Natural Doctrine: A Blend of Dark Souls and Tactics Ogre

There I stood, amidst a battlefield of opponents wondering how I was going to tackle Natural Doctrine’s very first “real” mission without having my hand held. I poured over the interface, trying to work in the wealth of information given to me through the laborious tutorials — specifically implemented for the game’s Western release, thanks to outcries from bewildered fans that purchased the Japanese version some months ago which stated how insanely vague the title’s integral systems were “explained” to them — planning how to approach the combat scenario before me. My champions, in all of their less-than-impressive texture work and character models (which looked more reminiscent of a late 2000s PS3 title, if we’re speaking openly here), awaited their command, giving me options to choose from such as standard and magic attacks in addition to defensive manuevering. But this wasn’t just my everyday, run-of-the-mill tactical RPG where such choices were all that stood between myself and victory; while the game’s chief designer recently went on record to emphasize the influence of classics such as Tactics Ogre and Dark Souls, Doctrine already was presenting itself as a beast of a different kind: the kind that left, not just a little, but zero room for failure with its “one character dies and its game over” attitude, and its unflinching tendency to stack the deck against players by overrunning them with, sometimes, twice as many enemies as friendly units. Clearly Natural Doctrine, already, was as hardcore as hardcore can get within its parameters.

So, deciding on a somewhat general plan of attack, I assembled my fighters and gave them movement orders. I knew I needed to make use of the game’s most important feature: Tactical Links. With these, I could gain attack bonuses and then set up assaults that could effectively kill a foe without allowing them a chance to respond with a barrage of their own through the setting up and execution of multiple character attacks in a single turn. I needed to ensure this strategy, too, as baddies in Natural Doctrine don’t hit as if they are wielding weaponized muffins; no, these guys hit and they hit hard enough to wipe out a character’s entire life bar in one-fell swoop. After all, they’re utilizing the very same Link mechanic that I needed to; sadly I found out, though, the AI is far more competent in the early-goings at using this tactic, and will take advantage of one’s newb status at any given chance. Therefore, folks wanting a fair fight, or a game that will hold back to some degree, will probably be overwhelmed by Doctrine’s persistent attitude that seems especially concerned with killing you over and over to the point of humiliation and hurling one’s Dualshock and/or Vita across the room in a fit of seething, unforgivable rage.

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But some of this difficulty can be circumvented with smart squad deployment and the ability to use some foresight. In this particular mission, I found out that planning for two-steps ahead of my current, while also factoring in possible enemy movement, was part of the Natural Doctrine experience. In fact, the game simply necessitates that kind of methodology, even if it doesn’t make it abundantly clear through words. Nevertheless, it is mandatory to make it to any length in the adventure, so coming at this unique turn-based TRPG in this way will require a kind of unique approach to the genre. While most tactical roleplaying games rely heavily on these principles, none seem to have made them as vital to success as Doctrine. This is mostly attributed to the harsh failure conditions, which as mentioned will occur if but one friendly falls in combat. As frustrating as this can be, strictly adhering to the linking process can allow for avoiding some of the Game Over screens players will see.

Fortunately, NIS America heard the outpour of complaints from Japanese players mentioning the game’s difficulty and have at least given us the opportunity to choose our degree of masochism. There are now four difficulty levels, seemingly providing something for almost everyone. I mean, if even the Japanese are bitching about how hard the game is, you know it’s probably tough-as-nails. Still, playing through the endeavor with its intended level of challenge in tact felt like the ideal way to experience Natural Doctrine’s web of combat nuances. Regardless of challenge, Natural Doctrine is a calculatingly paced game, so knowing this will be critical in how one enjoys the whole thing. For us, the plodding nature was burdensome, but it does reward player planning nonetheless; so those who like that sort of thing won’t be too bored.

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The game isn’t always about battling — though, one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to make a case for the opposite — as there is a story weaving together the skirmishes. Natural Doctrine’s tale, however, almost always feels like a background player, a mere device that exists for the sole purpose of giving purpose to the flow of swords-colliding. In any event, the characters of Doctrine’s narrative are what one might expect from a Japanese venture like this; they are pit against a backdrop of war centered around a resource known as Pluton, thus there are harrowing feats of valor, dastardly betrayals as well as a little bit of romance rounding out the plot. How it all unfolds will be assessed in our review, but as of now, everything feels par for the course given the trappings of the genre. We will say that there is at least one pretty unexpected but equally awesome plot twist a la Xenoblade Chronicles; so that counts for something here.

Natural Doctrine, outside of the aforementioned aspects, is not much of a looker in terms of aesthetics, although we wonder how much of that is due to its multiplatform availability. Since the game will be releasing on PS3, PSV and PS4, it’s trying to cover a lot of ground and tech. It’s apparent, then, that graphical corners had to be cut in order to maintain some semblance of presentation fidelity across all three systems. But even with that, Doctrine’s high-fantasy setting doesn’t always appeal thanks to some shoddy character models that appear disproportionate and some animations that are jarringly stiff.

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On the upswing, Natural Doctrine offers more than just a single-player campaign. There is a co-op option in addition to a competitive one. The online multiplayer is interesting in that it’s not the standard offering. Instead, it’s a card-battle game of sorts, wherein players square off having constructed their own deck of cards. Only time will tell if players flock to this concept, but the cooperative mode is at least a safe bet, and one that isn’t seen enough in these games. Better still, with launching on three platforms, the title does feature cross-play and cross-save (take note game companies, this is how you do it), just not cross-buy.

With Natural Doctrine’s September 23 release just a month away, we will find out soon how the game as a whole holds up. It’s evidently a game that wants to be its own thing; from the visuals to the combat mechanics, we appreciate a JRPG trying to break from the mold. Sometimes that doesn’t pan out as expected or desired, whereas other times it pays off. Where Kadakowa Games’ latest offering falls is yet to be seen. Check back the in a few weeks for our final say on the game. Oh, and about that mission? Yeah, we cleared it, but only after having died multiple times. Ah, RPG’ing in a post-Dark Souls world.