Natural Doctrine Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PS Vita and Sony PlayStation 3
Imagine a game of Chess. The pieces are laid out and you reach for your pawn to make your move. Only in this particular game of Chess your pieces look like generic fantasy characters and their attack strength relies on more maths about angles and elevation than Pythagoras doing his Duke of Edinburgh expedition. In the corner of the room you find a cover band that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to do rock versions of Legend of Zelda tunes or sweeping orchestral arrangements from the Final Fantasy Franchises.
This is Natural Doctrine and yes, this is a tactical role-playing game.
NISA have made a name for themselves for publishing internationally those Japanese RPGs that are on the cusp of being either good enough, or financially viable enough, to justify the cost of translation and export. They offer a lifeline for gamers who enjoy those games that aren’t considered mainstream enough for the triple A treatment. Of course the downside to this is that production values as well as localisation efforts can be a little disappointing compared to more mainstream games. However, since their target audience is the gamer who would otherwise import this game themselves (and then go through the time and expense of printing off a bible-sized translation guide to make sense of the original Japanese), NISA gets points for simply bringing this game to western audiences in the first place.
To put as much investment in the story of Natural Doctrine as the developers have, you start this game getting hired for a mission. Then some bugs turn up and you travel a static world map in order to destroy evil, collect loot or gems or something. The characters on your team and the plot they find themselves in are painfully generic but that’s really not the draw here; you don’t need Forza 5 to have a plot to keep you replaying the same tracks to get the best time possible, and you don’t really need the plot here to keep playing and replaying the same levels to first complete and then master them.
That said, the story is interesting enough to be worth paying attention to, even if a lot of it is delivered by the characters talking on the map screen. Fortunately the voice work isn’t too bad for a game of this sort; in the world of JRPGs English voice acting is doing something right by just being average compared to other games. But even when the characters are about to pull you into the game’s world they’re happy to remind you that this IS just a game by frequently breaking the fourth wall. It’s not done for laughs as you’d find in a game like Sunset Overdrive, but more a case of them reading the hint text word for word as though their world is governed by actual button presses and left stick movement. It’s definitely a trope of the genre but as gaming hardware develops and these games look more realistic, these are the touches that will pull gamers out of the experience pretty quickly.
Not that Natural Doctrine is a shining example of next generation gaming. On the PS4 things don’t look bad exactly, but there’s very little here that you couldn’t see on the PS3, something that’s easily proven given that this game is also available on the last gen Playstation. It does, however, have enough polish to make odd genre conventions stand out even more than they used to; the static world map, for example, feels almost anachronistic in a modern video game, and while the 16-Bit era made angular, isolated level maps seem sensible, in a modern game it just looks like a planet covered in square floating islands. Of course, the fact that all of your moves are overlayed with movement grids, angle lines and general character statistics means that this is not a world designed to absorb the player through its realism.
If the focus is going to be on the gameplay then the gameplay had better be polished and, for the most part, it really is. Combat is turn-based and focussed as much on how the team interacts with each other as much as any single character’s abilities. Place one character directly behind another and they have some degree of protection, for example, or place your characters in certain positions and the angles and distances from each other are translated through maths into a more powerful attack. It’s a difficult system but it does add an extra level of depth when working out which strategy is right for the situation you’re in.
Since failure can mean losing a single team member, finding the right strategy for each scenario is vital in Natural Doctrine. If you fail on a section you really do need to be willing to adapt to the situation rather than keep trying the same approach. Fortunately the game will offer hints and tips if you seem to be getting killed a lot, unfortunately those hints and tips can get frustratingly repetitive to the point that you scream at your PlayStation that you were doing just that, thank you very much!
It’s a game that constantly challenges you but is never so difficult that it feels impossible to continue as long as you’re willing to persevere and try to do things a little differently. But challenging the player to the point of mental abuse does mean that when those victories come, and in time they will come, it feels all the sweeter for it. These aren’t the modern day achievements of following a straight line and saving the world, these are the bitterly fought battles of attrition to survive until the next battle.
Item and skill management adds another level of frustration, but in this case it’s definitely unwelcome. You can only change loadouts in the world map before attempting a mission and not during the mission itself. It’s a game that requires you to change your tactics to match the current conditions, but refuses to give you the tools to do that properly without quitting and restarting.
While it sounds like only the masochistic need apply, for some these words will sound like a call to arms; a challenge for their intellect and wits, and in that sense this game excels. The combat rules are for people who think castling in Chess is a little too straightforward. There are no easy battles and you’ll usually find that the enemies you face are easily your equal in battle and they all play by those same rules, the only difference is that their AI knows them better than you do. As you learn the tactics and advance in level your team is given more and more impressive talents and weapons to fight with; unfortunately the enemies get those same gifts resulting in a game that starts off difficult and doesn't get any easier.
As well as the lengthy single-player campaign Natural Doctrine offers a wealth of cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes. These take the same box of toys from the single-player game, and lets you play with them in some inventive scenarios. There’s even a collectable card game-style component and the ability to collect enemies from the single-player campaign. It’s interesting enough and varied enough to keep you coming back as long as you’re playing with patient friends with plenty of time on their hands.
The game is available on PS3, PS Vita and PS4 and has cross play and cross save functionality. Not only are you able to play the multiplayer. with users on different Sony platforms, but you are able to upload your game saves to PSN and play on whatever platform you’re using. Unfortunately the game is not cross buy, so if you want to take advantage of that feature you will have to buy it on each platform you own.
There’s a thin line between rock-hard gameplay and a broken game and while Natural Doctrine runs up to that line repeatedly it manages to never actually cross it. What it does manage, however, is to be a great example of the genre while also doing very little to bring it into the twenty-first century. The enjoyment found here depends on the gamer coming to it; one gamer’s excruciatingly difficult and confusing is another’s deep and complex, and it’s the latter group NISA are going after with everything they asked for. It would just be nice if they could give a little extra too