I went to bed with a 10 and woke up with a 2. Natural Doctrine is a bit of an enigma for me because I genuinely enjoyed the first few hours of the game; however, as it progressed it rather quickly unveiled itself to have been put together in a bit of an ugly fashion. It’s marketed as a challenging strategy game for master tacticians, and it definitely does deliver a hardcore strategy role-playing experience, but it seems for every hit it also has a few misses. The localization is done very well, including the voice acting, the story has some interesting points and there’s a unique, engaging combat system, so what’s the deal?
Taking place in a fantasy realm, Natural Doctrine pits humans against a number of mythical species including goblins, ogres, trolls and the undead. In an attempt to protect themselves, humanity has built a massive fortress city called Feste. The story begins with a group of newly commissioned mercenaries, led by Geoff, wanting to gain citizenship to Feste by completing a variety of tasks. This mostly consists of gathering a rare resource called Pluton, which is essential to human survival and is necessary to use magic, by scouring goblin caves and essentially ransacking them.
Of course there are a few mishaps along the way and everything turns to Hell quite quickly. One thing to note is that Pluton is usually only be obtain by defeating enemies and looting their chests and the amount obtained carries over between battles, but it also doesn’t replenish either. This creates an interesting balance between conserving a precious resources and trying to stay alive.
SURVIVAL OF THE METICULOUS
Progressing through Natural Doctrine is about being perfect; there’s absolutely no room for error in this one. Sloppy decisions and generally careless play are constantly punished throughout. There’s definitely no hand holding or carebear content. What makes the game so difficult is that every single action has extensive, and usually multiple, repercussions.
Unlike most SRPGs that feature a set of multiple, single-unit tiles, the tiles in Natural Doctrine are much bigger and can support up to four characters. When a character takes an action he can create a link between the other units in his party, even when it’s not their turn. In addition to gaining additional actions, linked characters provide bonuses to each other based on where they’re standing; usually the more distance between friendly units the better. If the correct enemy is killed that unit’s action is skipped and turns can be constantly linked together, which makes it possible to essentially prevent the computer from making any relevant actions.
Conversely, this also goes both ways. An ill-placed move too close to enemy territory can allow the AI to literally chain every single attack at once. What’s even worse, is that while playing through the story mode if one character dies, the game’s over. I found this to be one of, if not the worst, mechanic that the game has to offer. Image playing any Final Fantasy game where you would instantly lose if a single character dies; the series wouldn’t have made it past the first game and I doubt anyone would have actually been able to finish it. I can’t think of a single, well-known game that includes this type of brutal game mechanic and even the acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics allows revives and only ends in defeat if a main character was allowed to permanently die during the fight.
In addition to the already grueling victory condition of a perfect match, most dungeons require players to move to certain tiles before the fight will end. Best case scenario is that all enemies are already dead and you waste another 5 minutes moving every last character to the victory zones. Worst case is that scripted events happen while moving to said zone and the computer decides to ruthlessly murder a single character and you lose.
I honestly enjoyed the strategically difficult fights in Natural Doctrine, but there’s a difference between a good challenge and straight up punishing players for no good reason. In this type of game, people should be reprimanded for grievous oversights; however, a player not knowing that an event was going to happen halfway through an area and requiring their units to be in an exact position to win has little to do with strategy and more to do with either blind luck are repetitious play. I literally replayed one mission from the checkpoint 10 times before I realized that it was 100 percent impossible to win with the way my units had been arranged immediately after I pulled a specific lever.
Now I just mentioned that there are checkpoints in this game. There appear to be one or two during each mission when major events take place or new areas are discovered. This does alleviate some of the pressure, but like in my previous example, they don’t always help because usually character positioning has to be so precise that you need to simply replay the entire mission. What checkpoints are great for is when you make a terrible call in judgement and get your party killed in a way that actually was your preventable, but it seems that those situations are hit or miss.
