Natural Doctrine review – Adapt or Die

Natural Doctrine is as hardcore as you can get when it comes to strategy role-playing games. With an emphasis on delivering challenging tactical grid-based combat and engrossing gameplay mechanics, the game serves up a distinctive and rewarding experience for SRPGs purists – with finer intricacies such as graphics and storytelling put on the backburner in favour of getting straight to the (sharp) point.

There’s no hand-holding here; it’s all about your patience and smarts, and if even one character dies, it’s game over. Can you handle that? Then read on, tough guy.

The three-dimensional battlefields of Natural Doctrine have a very different feel and layout from standard strategy role-playing games. Movement within battlefield squares is free-form, so while you can only move units across the map within a certain range of squares each turn, you can position your party anywhere within the space. Essentially, the game places added emphasis on environmental cover, line of sight and general tactical positioning of your party members and their various roles.

Unit types in single-player range from typical sword-and-shield warriors, two-handed fighters, gunners and spell-casters who all have their place of the battlefield. Carefully position your shielded warriors in the frontlines and set them to defend while putting a gunner behind them, and the former will force all enemies to attack them while the latter provides counter-fire from afar, softening enemies up for the next available turn.

Winning this game isn’t just dependent upon clever positioning, but also the proper use of Initiative. Initiative is a gameplay mechanic for turn order; each character on the field has one turn per round. Everyone has differing levels of initiative and how fast their next turn comes, and exploiting this system and another called Link Turns is essential to progress and survive – if anyone of your characters die, it’s game over. Depending on your patience or expectations, this can be a deal-breaker, but I found it to be a fun challenge – when I wasn’t throwing my controller into the TV.

Using characters such as Geoff with fast Initiative, you can use Link Turns to dominate – any action during a character’s Initiative aside from ending the turn allows other party members in the adjacent squares to act within said turn as well, overriding priority of the next-in-line, clearly displayed on a bar at the top of the interface.

For instance, if Geoff is ordered to attack an in-range enemy, you can follow up attacks with other nearby party members within his turn. Smartly positioning and reserving other party members to act multiple times each round is crucial, as you want to wipe out the enemy before they even get a chance to act.

Most times, however, the enemy will probably get the better of you, as the A.I. is relentless even on Easy difficulty, and knows the gameplay systems better than you. A lot of frustration can arise from their almost ridiculously calculated and precise actions, but through trial and error, I found a lot of enjoyment in overcoming their tactical genius – and the increasing powerful monster types.

If this all sounds terribly confusing, it’s because it is… initially. Thankfully, the localisation contains a very helpful set of tutorials and clearly explained instructions for every action, system and tactic. The flood of information on-screen does make the combat interface look crowded and the battlefield ugly with lines of critical hit percentages and so forth, and may not resonate with every player.

However, I did appreciate the level of detailed in-game help the game provided – learning, mastering and even understanding the battle system is something that requires effort and time, which I’m sure won’t be for everyone – even a dedicated SRPG fan like myself found was initially overwhelmed.

Still, a lot of fun can be had and the varying scenarios thrown at players is where most of it derives from. Battlefields aren’t just won by killing every enemy unit – there’s times where you’ll need to retreat, shoot ‘n’ go, hold the line until a certain period, or support A.I. controlled allies from overwhelming amounts of enemies.

I found it particularly engaging to push the boundaries of these scenarios, such as seeing how much damage I could do even though I needed to retreat from a fast-moving ravenous horde of goblin-eating arachnids.

The one recurring scenario which I came to hate, however, is opening doors in maps to progress to the next area – there are almost always waves of enemies on the other side and learning to only open them when a character’s Initiative is favourable is crucial to survive and have the pre-emptive attack upon opening it, but it does take some time to fully understand how to. It also displays the weakest part of Natural Doctrine – too many map layouts are corridor-funneling chokepoints.

Many maps also contain treasure chests and switches which can be interacted with by units to find useful equipment or open up secret passageways to new areas – sometimes containing more treasure, but more often harbouring a sinister surprise in the form of tougher enemies obviously designed for higher-levelled players. These areas are necessary to explore, though, if for the practice and treasure alone – there are no merchants in this game and all equipment upgrades are found through plundering chests.

