It’s funny how a game’s title can tell us a lot, but also very little about what to expect from a game. When I look at something like NAtURAL DOCtRINE, I always imagine some form of animal simulation based on the idea of natural selection, or some bizarre offshoot of that idea, like Tokyo Jungle. Instead, what you get is a tough as nails tactical RPG that can be as fun as it is frustrating. Perhaps a bit too much of the latter.
NAtURAL DOCtRINE centers around a mercenary-like group of people known as Bergmans. These folks go into mines inhabited by goblins in order to retrieve an energy source known as Pluton. Naturally, these goblins won’t let their harvest go without a fight, and thus the Bergmans wipe them out and take it by force. On one of these seemingly routine expeditions, Geoff and his crew encounter a group of mysterious bug-like creatures that don’t think twice about snacking on humanoid creatures. This sets off a chain of events that has them scrambling for a solution, all while staving off other humans that are hot on their trail.
Even though the plot is far from the main draw of the game, it does a solid job of tying the experience together. Geoff and company are likable enough characters, and their banter between maps helps cement this point. Don’t let the generic nature of the early game fool you though. I had little interest in the proceedings until an early game plot twist had my jaw on the floor. It’s still not a game I would recommend for its story, but if you’re going to be playing it anyway, at least it keeps things interesting.
The real star of the show is the difficult tactical combat, and in that sense, NAtURAL DOCtRINE delivers. On any given map, you’ll usually be in control of a number of units that can fit on one hand. While that seems a tad limited and unfair, considering the enemy counts you’ll be facing (and it certainly can be), the key is in manipulating what is called Initiative, which is tracked on the top of the screen. When one of your characters has Initiative, it opens up an opportunity to get link turns for your other party members, essentially enabling them to act out of turn if the conditions are right. If you play your cards wisely, you can use each character multiple times per turn and completely shut down the enemy before they even have a chance to act.
On a given turn, your characters will move about the map in real time on gridded areas. Action is viewed from an overhead perspective by default, but can be changed to a third person view (not unlike Valkyria Chronicles) if you so prefer. Positioning is everything, especially when it comes to fighting ranged foes, so hiding behind walls or characters with shields is every bit as helpful as it sounds. Each character also has innate abilities, such as Anka’s ability to open locked chests, so another aspect of the strategy goes towards utilizing them to their fullest. Your party members earn points upon level up to be dispersed into a number of different talent trees, and they can be reset between battle as much as you see fit, so you’re never locked into a specific build if you find that you made a mistake. Geoff in particular can be built into virtually any kind of characters, and the difficult nature of the combat encourages experimentation on that level.
Engaging foes may produce lines connecting your party members together, and depending on your distance between them, may result in a more favorable outcome. This further reinforces the idea that it’s beneficial to keep your party members close and link turns together to gang up on the enemy. It takes some getting used to, but when things click into place, it is a load of fun to shut down the opposition in one swift turn. The tutorials included with the game do a fair job of teaching you these mechanics and even walk you through some scenarios step by step where you can employ more advanced techniques. But that’s where the hand-holding stops.
Not that it’s the job of NAtURAL DOCtRINE to hand you a victory at every opportunity, but it can be downright unreasonable at times. Battles are often very long, and while there are checkpoints sprinkled in on occasion, it was never obvious to me when they occurred. In some cases, they would never occur at all, even after playing for a good 20-30 minutes on a map. All it takes is for one character to fall to erase a good chunk of progress up to that point. Considering some of the more squishy characters can die in one hit with no chance of reviving mid-battle, it happens much more frequently than you’d think. There was one occasion where I opened up a door with my tanking character, only to get felled in one shot. Other doors caused me to get blasted with multiple gunshot wounds before I could even take a turn to react. It certainly doesn’t help that battles progress sooo slooow. A fast forward feature was included to move enemy turns along, but this shaves off seconds at best. Remember that initiative/linking system I spoke of earlier? Yeah, the enemy party can take advantage of that too, and boy do they ever. Try not to rip out your hair when goblins take twenty five turns in a row to completely surround and subsequently spank you. There’s an easy difficulty setting alright, but it isn’t that easy, and if you don’t approach a map the way that the developers intended you to, expect to be promptly shown the Game Over screen.
Oh, did I mention yet that there’s friendly fire? There’s friendly fire.
There are no real towns to visit, or even shops for that matter. Healing items come from your talent trees and are replenished after each map. Any weapons or armor that you need must be obtained during battles, which is both a blessing and a curse. During free maps that can be replayed over and over, farming said items becomes easy, whereas one time story battles limit you to one opportunity to collect the goods before they’re lost forever.
The low budget nature of the experience shines through to its presentation. I’m not sure what the PS4 could possibly do to improve the visuals, but there are PS2 titles that are more aesthetically pleasing than this. Not that a game of this genre necessarily needs to look that good, what with all the numbers and data that you’ll be observing instead. Just don’t go in expecting Disgaea levels of insane special attacks. It’s also very dark and quite gory at times, with sword strikes spilling pools of blood everywhere. Not God of War disgusting, mind you, but graphic all the same.
The soundtrack matches the darker tone of the scenery, and while it’s not particularly standout, it does lend itself well to the experience. I was surprised to hear that they recorded an English dub for this game, and they actually do a pretty solid job. Their battle quotes that play on each turn tend to get very repetitive though, which no matter how talented they are will come across as incredibly grating. Beware of Vasily in particular.
I was surprised to see that there were a number of neat features that I didn’t expect would be included in a release such as this. For one, save data is cross compatible with all versions of the game. So, if you decided to upgrade from the PS3 to the PS4 version, or perhaps you want one console edition and one copy of the Vita release to take on the road, you don’t have to start from scratch each time. Also, there are competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes (which I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to properly test prior to this writing) that are cross play enabled as well. Have a buddy that owns the game on another platform? Not a problem, you can still play together. I would love to see this utilized in more games.
NAtURAL DOCtRINE has a lot of enjoyable traits that just so happen to be rolled up with some less than desirable ones. I look at it like this: if you want a strategy RPG that respects your time as a player, this is probably not the game for you. There’s a sharp learning curve and I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to die. A lot. And probably even lose a lot of progress as a result, especially since you can’t save mid-battle (particularly alarming on maps that can take up to an hour to finally figure out how to successfully complete them). On the other hand, if you want a challenging game with a satisfying risk vs. reward system and don’t mind the level of failure it will take to get you there, you’re in the right place.
Short Attention Span Summary
Strategy RPG’s don’t come much more difficult than this. NAtURAL DOCtRINE is one of those titles that’s a challenge to make a recommendation on simply because of how abrasive it is. However, I also don’t want to simply tell people NOT to buy it, as there are a lot of great ideas at work. You just have to contend with a number of obtuse and potentially rage quitting mechanics in order to get to them. To its credit, the game does a solid job of teaching you how to play, and when things come together, the thrill of clearing a map is incredibly satisfying. On the other hand, it’s hard to look past having your progress practically reset on every death, made more excruciating by the slow pace of the game. Just make sure to ask yourself what your priorities are before taking the plunge.