Natural Doctrine (PS3) Review
Not so much?
Geoff has long wanted to prove himself as an adventurer – but when he and his allies start taking part in expeditions down goblin-infested mines, they end up with more than they bargained for. After stumbling upon a deadly new type of monster, Geoff and his team find themselves on a quest not only to […]
Geoff has long wanted to prove himself as an adventurer – but when he and his allies start taking part in expeditions down goblin-infested mines, they end up with more than they bargained for. After stumbling upon a deadly new type of monster, Geoff and his team find themselves on a quest not only to alert the authorities about this new threat, but to tackle whatever monsters their adventures thrust upon them.
As you might have guessed from the opening paragraph, Natural Doctrine isn’t a game that’s too concerned with plot. There are no lengthy cut scenes or full motion videos here; instead, you bare bones account of the story via subdued text-based exchanges either on the world map or in dungeons. In fact, a lot of the time you’re cut so adrift that you’ll be staring at the world map wondering if exploring all these similar-looking dungeons is actually advancing the story at all.
Get into battle, however, and it soon becomes clear where the developers were devoting all their efforts. The starting tutorials may not clarify things as much as you’d like, but they do demonstrate that there’s a lot of meat to the gameplay. Indeed, instead of just ripping off the usual turn- and grid-based systems, Natural Doctrine goes some way towards rebuilding SRPGs from the ground up.
The battlefield is divided into large square sub-areas, within which characters can move freely. Players move through ally-controlled areas (blue) until they encounter enemy-controlled areas (red), which, naturally, can only be conquered by defeating the enemies within. Melee attackers can attack adjacent areas, whilst gunners and mages can attack up to two squares away – and here’s where things get interesting. When your character gets a turn, nearby characters can ‘link’ with them to pre-empt the enemy and get in extra attacks. The early tutorials try to give you tips about how to place your characters and choose your attacks to maximise the potential of this function, but it can all feel a bit mystifying nonetheless, and it takes some trial and error to really understand what’s going on.
Unfortunately, experimenting with gameplay tactics comes at a cost. Unlike other SRPGs, where you generally get to fight on until your last character gets KO’ed, in Natural Doctrine, it’s game over as soon as a single character bites the dust. Admittedly, the levels do include checkpoints so you don’t always have to start over, but these can seem few and far between in the harder levels. It makes gameplay more stressful, and certainly discourages exploration and experimentation – for example, many levels have optional extra doors that you can open to penetrate deeper into the dungeon, but you should open them at your peril. All too often, they contain powerful monsters or hordes of enemies that will overrun you before you even get the chance to fight back.
All this isn’t to say that Natural Doctrine isn’t fun. It’s just that deriving fun from it can sometimes feel like hard work. As you start to get to grips with the battle system and make progress with a level, the game can feel rewarding – but then in short order enemy gunners and mages have ganged up on you, someone’s been KO’ed and you’re back at the dreaded game over screenn Couple this with the lack of story direction the game gives you anyway, and it can sometimes feel like you’re just grinding gears and not actually getting anywhere.
Japanese games are generally known for being brightly-coloured and pleasing to the eye, but here again Natural Doctrine is the exception, favouring a more subdued, functional colour palette that wouldn’t be out of place in a Western game. It’s not a feast for the eyes the way the more anime-inspired games can be, but it works well in setting a subdued, battle-focussed tone for the game. The background music is largely repetitive and forgettable, but the voice-acting is solid – or is at least minimal enough not to become intrusive and annoying.
Natural Doctrine is not a game that holds your hand. With its sparse story and intricate gameplay, it’s easy to feel a little stranded, whilst the demands of keeping all your characters alive might just might lead you to want to throw your controller across the room. If you have the patience to accept the game overs and invest time in mastering the gameplay, then you’ll find this game very rewarding. But if you don’t want to work too hard for your gratification, then you might want to give this one a miss.