Platforms: PS Vita (reviewed) | PS3 | PS4 (cross-save)
Developer: Kadokawa Shoten
Natural Doctrine (that's enough with the capitalisation already) is my cup of tea. As a fan of niche localised JRPGs, turn-based strategy and turn-based strategy RPGs, I am this game's target audience. It's not so much "up my street" as "moved into my spare bedroom, sprawled on my sofa, eating my crisps and beckoning me to play it at all hours of the day and night."
We'd be the perfect room mates, if only it would stop punching me in the balls every few minutes.
Natural Doctrine may be a ruthless SRPG with a solid plot, decent characters and some interesting gameplay mechanics, but it sacrifices far too much in an effort to be as obnoxiously difficult as possible.
The premise is solid enough and down-to-Earth by JRPG standards. A team of mercenary explorers make their living clearing out Goblins and far worse creatures that inhabit dungeons and mines around the last bastion of human civilization, eschewing the clichéd 'amnesiac orphan with trendy hair, a great destiny and obession with a particular foodstuff' bit for professional freelancers with a job to do. And a robot. I like that immensely. As such, I found the cast eminently relateable and the story, doled out by finding plot threads in the dungeons themselves, to be pleasantly engaging.
It's just the framework for the tactical action, though, which initially reminded me of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Throughout isometric sprawling dungeons that can be viewed in top-down or over-the-shoulder viewpoints, we'll command our team of trained killers in tight and brutal turn-based battles. Characters act in order of initiative, able to move a set distance and draw on a selection of skills that befit their role, from shieldbearing defence to brutal melee swipes, distant sniping, magical skills and situational abilities such as bombs or healing potions.
Line-of-sight, unit placement and vertical positioning are incredibly important, as the aggressive AI will take every advantage it can, meaning that you'll have to keep a cool head, think several moves ahead and use every weapon in your arsenal to survive. This excellent foundation is built upon yet further by a modular skill system that lets you set up custom builds to fit every situation you face, and gradually grind your way past a tough fight by revisiting earlier stages to find hidden rooms and tougher challenges.
I wish, more than anything, that Kadokawa had stopped there and polished the mechanics they had! Natural Selection could have been nothing less than the niche Japanese XCOM. Unfortunately, this top-level strategy is underpinned by an opaque and obtuse set of extra systems that serve only to flummox and punish even the most tactically-minded players.
Each map is subdivided into rectangular sections known as Areas, effectively becoming a chessboard that lets you stack up multiple units on each square, then link their attacks and skills together. Units can jump up the initiative order by linking themselves to a faster comrade, allowing you to queue up devastating sequences of chained skills ahead of time. On the flip-side, though, enemies can and will use it too, and it practically breaks the game.
The turn order means nothing, as powerful foes can gleefully bypass their turn order without any warning to godstomp your party multiple times before you get a look-in. Tactical positioning means nothing, as even if you put shieldbearers in front of your vulnerable ranged attackers, they'll move out of the way to let melee foes past. Hell, your gunslingers will even run to the front of the grid to make it easier for them! Melee units gain bonus damage by placing themselves far away from other friendlies, meaning that they'll somehow hit harder if they stand behind your ranged attackers!
Effectively you have to start thinking in terms of areas rather than individual units, but even after hours of play, this counter-intuitive, poorly-explained and needlessly obtuse system will result in countless "wuh?" moments as a solid plan crumbles because the game's rules are exceptionally difficult to grasp and seem to keep changing on a whim.
But they can be grasped. Study the manual. Commit yourself. Learn. There is plenty of meaningful depth to be found here, even if the game has to beat it into you.
Sadly this doesn't excuse a series of atrocious design decisions intended to abuse players as roundly as possible.
Where to start? After defeating enemies in an adjacent area, melee units always automatically charge into the next zone without any opportunity to choose their placement or activate a defensive skill, leaving them open and vulnerable to attack through no fault of your own. Sometimes foes lurk on the other side of the door and crucify you after opening it, with little chance to form an effective counter. Often you'll encounter a powerful creature behind a door, only you can't view its statistics ahead of time, meaning that it could wipe out your party within seconds.
Friendly fire will often see snipers shooting their own party members, even if they're willing to move to let enemies hit them more conveniently. RNG can put great plans to rout. Eventually it boils down to trial and error. Odds are incredibly long and creatures often feel over-levelled even on the easiest difficulty setting, and as mentioned, the rules keep seeming to change to suit the enemy, not you.
Even now, I want to forgive Natural Doctrine. I could have forgiven Natural Doctrine. Its pros still outweigh the many, many cons, especially if you love a challenge. And yet, it torpedoes almost all of this goodwill with just one fatal purposeful design decision. Consider this:
Battles can last upwards of an hour. There are no in-game saves. It hinges around trial and error. And you get an instant Game Over if any one character hits 0HP.
This, more than anything, marks out Natural Doctrine as a game obsessed with difficulty rather than rewarding challenge. When an hour of gameplay can be wasted because a tough enemy stuck two fingers up at the turn order and got a cheeky crit, something has gone horribly wrong. XCOM, Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre and even Dark Souls are more lenient than that. It disrespects your time, pure and simple. The result is a game that feels like it's constantly punishing you, and makes every victory feel like a fluke rather than a hard-won deserved win.
To reiterate: I am Natural Doctrine's target audience. I love the genre, I love Japanese games, I love a challenge and I actually love Natural Doctrine in its own sadistic way. But even though I genuinely rate so much of what it has to offer, and it does so much right, I just can't recommend it to all but a tiny subsection of borderline-masochistic genre fans. There's something wrong here... and as luck would have it, that's the first sentence of our 4/10 rating criteria. My hands are tied.
- Some excellent strategic mechanics and compellingly tough battles
- Solid premise and likeable characters
- Truly brilliant modular skill system
- Obtuse and unnecessary extra systems can break your strategy
- Numerous abusive design decisions designed for punishment, not challenge
- Horrible lack of mid-mission saves and instant game overs; willing to waste hours of progress
- Too heavily based on trial & error
The Short Version: Natural Doctrine gets so much right. A strong premise, great top-level strategic mechanics, sensational skill system and ruthless tactical battles ought to have made this a left-field cult smash.
So it breaks my heart that what could have been the niche Japanese XCOM is scuppered by its obsession with being as obtuse and punishing as possible, willing to obscure and even break its own rules in the process. Iron-willed veterans with a stomach for sadism might find much to love here, but conflicted as I am, I just can't recommend it in good conscience.
A note on versions and production values: I reviewed this game exclusively on Vita, where its visuals are no great shakes, but do the job reasonably well despite a little slowdown in a few larger battles. However, I suspect that the PS3 and PS4 versions will look considerably worse in comparison.
I was also unable to test the cross-save functionality, but have been reliably informed that it works as intended.