Kadokawa Games (JP) NIS America(NA, EU) / Kadokawa Games
Single-player, 2 Player Online Competitive
ESRB M, PEGI 12, USK 16
In my youth, I spent as much time exploring the deep dungeons of Final Fantasy as I did crushing my enemies with a horde of tanks in Command and Conquer. It’s one of the many reasons I find Strategy RPG’s so enjoyable, because they combine all of the character development and menu-management I could ever hope for, and overlay it onto a tactical template that rewards clever gameplay and punishes schoolboy errors. I’ve played as many turns in the back of a car as I have sat in front of my TV and loved every single one, victory or otherwise. If anyone here was ever going to love NAtURAL DOCtRINE, it was probably going to be me. It’s a shame then, that despite a few fleeting moments of glory, I simply can’t find the room to welcome it into my heart as I’d hoped to.
Developed by Kadokawa Games, and utilising talent from behind genre greats such as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Tactics Ogre, unfortunately, it’s nothing short of a massive disappointment. While it does have its merits, it sadly also has some serious issues, the most pressing of which is its sheer difficulty. When this game was released in Japan back in April, it had to be patched to be made easier. I like hard games, and will always go straight in at the hardest difficulty if a game will let me first time around. To aid me in playing as much as possible before my review date, however, I started on normal. This was stepped down to easy within 3 hours, at great cost to my pride. For the record, there’s also a hard mode, and incomprehensibly, a LETHAL mode too. The game is billed as a hardcore SRPG, and rightly so. A single character death spells game over, and all too often you can go from flawless victory to utter defeat in less than a turn. It’s a bit like watching the same episode of Game of Thrones on repeat at times.
This difficulty is born from the game’s Tactical Link system, a mechanic used by both human and AI alike. In a standard SRPG, a character or unit will take a square on a grid, and perform actions and such that will affect other squares on the playing field. In NatURAL DOCtRINE, you can place up to four units in one square, and depending on how you position the units and what you command them to do, they gain bonuses. Imagine a cross between Valkyria Chronicles andFFT: Advance, and you’re not far off. For example, three melee fighters in the same square, all targeting the same enemy – They all gain a bonus through a ‘Delta Attack’ Tactical Link, increasing attack damage. This is represented by lines drawn between units, the longer the line, the better the bonus – in this case, a triangle as wide as is possible would be the best bet. Another feature of the Tactical Link is getting free turns (or as the game confusingly calls them, Initiative). Turns in the game are set to alternate by default between one player unit and one enemy unit until everyone has had a turn. This can be circumvented to give multiple units a turn before the enemy – allowing you to set up Tactical Links. These links require line-of-sight to function though, and poor map design does nothing to help here. Too many times I’ve thrown a potion at a stray piece of level geometry or shot a rocky outcrop, with serious implications to my tactical situation.
The difficulty mainly stems from the enemy having access to the same system – but playing by different rules. If you recall, not a single party member can die without a resulting game over. Most missions, however, task you with eliminating an enemy force sometimes 5 or 6 times larger than your own. The AI will have no issues sacrificing one unit to set up a decent Tactical Link – an option players simply do not have. The AI also uses its superior numbers to leapfrog around the map using those free turns, often setting up a game-ending Tactical Link in the process. The AI even has a tendency to break the turn order rule at will – and sometimes it feels like punishment for doing too well. More often than not a trial and error approach seems to be the only way to win a mission, rather than a dazzling display of skill and strategy that would make even Napoleon bow down – Total War this certainly isn’t. The phrase ‘hollow victory’ springs to mind.
The downsides continue – graphically it looks like a good PS2 game, a poor PS3 one at best. In 2014, I would expect a PS4 title to show a little more here – but it feels like it’s been developed for the lowest common denominator – in this case the PSVita. The audio is dull and repetitive, and after umpteen restarts, it’s borderline torture. Voice acting is distinctly average – the characters have no individuality beyond their respective clichés, helped in no part by the dialogue. The plot follows suit, swap out some nouns and change the names and you have any budget fantasy story told this century. Some may also be off-put by the lack of Japanese Audio options.
The game has some good things going for it. The magic system in this game is unique – and it works very well. Magical attacks can be extremely powerful, and as such the developers want to limit the amount of times you can use it. Instead of placing an arbitrary number limit, or using traditional MP, each magical attack has a cost – measured in grams. The rare mineral ‘Pluton’ is found alongside treasure on the field – and is a finite resource within the game. It allows you to make your own decision on when to spam, and when to try and get by without it. The skill tree for each character can be re-speced at will between missions, drastically altering play-styles and available links in battle. It’s a flexible system, allowing you to try different approaches without locking you in. It’s just unfortunate that most missions will demand a certain build from each party member.
The game also offers both cross-save and cross-play functionality as well– but without cross-buy, I foresee these features to go mostly unused. There is also a multiplayer mode, a welcome feature for a modern SRPG – though I haven’t had a decent chance to play it, as there is nobody online at the time of writing this review. Hopefully playing against a human opponent will negate a lot of the issues I have with the AI and main game design. Thankfully multiplayer is cross-platform – which is great news in today’s segregated gaming communities (I’m looking at you Destiny).
Unfortunately, when all is said and done, NAtURAL DOCtRINE simply doesn't provide an enjoyable experience. A difficult game like DarkSouls will reward patience and show steady improvement of player skill in-game progress, but this is purely hard for the sake of being so. It's too frustrating in today's busy age to spend 45 minutes at a time on the same mission, failing to make any progress for hours. Mid-mission surprises happen too often and the game's design only makes their appearance frustrating rather than tense. There's no saving halfway through a mission, a problem that's sure to annoy Vita purchasers. I haven't finished the main campaign, although I would estimate I'mover halfway. In-game timer reads around 20 hours – although this doesn't include the hours of gameplay lost to rage quits.