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Platform(s): PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Kadokawa Games
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014 (US), Oct. 3, 2014 (EU)


PS4 Review - 'Natural Doctrine'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Nov. 21, 2014 @ 1:45 a.m. PST

Natural Doctrine is a strategy/RPG set within a universe where humans fight other races with magic, swords and guns.

Natural Doctrine takes place in a dark and depressing world. Humanity is in a constant war against monsters and creatures, and the battle is focused around the city of Feste. Only those who have proven themselves worthy are allowed into the town. Humanity depends on a rare, deadly resource known as Pluton. Goblins have learned to mine and refine it, forcing humanity to send soldiers to raid their mines and bring back the material. On one of these raids, a soldier named Geoff and his allies discover a strange race of bug-like creatures who threaten to overwhelm the world.

The setup sounds like it could be interesting, but the characters are thin, and the plot is barely there. Huge chunks of the tale are told via conversations on the map screen, and the few cut scenes are generic and perfunctory. The tensions and interplay between the various races is a really interesting concept that is underwhelming in execution. There aren't any exciting plot twists and there aren't any special characters. The plot feels like a long, contrived excuse to put characters in situations where they have to fight deadly foes.

Natural Doctrine is a strategy RPG based around turn-based combat. You and your enemies take turns taking actions in an attempt to kill the other side. It's biased against the player in that most stages cause an instant "game over" upon any ally death, but you make up for it by having a wider selection of abilities and strategies. Players having the option to attack, defend, or use consumable items at any time. There are no shops, and consumable items are replenished when you finish a map, making this more flexible than in other similar titles.

The maps are divided into squares, and each square is a 2x2 block that units can inhabit. Up to four small-sized units, like humans, can inhabit a space at a time, although there are larger enemies. Each square is controlled by allies or enemies. If there is a player's unit in a square, an enemy can't enter it, and vice versa. However, units that share the same square are effectively part of the same "unit." If enemies attack that square, they can pick which of your units to attack. Likewise, an AoE attack can hit every enemy in the square. If an enemy is guarding or blocking, they'll stop the attack for their allies. Properly controlling and manipulating your positioning is key to combat success.

Natural Doctrine is an odd game in that it may be a JRPG with swords and guns, but guns are the most powerful tool in your arsenal because they have great range, high critical rates, and are capable of performing support-firing attacks. Swords and other melee weapons sacrifice safety for flexibility but are rarely as good at dealing damage. The primary role of melee characters is as a defense force for your guards. They can take hits and tank attacks while exploiting Link mechanics.

Most of the weapons and abilities in the game have cooldown timers. They replenish after a certain amount of turns and can otherwise be used freely. The one big exception is magic, which is fueled by Pluton. The rare material can only be found in chests or from certain enemies, and you spend it to cast powerful spells.

The most important — and most confusing — part of Natural Doctrine is how the turn order works. By default, the game swaps between a player unit and an enemy unit, starting with Geoff and wrapping around until every visible unit on the map has moved. If an enemy unit dies, then its space in the turn order is lost, and your units can attack consecutively. It's simple, except when Linking comes into play. When you take an action — attacking, defending, healing, etc. — it triggers a Link Condition, which specifies certain conditions, like "adjacent allies." If any allied unit fulfills that condition, then it also gains the ability to act. This can be chained to your entire team, and it may be repeated as many times as you like. The trick is that if any unit takes this extra action before they've taken their own action, they lose their space in the turn order. If you have a character act before his designated turn, he not only loses his turn, but the enemy gets to act twice in a row (unless the enemy is dead).

Properly manipulating the turn order requires some planning. Is it worth sacrificing a character's turn now to kill an enemy and add extra turns to your later allies? Enemies play under exactly the same Link rules, so every enemy turn can potentially be multiplied. If you leave a unit vulnerable, then enemies may link up to gang up on that ally and kill them. However, if you can bait the enemy into using their turns on a heavily fortified ally, then they'll waste their turns and provide you with a much safer playing field.

