Developer: Kadokawa Games
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PS Vita
Release Date: September 30, 2014
ESRB: M for Mature
What do Starship Troopers and Fire Emblem have in common? Only the new strategy RPG from Kadokawa Games, Natural Doctrine. Set in a dark fantasy ruin-filled world where mankind has built the central kingdom to keep the terrible beasties out, and gaining citizenship to said kingdom usually revolves around putting yourself in terrible danger. So yeah, it might parallel Robert Heinlein“s sci-fi cult classic, but the comparison ends there for reasons other than the painfully obvious.
You start off as the "Bergmen" Geoff and his allies, taking a job from a young woman who wants you to... well, you really aren't quite sure at first. You explore a couple dungeons until things get really hairy, leading to some surprising developments right off the bat. For spoiler-y reasons I can't quite discuss them, but to say they were handled poorly is something I can and will say. You simply don't have enough build-up for what lies around the bend to affect the player as much as I'm certain Kadokawa had in mind. Even once you have your first real event in the game over with, your motivations aren't really much clearer. I'm certain Natural Doctrine is a game you'll be more inclined to play for the gameplay's sake more than the story's but... well, therein lies another problem.
A sign of a great strategy RPG is teaching your player the basics, and letting them discover the nuances of combat themselves. Hilariously, Natural Doctrine does the exact opposite. The game does a great job of teaching you the advanced tactics necessary for taking complete advantage of initiative and combat links, but leaves you to struggle to understand the basics of how combat even works in the beginning. After six or seven missions, I finally found myself understanding the basics of activating combat links and how they differ from regular turns. Doing this helps tremendously as you already have half the puzzle from the tutorials, and the full picture is really the only thing that will get you through battles.
Be prepared for a lot of trial and error, because that is exactly what this game is. Trying and failing until you get it right. I've heard this game referred to as the Dark Souls of SRPGs and that is pretty spot on; the general unforgiving nature of the game will test you from the get-go and continue to keep you on your toes, with no hesitation to overwhelm you at the first sign of error. Some players will love it, many will not, but there you have it.
But that's not to say this game isn't without merit. In fact, Natural Doctrine is highly original in many ways, setting it apart from other games in its genre easily. For one, most SRPGs will try to get you to keep your units as close together as possible. Natural Doctrine, however, rewards players for spreading out their troops, giving combat bonuses like damage boosts and critical rate increases for combatants who stand as far apart as possible while attacking the same (or even different under some circumstances) targets. Doing so can easily backfire on you though, because if your team is too spread out it can become easier for the enemy to combat link their way into a victory if you aren't careful. And yes, that can happen quite often.
Which leads me to another questionable design mechanic in this game—as your dudes (and dudettes) make their way across swaths of enemies and stare death in the face, they will (frequently) die. When they do, it's lights out all around. Most other tactical RPGs will allow you to either revive characters, or simply allow characters to die without ending the battle. Of course, those games also have core characters that are crucial to the plot that will net you a game over if they are downed, but with an abnormally small character roster (for the genre) every character is crucial to the story. This wouldn't be such a problem if you weren't dying several times per stage, but you do, so it is.
Simply put, dying is an automatic failure of any mission, leaving you to start over from your last check point, or over entirely, if you wish. prepare to do this a lot. And I mean A LOT. For instance, once I spent an entire day on a single, optional mission. I'm talking four hours straight, just trying to complete a single dungeon. I would get a little farther each time, only to have the enemy exploit another mistake I had made, leading very promptly to my umpteenth game over screen. Being quite the tenacious person by nature, I would not allow myself to give up, hence the four hours on something that was likely designed to be a 15-20 minute mission.
Which brings me to those infamous combat links. Basically, the point of this game is to never give your opponents a turn. To do this, each action a character can take has conditions to help other your other units act again, even if they've just finished taking their turn. Doing this, you can accomplish frightening amounts if you are able to use the system correctly. Using combat links to group multiple characters into acting on the same turn, and taking out enemies with high initiative before they get a chance to attack is the best (and most of the times only) way to win.
While I was playing Natural Doctrine, I got the impression that the battle system was built for larger groups to take advantage of, and it“s a total shame the player rarely has more than five characters in the party. Most of the time, bad guys will run up on you like it“s iPhone 6 release day at the mall. Unlike the iPhone 6, though, the rules never bend in your favor. A single mistake, a single chip in your armor and you can be starting at a game over screen yet again. And as much as this system can work for you, it can work for your enemies too, making every enemy you face potentially your strongest adversary. All it takes is a bit of bad planning and a bit of bad luck to bring your party crashing down like a house of cards during a hurricane.
So up until now, I'd say most things I've listed as complaints can be safely referred to as matters of preference. I sure don't prefer brutally difficult games, but others might. There are a few things though, that are universally disappointing about this game. For one, the graphics leave much to be desired. Both the PS3 and Vita versions of this game feature bland and repetitive (and often overstretched) textures in the various environments you'll see over and over again. Character models themselves lack real definition, looking like generic blobs while disjointed anime-esque character portraits stand in for them during dialogue. The game also features online play with the most confusing set of menus I've ever seen, a difficulty selection option that is all but pointless, and features like social media implementation that, while present in all versions of the game, can only be utilized while playing on PS4. Seriously though, if the Vita doesn't use them, why throw them in there?
The good news, however, is this. Through all the frustration and mounting urges to smash my Vita with a freakishly large hammer, I still can't help but admire how original this game is. Natural Doctrine is so unlike other strategy RPGs it almost earns â€œrequired readingâ€ status for fans of the genre. This game is uncannily meticulous, more so than any other strategy RPG I“ve ever played, easily evidenced by it“s Dark Souls-esque level of unforgiving gameplay. So when I say this game is tough, I mean it. To my shame I was never able to complete the game, though I promise you it is not for the lack of trying.
Yet, even through all the rage-inducing trips back to my last check point, something about this game still garners my respect. Sure, it's far from perfect—in fact, depending on your preference as a player, it may even be downright broken, but Natural Doctrine takes more chances than any other strategy RPG I've played since Valkyria Chronicles. So if you're a SRPG aficionado, this might be worth it for the originality alone—if you don't mind dying a million times, that is.
+ Plenty of originality in combat
+ Rewarding feeling from hard fought victories
- No room for error in even the easiest difficulty setting
- Poor/absent tutorials make the game even harder
- Visually unimpressive and highly repetitive
Overall Score: 6 (out of 10)
Natural Doctrine is full of original ideas, but the brutal difficulty may drive away many would be fans.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable code provided by the publisher.