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Natural Doctrine review

Strategy Darwinism

In my formative gaming years, I had a certain elementary-school classmate who, in retrospect, took advantage of the “my house, my rules” concept just a little too much. If I wanted to challenge him to a game of Pro Wrestling on the NES, I’d have to endure 10 free moves at the start of each match before he’d let me get in even a single punch. (Oh, and did I mention that he got to use the NES Advantage’s turbo buttons while I got stuck with the dinky regular NES controller?)

Needless to say, those were odds even a smirking, slack-jawed carny running a ring-toss challenge would admit were a tad rigged. Playing Natural Doctrine, a hardcore strategy-RPG from nascent Japanese developer Kadokawa Games, reminded me of those naïve, glutton-for-punishment days—the game is like a petulant child who just has to have its way at every turn. I’ve played my share of strategy-RPGs over the years, but I’ve never played one teeming with such potential yet so brutally botched with utterly inelegant, unfair design.

Despite how much I generally enjoy the tried-and-true Final Fantasy Tactics formula, let’s face it: Strategy games need a little shake-up every now and then. Like just about all tactical titles, Natural Doctrine divides its combat maps into tiles, but here, several party members can occupy them at a time. From there, it’s not a simple matter of moving a single warrior forward and attacking. Instead, the key to victory is linking attacks together and using the science of Euclidian geometry to find the best angle—literally—to deal the most damage.

The key, however, is making sure that one action leads into another. For example, one party member might guard, which counts as an action, leading into a flourishing sword attack from another character. Once you stop linking up, the time for planning ends, and your actions are set in motion. In theory, then, you can potentially exploit this system to produce multiple attacks on the enemy, even if it’s not a particular party member’s “turn” in battle. If you use a potion on yourself, that won’t extend your attack, but if you toss one in a party member’s direction, that will continue the link.

Sound complex and confusing? It’s certainly harder to grasp than your typical strategy-RPG—see goblin, whack goblin—and the game does a truly atrocious job of explaining itself every step of the way, but after you’ve had your trials by fire, it’s ultimately rewarding to experiment with the angles and figure out ways to extend your turn in order to inflict just one more shot on the enemy and give yourself a fighting chance.

…Or it would be, if not for some disastrously punitive measures that suck out much of the potential fun. Now, it’s not unreasonable that Natural Doctrine presents a challenge—you’d expect a game ostensibly based on the Darwinian concepts of the survival of the fittest to be tough, after all. I could write thousands of words on the ways Natural Doctrine gets it wrong, but the main problem boils down to this: If just one of your party members dies, the game ends. Instantly. With no shot at revival.

Imagine Final Fantasy IV immediately ending if Rydia dies in some random battle in the desert. That’s what Natural Doctrine felt like to me, time and again. And even in games where the death of the protagonist means failure, like some of the Persona titles, you can base your strategy around protecting the main character. Not here.

I will admit, however, to succumbing to an odd, prideful addiction with Natural Doctrine—and maybe that’s because, if I squint, I can see a bit of Advance Wars and its ilk. Sure, some of the challenge in those games lies in figuring out the right puzzle pieces to move in order and find the “correct” solution to a map. I get that, and some of that is present here at times, too. But a lot of the appeal of Advance Wars would be gone if losing a single unit meant an instant game over. Even in Fire Emblem, where permadeath is a possibility, falling on the battlefield doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s gone for good—and it certainly doesn’t mean game over.

It’s also baffling to me that, even after hearing all the complaints that the Japanese version was far too difficult, Kadokawa did nothing at all to remedy that in this version. Well, that’s not entirely true. They included an Easy mode that, by all appearances, plays exactly the same as the Normal option. While the North American version does add checkpoints (not implemented particularly well, I might add), the actual combat feels indistinguishable between difficulty levels.

It’s a testament to Natural Doctrine, then, that in spite of all that, I generally wanted to keep playing…at least to a point. That’s partly because of some of the ways the game lets you approach combat. For example, you can totally rearrange your skill tree before every battle, a nice touch that I’d like to see other strategy games implement.