Natural Doctrine straddles the line between difficult and unfair. There's no point where you get an unavoidable death without making a mistake, but it can be difficult to understand what that mistake was. Open a door at the wrong time, advance too far down an unexplored hallway, or otherwise take risks, and enemies will wreck you. It's still frustrating to lose a lot of work because you took a wrong step and one of your characters got shot in the face by a group of linking enemies. A death for any character means an instant return to the last checkpoint.

It doesn't help that the game is inflexible when it comes to strategy. Every mission has a clear, intended path. You have some flexibility based on your character lineup and abilities, but you have to fight the enemies the developers want you to fight, run from the enemies they want you to run for, and do exactly the things they want you to do. I "broke" an early mission by linking my character chains in such a way that I killed an enemy before it killed an allied unit. You have to play by the game's rules, even if you could theoretically circumvent them, and that can be frustrating.

The game is rough, and there are a lot of annoying design decisions. Opening doors is probably one of the most dangerous things you can do because it uses up your action while almost inevitably revealing more enemies. You can work around this, but it would be better if it were more balanced. Allowing allies to open doors on Link turns, for example, would have been enough because it would've let you keep your action while still positioning your team defensively. There are more than few segments where you have to move your units on the map without enemies around, which is lengthy and tedious since every unit can only move a couple of blocks before you need to move to the next unit. This makes leaving dungeons insanely tedious, especially if you've delved deeply.

Despite that, when Natural Doctrine clicks, it works really well. It's incredibly satisfying to plan your links and ability usage. It's really fun to set up a chain of combos, bait enemies into wasting their link turns, and figure out the right combination of moves to maintain initiative. Even the limited use of Pluton doesn't feel too punishing because almost every spell you can cast is immensely powerful and can change the tide of battle.

There's a lot of reward for strategy and planning in Natural Doctrine. Understanding the mechanics is a must, but if you do, you'll find the game isn't that difficult. It's merely punishing for mistakes. I had a lot of fun figuring out how to win certain battles, how to best use my resources, and how to position my characters for maximum effectiveness. Natural Doctrine isn't going to be a game for everyone, but it's the rare SRPG that captured the feeling of something like XCOM.

You can probably burn through the core story in about a dozen hours, but that assumes you won't have any delays, won't get stuck on enemies, won't explore, etc. There's a fair amount of content for your dollar, though it's hard to argue that it's particular exciting. The mines have fun (or frustrating) enemy configurations but tend to have bland designs, so they don't feel very distinct. There's also an option to replay the game and slightly alter the plot, but that seems like something for die-hard fans, since the story alteration is really minor.

Natural Doctrine also has a multiplayer mode, which allows you to play either cooperative or competitive missions with other players. You build a "deck" of characters and take them into battle to defeat foes or work together to take down a tough challenge. The multiplayer is a nice way to add value to the game, except for one major flaw: As of this writing, the online community is already dead. I saw fewer than 10 people online at any given time, and starting a battle was a fool's exercise. After hours of trying, I managed to get into a couple of games, but they were against players who'd clearly mastered the system. It's hard to imagine the title having any sort of long-term community.

Natural Doctrine isn't much of a looker. The character models are simplistic, with rough animations and bland designs. They'd look poor even on the PS3, never mind the PS4. The environmental design isn't any better, as it's full of generic caves, generic fields, and generic everything else. The dark, low-res textures make it really hard to pick out features. The character artwork is OK, but everyone has basically one static piece of art. You can swap between "anime" and "realistic" designs, but the realistic designs are kind of creepy. The voice acting is reasonably good, but the repetitive music drones on.

Natural Doctrine is a tough game to judge. It's strange and convoluted, it has sub-par graphics, and the story is quite weak. It basically carries itself entirely on the gameplay, which is frequently difficult to the point of frustration. If you can get past that and wrap your head around the mechanics, it's a remarkably fun strategy RPG. It rewards careful thought, proper planning, and smart positioning, and it feels incredibly satisfying to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat. It isn't going to be a game for everyone, and even die-hard SRPG fans may be turned off by the high difficulty level, but if Natural Doctrine clicks for you, you'll probably enjoy it.

Score: 7.0/10

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