When I was told that Natural Doctrine would have cooperative multiplayer I was quite excited at first, however, what was delivered wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. There are versus and co-op modes online, but both only consist of small skirmishes with up to 8 characters on a side. What multiplayer doesn’t bring to the table is a unique gaming experience or an addition to the story mode. Instead we get small, instanced battles with limited replay value and the same frustrating nuances, with the exception that characters can actually die without ending the fight.
What initially makes multiplayer fun, and slightly addicting, is that units are obtained through booster packs with varying rarities. Players start out with a certain amount of points and gain additional points simply for logging in each day. There are three levels of booster packs, with the most expensive costing 1000 points or two days’ worth of logging in, and each tier has a higher chance at the more rare cards. It is fairly exciting to pull some big, bad monster or a high quality hero card, but even with a slew of “good” cards the first co-op scenario is brutal. My first few attempts at co-op were barely above pathetic, as the enemy AI crushed my random internet partner and I within the first two turns. Versus is a little more balanced, if randomly so, but it’s also quite obvious when an opponent has a character are two that are blatantly going to crush your entire team.
SOMETHING DECENT HAS ENDURED
Playing through Natural Doctrine has been a bitter-sweet experience for me. On one hand I really appreciate the complexity and difficult nature that the game has to offer, but at other times I’ve become physically upset while playing. I appreciate its attempt to add something different to the SRPG genre and finally beating a difficult encounter is truly rewarding, however, randomly losing a fight after dominating 90 percent of it is equally frustrating. Despite the punishing difficultly curve, there is an enjoyable game underneath it all. When I wasn’t angry at the ridiculous AI, or dumb luck, I was enthralled with combat that rewards concise strategy and maximizing group members to their full potential; all in all it was a rather bipolar experience.
Natural Doctrine isn’t a bad game, quite on the contrary, but it’s being held down by a number of bad game design decisions. Normally in SRPGs the computer has a slight advantage in terms of power, equipment and/or numbers, but in Natural Doctrine they have huge advantages across the board and the AI is actually pretty well designed, which is something I never thought I’d complain about. The truth is that only the most masochistic of players will want to replay the same mission over and over until they get it perfect, just to do the exact same thing on the next one.
There is an “easy” difficulty, however, easy is more like difficult, while standard is merciless. A few implementations and Natural Doctrine could be enjoyed by a wide variety of players, instead of just the most elite of hardcore SRPG fans. Even just making these an option, or a separate difficultly, would be a bonus and not interfere with those wanting the full experience. If a single character falls, the game definitely shouldn’t be over; there’s nothing fair about the enemy getting swarms of minions while I can’t lose a single one. Speaking of this, revive potions would also be nice.
Visually speaking, Natural Doctrine isn’t a terrible looking game considering it was made with cross-play in mind. I’m sure PlayStation 4 owners are complaining about how the graphics aren’t “Next-Gen,” whatever that is, but for a Vita or PlayStation 3 the stylization fits the gameplay and too much focus on detail would have added to the convolution of an already complex combat system.
A more extensive multiplayer experience would have really added some much needed depth because consistently dying is usually a lot more entertaining if you’re doing it with friends, and some additional side plot could have fleshed out the story a bit. I could see special story missions where one player leaders a group with Geoff and another with Zekelinde, where both have to work together to complete separate objectives. Instead the co-op is more like a challenge mode, with emphasis on “challenge.”
While Natural Doctrine does use an innovative combat system and has can be a very enjoyable experience, that feeling of accomplishment is sabotaged just before the game becomes fun. On the positive side of thing, this game doesn’t have to be doomed and at its core it has a lot of potential to be great. However, the blatantly unfair AI mechanics in combination with the relatively diluted multiplayer experience really hurts Natural Doctrine in the end.
- Unique spin on SRPGs
- Solid storyline and localization
- Has the potential to be a good game
- Cross-Save function
- Game breaking mechanics
- Punishing battle system
- Counterintuitive mana supply
- Uninspired multiplayer experience