Natural Doctrine Review
Make no mistake: My favorite game of all time is a turn-based strategy title (Final Fantasy Tactics) and while many critics often harp on trial-and-error, that style of gameplay has never really bothered me. I’m more patient and meticulous than most, and tasks some call tedious I often don’t mind in the least. Therefore, all things considered, I should be the perfect candidate for Natural Doctrine, a strategy/RPG with an innovative combat system and oodles of depth. And yet, I emerge mostly frustrated and disappointed, despite its potential.
I guess we have to wait for Final Fantasy XV before we’re blown away by excellent graphics in a JRPG. Over the years, the technical presentations of such games have fallen way off the pace, and that’s once again obvious here. Natural Doctrine doesn’t have the requisite detailing, polish, or flash to stand up to other PlayStation 4 titles and in fact, it looks very much like a last-gen production. The gameplay is the lone saving grace, just because you’re often so intent on combat that you’re not focusing on the lackluster visuals. There are a few nice battle effects but that’s about it.
As is typically the case with Japanese games, the audio is more subjective than anything else. As such, I probably shouldn’t dock the game for having amateurish voice performances, which fans of Japanese design might find charming or even impressive. The soundtrack isn’t bad, either, but it does little to stand out. The effects aren’t much better and overall, the sound lacks that refinement and intensity one might associate with a next-gen game. Again, we’re so caught up in the on-screen action that we often don’t have time to dissect the graphics and sound. But when you do, you can’t help but notice that Natural Doctrine simply comes across as…old.
Like I said, I’m an extremely patient and attentive gamer. That’s why I’ve always gravitated toward games with deeper, more involved gameplay structures, which inevitably demand more observation. I also don’t mind a properly balanced challenge within such a structure, because I can rely on my innate ability and steadfast determination to succeed. What I can’t stand is when developers clearly go for cheap difficulty, which is downright unfair. It’s almost as if they want you to throw a controller or simply “rage quit” because the game cheated you out of a victory.
But before I get into that, let’s address the game’s lone highlight: The combat mechanic. Or rather, I refer to the potential this system had, because the execution leaves a lot to be desired. You won’t find anything else like it, and that originality holds immense appeal. Provided you have a great eye for detail and you don’t mind being bombarded with a ton of information, you might end up deeply immersed in this complex battle architecture. It does indeed reward the diligent and anal, and it responds quickly to those who grasp the flow of battle with ease.
But man, it’s like a cacophony of data and not all of it is essential. While many of the battlegrounds are usually good-sized, battles often end up meandering down cramped corridors, and that’s when the entertainment begins to degrade. Level design isn’t great to begin with, and when you combine a screen crammed with information, you get a jumbled, disorganized, and ultimately frustrating presentation. It really does have a huge amount of potential, and if you can rapidly sift through the available data – focusing on what you need and discarding what isn't immediately necessary – this could be a fulfilling experience. But really, it feels like too much of a chore to me.
If you’re claustrophobic, this game might make you hyperventilate. You’ve got the turn order at the top of the screen, command options on the left, button guides on the bottom, and your character portraits are on the right. Then, once you start issuing orders to your characters, a bunch of blue lines spring up, further compromising the visibility. Toss in an uncooperative camera and the tedium of waiting through overly orchestrated attack animations, and you realize that pacing is this title’s biggest drawback. It’s so chaotic that even when you try to settle things down, the pace never feels right. And yes, if you’re wondering, there are tutorials, but they’re hardly comprehensive.
After a while, you start to zero in on the Link system, where one character’s action lets allies land additional assaults. If you position your units correctly, a successful Link attack can work wonders. But here’s where the absolutely insane trial-and-error comes into play, as you spend way too long trying to figure out exactly how to position your characters for the best possible results. You also start off knowing next to nothing about this mechanic, which doesn’t help matters. I didn’t know I couldn’t open chests or doors during a Linked turn, for instance, and configuring that mess for maximum results often feels like an exercise in utter futility.
There comes a point when you realize that you are always overmatched, and I’ve never considered that fun. You can overcome the obstacles this game throws in your path but you still feel like you’re scrambling to survive. If done correctly, this is fine. If the difficulty is natural and responds to your efforts to learn and adapt, great. That’s not really what’s happening here. In this case, you’ve got encounters that last forever and one wrong move can prompt a total do-over. And when you don’t feel entirely responsible for that lone misstep, you start to not care. On top of it all, the story is just a generic, uninspired, mostly uninteresting mess that probably won’t appeal to anyone, even anime fans.
Yes, the ultimate strategist might get a great sense of accomplishment from this intricate system. But even the most skilled surveyor and tactician can’t help but notice the crippling drawbacks, which turn an otherwise engaging and unique mechanic into something overly dense and ridiculously unforgiving. The throwaway plot and paper-thin characters don’t arrest your attention and the lacking technical aspects don’t bring much to the experience, so you’re relying almost entirely on the gameplay. The most disappointing part is that the gameplay could’ve saved the entire production. It’s just far too disjointed and irritating.
Natural Doctrine fails in its ambitious attempt to deliver a wonderfully unique, deep, and rewarding turn-based strategy adventure. The foundation is solid but what’s built atop that foundation is a crazy assortment of great individual pieces, but none of them really fit together. Satisfaction isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but when seasoned veterans have to spend many hours dissecting the ins and outs of a gameplay mechanic, only to find their efforts thwarted by an unfair and unforgiving structure, well… Controllers may shatter and nobody would blame you.
The Good: An ambitious, hugely detailed, unique combat system. The diligent and patient can seek great rewards. Decent control. Character advancement feels right.
The Bad: Lackluster technical elements. Story is a waste of space and time. Congested, claustrophobic presentation is frustrating, and leads to poor pacing. Unforgiving difficulty results in intense frustration.
The Ugly: “The hours I invested into exploring every nook and cranny of this battle system? I want ‘em back.”
9/25/2014 Ben Dutka