Natural Doctrine ReviewJoe Shaffer
Innovation requires boldness. Any creative mind who seeks to evolve a genre must be unafraid of ill consequences or criticism that could result from such an endeavor. In that respect, I appreciate the turn-based strategy game Natural Doctrine. Unlike much of its ilk, it does not rehash familiar mission objectives too often, in particular the unimaginative goal requiring you to "defeat all targets." Sure, the game has several instance of thorough opponent execution, but it also features a variety of other objectives, most of which involve escaping a territory before you're overrun by either an indomitable peril or a massive contingent. Some of these situations can be pretty rough, especially an early stage that has you outrunning tremendous subterranean arthropods called "gorians."
I also dig the game's use of exploration, although it's usually shunned in the S-RPG genre. Some non-required locales, for instance, sport multiple corridors and chambers separated by doors and lattices. Sometimes there are also switches that reveal hidden pathways behind what originally seemed like ordinary cave walls. Searching these additional routes can lead to worthwhile goodies, including chests filled with accessories or improved weaponry, and are frequently filled with extra bits of "pluton," a material that serves as MP. Although it may not trump genre brethren Arc the Lad II it terms of dungeon delving, it does at least fair job of presenting such elements.
Unfortunately, not all valiant projects produce satisfying material. Honestly, I'd say that Natural Doctrine disappoints more often than it entertains.
For starters, the game's pacing is on the slow side. Since your characters only move two spaces at a time, you feel like you're inching through dungeons. This is especially so if you've eliminated all of the adversaries in your vicinity and you now must move--two steps at a time, turn after turn--to either the egress or the next section of the level. It only worsens when you access one of the game's numerous secret passages to reveal either a ridiculously tough creature or an immense platoon of humanoids. This usually occurs after you have spent a hefty chunk of time offing basic goons, and sucks the fun out of exploration and discovery, especially once the dreaded "game over" pops up on the screen.
If you're lucky, you'll respawn at a checkpoint. From there, you could either retry the challenging optional battle or flee and leave a trail of urine in your wake. Sometimes, though, you'll access a guarded treasure trove after a twenty-plus minute altercation, only to perish before reaching a checkpoint.. Such occasions might put a strain on your bank account, after you replace a broken controller or two or repair the newly formed holes in your living room walls.
In terms of difficulty rating, Natural Doctrine is seldom balanced. The game has its share of straightforward missions that anyone with an IQ slightly higher than that of a goldfish can surmount. Most of the time, though, you bump into scenarios that are plain unfair. For instance, there's one scene that involves rescuing a mage from a squad of murderous soldiers. You begin the affair on the opposite corner from the magician's pursuers, with the man in question standing in the middle of the battlefield. For the life of me, I couldn't save the guy. Before I could get within spitting distance of my target, the opposing force would unleash two flurries of blows and dispatch him. It wasn't until I was clowning around during one attempt that I realized you had to command one of your teammates to "guard" instead of "wait." Doing so inexplicably gave that character a turn much sooner, which allowed him to heal the sorcerer and fight off the tailing foes. How anyone would have logically figured that out is beyond me...
Presenting you with overwhelming odds tends to be the game's modus operandi. In other words, you don't often clash with a reasonably-sized regiment, but usually face a ludicrous number of cronies, many of which possess long range arsenal and love to set their sights on only one of your allies. This wouldn't be so troublesome if the game didn't end when after a single character bites the dust. That's right: if even one of your buddies falls, you fail. If you labor your rump off and pull out all of the stops, but make one slight mistake or fall victim to a freak event, such as your opponent landing a critical strike, then tough luck. You could try to grind, but even side areas are so overloaded with villains that doing so becomes more of a chore than it ought to be. To make matters worse, you eventually lose one of your tank characters early in the campaign, which leaves you with two low defense troops and a basic fighter. Enemies love to rain blow and bullets on the weaker two, and it's not rare to suffer a loss as a result.
Understand, now, that I'm not saying that Natural Doctrine needs to be easy. I love challenging games, if my ratings for Ninja Gaiden on NES and They Bleed Pixels are any indication. However, one factor those games have going for them that Doctrine doesn't is some measure of forgiveness. Natural Doctrine presents a stringent restraint that, when coupled with the presence of a tremendous volume of viciously opportunistic foes, pretty much kills the experience.
You could try to use the game's confusing battle system to your advantage, which allows you to gain a constant string of initiatives while at war, thereby allowing you to overwhelm the enemy. Basically, if you meet a certain condition when giving orders to a unit, then the next character in line also gains a turn. In such a way, you can have multiple warriors gang up on one foe if you so desire. What's more is that you gain unrelated bonuses, such as increased damage or critical chances, when positioning your entourage in various formations. Unfortunately, the opposition has access to this ability as well, which is mainly why the game is taxing and stressful. Honestly, I think this could have been a clever system, were it not for...wait for it....the game's harsh demands, especially requiring you to not lose a single player character.
I've loved publisher NIS ever since I coughed up $50 to snag what was then a hard to find copy of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. My appreciation of their products only swelled as I added La Pucelle: Tactics and Phantom Brave to my PS2 library. Heck, I was going to skip PS3 until a magazine dropped the name Disgaea 3. Sadly, it seems that with each game they publish of late, sans the Disgaea sequels, the publisher has been growing weaker. Natural Doctrine unfortunately represents another setback for the company, one which only adds more weight to my heart. I've already had the displeasure of watching other companies I've adored over the years, like Capcom, run full speed downhill, and I certainly don't want to see NIS head that direction as well. I sincerely hope that things clear up, regardless of my painful experience with Natural Doctrine.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.