an army and play against other players, or do co-operative missions as heroes and villains. It’s a nice extra, and probably plays a bit more fairly, as death is not as punishing as in the solo experience.

Although the multiplayer is likely fun, I can’t help but think that if jettisoning it would have helped to improve the single-player experience by allowing Kadokawa to focus more on it, that’s what should have been done. The developer did try to open the game up to more players by adding an easy mode and more checkpoints, but it still needs fine-tuning in the difficulty department because as it is it’s an extremely grueling title.

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The story is good, but the deciding factor for potential buyers is whether they enjoy repeating long battles in an SRPG in order to progress a story inch by inch. The hardcore strategist will get heartfelt joy out of a game that has its roots in grueling difficulty and unbending dedication. But even to people who are RPG freaks—with my history, I would say I am one—it may be too much.

The battle system is a well-thought-out tactical setup that brings all necessary attributes to a minimal core but, for me, the choppy flow, the time required, and the harshness of the ridiculously skewed battles yielded too little reward to continue progressing enthusiastically.

Natural Doctrine was reviewed using a code provided by NIS America. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.

Chris Gollmer

About

I have been an avid gamer since I was a child, playing Legend of Zelda on the NES and began true niche gaming during the SNES/Genesis battles.