Another intriguing element is the game’s shared MP stash, referred to in-game as “Pluton.” This means you don’t really have to worry about a particular character running out of casting spells in a given battle, so you can focus on taking advantage of a magic-user’s talents instead of holding him back. The only problem? You can actually run out of Pluton eventually due to its finite nature in the game’s world. So, in theory, you could reach the final area and not have enough Pluton for the final battle—though I tended to be judicious with my use and always had plenty on hand. While this might sound like the worst design decision in the game, it didn’t really affect me in any way.

Those positives, however, are vastly outweighed by the way the enemy exploits the link system for all it’s worth—and given that you’re laughably outnumbered on every battlefield, you can expect to sit there waiting as they plot out their strategy in interminable fashion. It’s downright ludicrous at times, as the enemy sets up intricate plans of attack that look like some monstrous version of Vince Lombardi diagramming his famous Green Bay Sweep on a chalkboard.

And, yeah, if all I had to do was gang up and kill one enemy to succeed in a 10-on-5 battle where I had the numerical advantage, I’d probably show the same swagger and strut these dumb goblins do. Instead, these critters come off as silly as my old elementary-school chum—gloating over a victory that was rigged right from the start.

Now, you might say that all of this is on purpose and appropriate—after all, survival of the fittest, right? But what makes me question the competency of the core combat tenets is that plenty of other things are a mess, too. The interface is bizarrely complicated and feels like it’s designed for a control scheme that’s missing a crucial button or analog stick, such as on the PSP. Let me put it this way: If I select “Wound Recovery” and hit the X button twice, that action should not heal the enemy! I should need to go out of my way to do that.

The level layouts and navigation are also needlessly convoluted, partly due to the link system, which doesn’t take into account how absurdly plodding its pace can get when there aren’t any enemies in the area—particularly since Natural Doctrine requires that, once all the enemies on the battlefield are defeated, you must advance to the exit. If I’ve defeated every last enemy and gotten every treasure, why not just let me end the level automatically?

You know what’s most frustrating about Natural Doctrine? I know the developers behind the game are much better than this. I hold their previous work—which includes the rhythm-infused PSP title Patapon—in high regard, and the staff purportedly includes veterans of two landmark strategy releases, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. What’s more, the characters, story, and localization are all much better than you’d expect in the tactical genre, and I genuinely wanted to see which way the narrative went next. (Even if the cast does include a dude named Zekelinde.)

And it’s not like I flee in horror from games like this—far from it. One of my favorite gaming hobbies is discovering obscure Japanese strategy-RPGs. Eternal Poison, a dark, gothic tactical gem from Flight-Plan, was one of my favorites in the waning days of the PS2. Jeanne d’Arc, Level-5’s stellar, surreal take on the Hundred Years’ War that featured an English army with beastmen and lizard people among its ranks and turned the titular French martyr into a warrior princess with Sailor Moon–style transformative powers, was one of my favorite PSP titles, period. I even stumbled upon one of the Fire Emblem entries years ago at an import shop before it had any sort of traction in the West. I’ll always give strategy games a longer leash than just about anything else, and I gave Natural Doctrine plenty of rope.

That’s one of the reasons I had a difficult time arriving at my final score, because I can see so much potential here, and I did want to give the game some credit for the moments (however fleeting) in which I genuinely had a fun time. I can definitely see some exceedingly patient strategy fans finding something of worth here—like I said, there’s a weirdly addictive quality to be found, even through all the countless frustration.

But I just can’t go so far as to give this a passing score. I would never want to be lured into buying a subpar strategy-RPG because of a reviewer’s recommendation, even a tepid one, and I don’t want to do that to anyone out there. After all, there are plenty of excellent under-the-radar Japanese strategy games already available on Sony platforms. Support them instead.

★★☆☆☆

While its refreshing combat offers a different kind of strategy-RPG challenge, some ridiculously punitive design decisions sabotage a good deal of the potential fun in Natural Doctrine. Considering the experienced pedigree of the developers involved—they count Patapon among their previous works—that's simply inexcusable.

Developer
Kadokawa Games
Publisher
NIS America
ESRB
M – Mature
Release Date
09.30.2014
Natural Doctrine is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PS Vita. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Code/hardware was provided by NIS America for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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