In Natural Doctrine the whole world is against you. Set in a fictional realm where fantasy meets technology, the game probes into the theory of natural selection and, for once, humanity is at the bottom end of the food chain. It’s a brutal backdrop and one that does well to reflect how the game plays, serving up an unforgiving yet rewarding hardcore strategy role-playing experience.
Coming exclusively to PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita, Natural Doctrine is Kadokawa Games’ first title to be developed in-house. Don’t be surprised if it’s a name you haven’t come across before; despite having been in the publishing biz for half a century, the Japanese media giant has only recently turned its attention to the gaming industry.
The studio is hardly lacking in pedigree, however, with former Square-Enix producer, Kensuke Tanaka, being the mastermind behind its debut launch. Having worked on a plethora of Japanese role-playing games, Tanaka-san was displeased with where the genre was heading. An increasing emphasis on drawn-out narrative and hand-holding would eventually lead him to depart Square and helm Kadokawa’s first internal venture.
In some respects, we can see where he’s coming from. Though most Japanese role-playing games are still fairly challenging, they are a far cry from what they were in their Famicom/PlayStation heyday. With that said, Tanaka and the team at Kadokawa aren’t trying to turn the clock back, nor have they made Natural Doctrine difficult just for the sake of being labelled “hardcore”.
However, when the game launched in Japan this April, some of those who picked up a copy thought otherwise. Soon after release, Kadokawa trawled through fan feedback, finding that many found the game almost unbeatable, prompting them to patch Natural Doctrine post-launch. Instead of nerfing every enemy unit across the board, the team went about rebalancing select parts while still making sure there was still plenty of challenge.
Aside from limiting the amount of hand-holding in Natural Doctrine, Kadokawa has also avoided another pitfall by streamlining its narrative. The team feels that some Japanese role-playing games are too bogged down by complex backstories and exhaustive plots. While some, like the Shin Megami Tensei series, benefit from a story-heavy approach, others have suffered, namely Final Fantasy and its confusing Fabula Nova Crystallis universe. Though there is still a narrative thread to lead players through the game, Natural Doctrine forgoes laborious cutscenes and drawn-out dialogue to keep players firmly poised on the action. Good thing too, as there’s plenty to keep track of when both in and out of missions.
Part of Natural Doctrine’s difficulty is born from its myriad strategic systems, some of which will be familiar to those who have played games such as Valkyria Chronicles, Tactics Ogre, and Fire Emblem. Also inspired by tabletop wargaming, Natural Doctrine has the player and their opponent deploy their units, usually at opposite sides of the battlefield. This area is then broken into smaller sections that make up a grid, each map also having its own terrain, obstacles, and pathways.
In most strategy role-playing games, you’ll find yourself moving units from square to square, getting ready to line up for an attack. With Natural Doctrine it’s pretty much the same though there are also number of complex systems at work, all of which need monitoring as missions plays out. The first and most crucial of these is the “Link” system which is visualised through a series of ribbons that connect units on the battlefield.
It may take a while to learn the ins and out though, basically, these links form bonds, bestowing bonuses upon units depending where they are geographically. For instance, if there is more than one unit in the same grid space, they will grant each other an attack boost when in combat with the enemy. Additionally, a number of Natural Doctrine’s support abilities will also rely on this mechanic, limiting their range to units within a certain distance.
As a result, those who break away from the main force can often be left vulnerable, creating a risk reward dynamic. This will sometimes be a necessary tactic, however, fragmenting your forces in order to draw the AI to and from certain points on the map. Clustering your units together can also make you an easy target for ranged attackers whose aim is determined purely by line of sight. Much like a tabletop wargame, if you can see a unit, however obscured, you can blast a few rounds in their direction.
Another key part to gameplay in Natural Doctrine is the use of magic. Though foot soldiers and ranged units have their part to play, mages are particularly important, given their arcane arsenal of attacks and support abilities. As in any role-playing game, casting these spells consumes “mana”, “MP”, or in Natural Doctrine’s case, “Pluton”. The real difference here is that Pluton is a physical object, a powerful substance so strong that it’s measured in grams. More importantly, once used, Pluton isn’t regenerated; you’ll need to find more. This is where players will have to start devising long-term strategies when playing Natural Doctrine. Use spells and abilities too often in one mission and, chances are, you may not have enough Pluton to lift you out of a dire situation later on in the campaign.
Pluton also serves as one of the game’s plot points. As touched on before, humanity is trying to survive in a world overrun by orcs, lizardfolk, and the undead while also dealing with its own internal struggles. Some humans are simply left to die, roaming the world as the vagrants, though many have flocked to Feste, a fortress that stands as humanity’s last bastion. Getting into Feste is easier said than done, however. Run by a corrupt elite, Natural Doctrine’s protagonists go in search of Pluton in order to buy themselves citizenship within its walls.
It’s a sound premise, and one that promises to lead players through a slew of locations as the story twists and turns. Those hoping to bag a copy of Natural Doctrine when it launches in September will also be happy to hear that the voice work in cutscenes has been fully localised. In the international version includes an the exclusive “Lethal Mode”, reviving the brutal difficulty that brought Japanese gamers to their knees at launch. Needless to say, this one’s strictly reserved for strategy veterans and downright masochists.
Natural Doctrine’s appeal should extend far beyond this niche, however, hopefully bringing a new generation of RPG gamers into the fold as well as those who have recently felt alienated by the genre. Not wanting any PlayStation fans to miss out, NIS America is bringing the game to all current Sony platforms, also allowing for both cross-save and cross-play.
Speaking of multiplayer, in Natural Doctrine you will be able to take your skills online, competing against players from all over the world. Here, you are free to create your own custom armies, using a variety of unit types unlocked during play. To keep things fair, each one has a points value which, when added to the rest of your team, cannot exceed a certain limit. Natural Doctrine’s strategic gameplay carries directly over from the singleplayer campaign though rewards are handled differently. Aside from earning experience, you’ll also gain points which can be exchanged for booster packs. These random card drops will no doubt have players dipping into multiplayer again and again to unlock their ideal unit line-up.
Natural Doctrine certainly isn’t a game for everyone though, as we’ve seen in the past few years, more and more gamers are starting to go beyond their prescribed list of churned out sequels. Just look at Dark Souls and, perhaps more relevantly, look at XCOM: Enemy Unknown: both complex and hardcore games that managed to break into the mainstream. Whether Natural Doctrine can reach that level acclaim in the west remains to be seen yet Kadokawa remains confident, admirably giving its first in-house production the reach that it deserves.