This leads into another big problem of the game – magic. Spells are fueled by Pluton, a non-regenerating rare mana source found in said treasure chests. Because Pluton doesn’t regenerate, you’ll find your supply dwindling fast as it’s shared across the party, and frequent grinds into claustrophobic Goblin caves – where most treasure chests are located – become a repetitive exercise. Curiously, healing potions aren’t separate resources but considered skills which characters acquire when levelling up, and regenerate from battle-to-battle. This should have applied to Pluton, too, but alas.

In terms of party customisation, unit equipment and skills can be set while on the World Map, which displays all unlocked locations you can venture to and their difficulty ranked from S downwards. Equipment and skill trees are class-specific but vital to success – that + 1 Shortsword may only up your character’s critical by 2 points, but that’s the difference between life and death.

The skill trees, too, are flexible in that setting a skill isn’t permanent and you can mix and match accordingly and depending on what you need for the next fight. Following the correct branches to unlock new key abilities for units, such as being able to equip both guns and swords, is essential to build a balanced party.

When you need a break from the single-player campaign or want to test your skills against real-life players, Natural Doctrine’s multiplayer modes are more than worth checking out. For such a niche game almost destined to be overlooked, its multiplayer suite is robust and full of fun options – both a Co-Operative mode and Versus (Battle) Mode exist for all moods and players must build up a deck of cards with different units to bring to the battlefield. Card Points (CP) are given with wins and used to purchase rare and more powerful cards to add to your deck, and either dominate or aid online players with.

It’s just a shame I couldn’t find many other players online, and I suspect the community numbers will be fueled by the hardcore players, as too many will overlook the multiplayer or not even consider it. Thankfully, the MP is cross-platform, so PS3, PS4 and Vita players can play together and perhaps band together to keep the online play alive.

So, what about the story of Natural Doctrine? Summarised, it’s a typical tale not concerned with gaining the spotlight over the main focus – the hardcore tactical combat. Set in the desperate world of Feste where humanity clings to its survival as a species, vicious creatures and monsters from all spectrums of fantasy – arachnids, goblins, minotaurs, orcs, skeleton warriors, etc – dominate the countryside with unwavering resolve to wipe out all sentient life.

With the majority of mankind divided into two groups – those with the “godly” privilege to live in fortified strongholds and those who don’t – the only thing keeping humans united is the aforementioned Pluton, a resource which allows its user to cast magical spells. Naturally, it is rare and only found in the darkest corners of the world. The game follows a group of “Bergmans”, mercenaries and raiders, in their initial efforts to gather pluton before being embroiled in deeper conflict.


PLAIN LOOKS
Natural Doctrine’s looks aren’t anything special on the PlayStation 3, 4 and Vita – the character models especially look dated, which is disappointing. Surprisingly, while the monster types are considerably generic, their in-game models are positively frightening and look visually better than their human counterparts. The score, too, is disappointing, and not one audio track evoked that key feeling like I was in a life-or-death battle for survival, which I’ve had from other SRPGs.

With minimal expectations of an actual narrative, I found myself pleasantly surprised with the surprisingly well-acted script and the effort put in the localisation. Most of the English voice-actors suit their characters well, and the core cast of Geoff, Vasily, Anka and Zekelinde are likeable beyond their initial anime-like stereotypes, and their party banter – both during missions and while on the World Map – is frequent, funny, and surprisingly not as cringe-worthy as I assumed it would be.

Even if the presentation is lacking in the human character model and animation departments – cutscenes, too, typically involve party members standing still, talking – the dialogue is well-acted and the sense of dread they feel when battling such horrific monsters isn’t lost in translation. What is lost is a deeper understanding of Feste’s lore and the character’s motivations, which are glossed over and nowhere near as compelling as other excellent SRPGs, such as Fire Emblem: Awakening. It’s a shame, because what was drip-fed had me interested enough to want to know more.

The Final Verdict

Natural Doctrine is a brutally honest tactical role-playing game in concept and difficulty. Focused entirely on providing players with challenging turn-based battles against unrelenting hordes of fantastical enemies, this is a game meant to push players to their limits. If you love hardcore strategy RPGs that get straight to the point and make you think, this niche game is up your alley – but if you want a deep and meaningful story, lack patience or hate slow-burners, it will only swallow you whole.

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