There’s a reason why Natural Doctrine has been dubbed the Demon’s Souls of the strategy role-playing genre. For a start, the game is centred around the core themes of survival and despair as humanity struggles to exist in a world overrun by all sorts of nasties. Pushed back to a small network of strongholds, very few dare to go beyond their walls, but for Natural Doctrine’s main protagonist, he had no other option.
Alongside a growing retinue of companions, he ventures into the harsh wilderness for a rare substance known as Pluton. This is essentially the life blood of all magic within the realm and comes at a high price. If able to impress the corrupt officials of Feste, Geoff and his allies will secure entry into humanity’s last remaining bastion.
It’s a basic story and one that never intrudes on the gameplay. If there’s one thing that irks us in Japanese role-playing games, it’s the ludicrous amount of exposition developers try to wedge into every nook and cranny. With Natural Doctrine, the narrative may be sluggish yet there’s breathing room, allowing players to slowly adjust to its growing cast of characters. That’s not to say there’s a twist or two lying in wait, though…
Another thing JRPGs are often guilty of is hand-holding. Although it launch a while ago, memories of Final Fantasy XIII’s prolonged introduction still haunt my mind; it not only felt drawn-out but ostentatious too. This is something game director Kensuke Tanaka picked up on and is partly responsible for his departure from Square-Enix to helm Kadokawa’s debut title.
After a few brief tutorials, Natural Doctrine tears off the stabilisers, launching players straight into the wolf pit. Here, they are left to experiment with everything they’ve been taught. Sure, you’re bound to get your ass handed to you initially, but this is arguably a better way of learning the ropes.
Using a turn-based system, players will move their characters around a battlefield divided into a grid. Each turn also offers up one action which can range from firing missiles and casting spells to using items or engaging in close combat. Once your turn has expired, the spotlight will move to the next player or NPC, unless they happen to be linked, that is.
Natural Doctrine’s “Link” system is both a blessing and a curse. Essentially, if a unit uses up an action during their turn, adjacent allies will then be able to jump the queue, ignoring the regular rules of initiative. This means that moving a single character into combat can then result in your entire team unleashing an all out offensive. Characters can also link together when in combat to increase damage and accuracy. There’s plenty of tactical opportunities to be capitalised on though players constantly need to be on their toes.
However, enemies can also make use of linking and, given their abundance, this means they can completely overrun you within seconds. Needless to say this can lead to some rather infuriating results with eight or more enemies targeting a single squad member. Oh, and did we mention that losing even one of your companions results in failure?
It’s brutal, yes, but at least there are checkpoints within missions, no matter how far they are spread apart. Though it defeats the purpose of being a hardcore strategy game, having some sort of interim save feature would have been ideal for more casual players looking to test their mettle.
In between battles, you’ll get the opportunity to top up your gear as well as the abilities of your team members. This is done by plugging points into their respective skill trees, allowing you to tweak how they perform in combat. One really refreshing aspect of this system is that you can reverse or re-spec you characters at any time.
Something players will notice as soon as they boot the game is that Natural Doctrine isn’t much of a looker. Although there are noticeable improvements for the PS4 over the PS3 and Vita versions, everything is still fairly basic. This doesn’t really put much of a dampener on the overall experience, mind you. Although the PlayStation 4 was our primary system, being able to take the game with me really enhanced the experience thanks to cross-save and cross-play, though it’s a shame that Kadokawa didn’t opt for cross-buy to get this into more people’s hands.
Natural Doctrine was never going to bring hardcore strategy to the masses. The developer knew exactly who they were targeting with their debut title and, for those players, the game will prove a worthwhile experience. For those who aren’t too hot on their strategy role playing games, however, Natural Doctrine is a risk, yet one still worth taking if you’re looking for something testing and out-of-the-norm.
Versions tested: PS4, PS Vita