Natural Doctrine - Review  

Natural RPG Selection
by Michael "Wheels" Apps

Click here for game
PS4 PSVita
40-60 Hours
+ Deep and challenging battle system
+ Fantastic character skill mechanics
+ Varied battle scenarios keep things fresh
- Frustrating magic point system.
- Battles too slow at times
- Undercooked story and setting
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   Natural Doctrine is the first game to be developed solely by Kadokawa Games. Taking a vastly different approach to the strategy RPG genre, Natural Doctrine proves to be a fresh and challenging adventure that doesn't play quite like any other game on the market. There are, however, a number of things about Natural Doctrine that may turn off players. Not necessarily because they are bad, but largely because of how different they are from the average strategy RPG. To put it simply, Natural Doctrine is not a game for the faint of heart.

   Natural Doctrine's story would best be described as undercooked. Nothing about it is particularly bad, even if its premise of an invading army of evil bugs is a bit cliché. Instead, the issue is that nothing gets developed with any degree of depth. The story focuses on a warrior named Geoff and his companions as they try to become explorers, which will allow them to become official citizens of the city of Feste. While exploring a goblin mine they come across the bugs for the first time, and from there set off on adventure that has them at odds with Feste's officials, Orcs, and other creatures before eventually directly tackling the bug threat. There's a colorful cast of party members, but the backstories, world history, and character motivations are all glanced over quickly to the point where the player will likely think they've missed something. The localization and the characters' voice acting are all very well done. It's just the original source material that is clearly lacking. It's a shame too, as the world is interesting and what story there is keeps things moving along nicely. There just isn't enough for it to be anything more than window dressing.

   Natural Doctrine does not take a traditional approach to strategy RPGs. Battlefields are three-dimensional and are broken up into various squares of space, however movement within these squares is free-form. This means that though characters can move only within a set range of squares each turn, they are free to move anywhere within these squares, taking advantage of cover, line of sight, and other environmental factors. Playable characters include several close-range fighters, gunners, and magic users. The most important member of the party, however, is a somewhat cliché young girl who controls a giant golem. This golem can serve as a movable wall from which the player's long range fighters can work behind. This is vitally important in dealing with Natrual Doctrine's most daunting challenge: if even a single character falls in battle, it's game over. This makes the game sound incredibly challenging, and it is at times. Thankfully, for the most part there are many tools available to the player and checkpoints in battle so that this difficulty is largely mitigated.

No line of sight troubles
                                        here. No line of sight troubles here.

   One of the primary tools at the player's disposal is Link Turns. Each round, each character only has one guaranteed turn. However, each action aside from just ending a character's turn allows certain other party members to act as well. For example, attacking an enemy will allow all characters in attacking range of that enemy to act. By carefully reserving a few characters, smart players will be able to have party members act many times each round. Of course, the flip side is enemies have this same ability, so they can and will do the same. A turn order list is displayed at the top the screen, allowing careful planning to take out the next enemy to act or prepare appropriate defenses. In addition to the controlled actions, player characters and enemies will counter an action against them with one counterattack, and even more importantly gunners will fire on nearby opponents before they act. This makes placement of these characters, and noting the placement of enemy gunners, vitally important.

   Skills for characters are about as would be expected. Warriors have various strike types, gunners have skills that add more damage or more shots, mages have both offensive and defensive magic, and the golem can smash things a good deal. Some characters also have buffs that can power up the entire party, wherever they are, and also create Link Turns for all of them. Characters gain a skill point each time they level up, but interestingly they can re-spec between battles as often as the player likes. This allows for lots of tinkering and readjusting party specialization to change strategies for tough battles.

   There are lots of places where the readjustment options prove very handy, as Natural Doctrine is not content to throw the player into simple scenarios. Though the ultimate goal is generally to take out all enemies or a boss, the way the game does this quite varied. Surprise reinforcements, bosses that require constant fire and retreat tactics, and even one battle that gives the player just two gunners, one warrior, and a mage to face an army are the name of the game. There are a number of battles that also require careful retreat, guarding certain areas, and other objectives as well. If the player needs to grind, there also goblin mines to explore which provide hidden treasure and plenty of enemies to fight. These mines can prove necessary to explore to some extent, as there are no shops in the game to purchase provisions from. Treasure chests will contain equipment and also the game's form of magic points, which is where one of the game's biggest issues come in.

Teaming up to take down
                                        large enemies is vital to
                                        success. Teaming up to take down large enemies is vital to success.

   Instead of a traditional source that regenerates, magic uses Pluton, a non-regenerating resource that is shared across the whole party and can only be acquired from treasure chests. The player will only have one wizard most of the game, but other characters eventually get skills that use this resource as well. Maintaining a decent supply quickly gets troublesome, requiring repeated visits to goblin mines to restock after a few battles. It's a strange design decision that cuts into the game's fun. Almost as if the developers realized this mistake, healing potions are a resource that restores between battles, and the number of potions is based on skills characters can acquire. The game does throw the player a bone late in the game in a few respects, but grinding for Pluton will still be a oft-repeated task by the game's final chapter.

   Visuals are not traditionally the strongest point of strategy RPGs, and that continues here. There's nothing strictly wrong with the graphics. Character portraits are colorful, if a bit generic, and the whole game looks and animates relatively nicely even on Vita. There's just nothing particularly special about anything. The bugs and other creatures have stereotypical designs, and the cast of playable characters wouldn't look out of place in just about any anime-inspired RPG. Similarly, the music is mostly forgettable but never bad or bothersome enough to become a distraction. It's a shame there isn't much distinctive about Natural Doctrine's visual style, as its unique and interesting battle system feels like it deserves a more distinctive look. Still, the graphics and music work and there's nothing that will really bother players.

   Natural Doctrine is a tough nut to crack. Having to keep the entire party alive is a big style shift from the average strategy RPG that makes the game extremely tough to get used to. This is exacerbated by its slow pace and the odd requirement at times to move the entire party, turn by turn, to a battle's exit. Those that can survive the natural selection process, however, will find a smart and thrilling strategy RPG requiring players to think carefully about all aspects of a battle from character placement and line of sight to turn manipulation and potion supply. Battles are incredibly rewarding and the character skill trees are fun to experiment with thanks to unlimited respecing. There are even post game challenges for courageous players to challenge. If not for some rough spots like the ho-hum audio-visual department, and non-factor of a story, Natural Doctrine could have been an instant classic. As it stands though, it is a fascinating strategy RPG that anyone who loves strategy RPGs needs to play.

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