Natural Doctrine review: Only for those who enjoy pain

Platform reviewed: PS Vita

When Demon’s Souls hit the market years ago, it filled a void that was starting to creep into gamer’s vocabulary: NES difficulty. Most gamers remember, or have been told stories of, how difficult a lot of the old NES games were, through legitimate or illegitimate means. Natural Doctrine appears to step up and try to take that crown, which is currently owned by Demon’s Souls predecessor Dark Souls. Can this lofty goal raise shamelessly and unapologetically brutal games to new heights, or will it wilt under the pressure of its own task?

Kadokawa Games brings you a world where only the fittest are given a chance at living. Humans wishing for a better life have to prove their worth to be granted citizenship into the city of Feste, or else be left to fend for themselves in the world’s wastelands. Enter Geoff and his compatriots trying to accomplish that very task, while going through the narrative twists and turns that prevent them from doing so. What’s so unique about the story is half of it takes place on the map in the form of speech bubbles by the character’s portrait. They keep on speaking as you look around the world map wondering where to go next.

While the story is not trying to be avant-garde, it doesn’t pretend to be. The entire focus is on how insanely hard it is, making Dark Souls seem fair in comparison. Right away the player is given a ruthless lesson in tactics. If any of your characters die it is game over. That’s right, any character. If Mr. Mage gets ambushed then it is back to the drawing board for you. Even on the hardest difficulty mode in XCOM there was that allowance for death, even if permanent, so it pushes those tactical thinking skills to the limit.

A hard game does not equal a bad game, but the problem with Natural Doctrine is the gameplay itself has flaws that punish players. Most of the stages feel like you are being corralled into certain movements and decisions due to either: A) the stages just being connected corridors, or B) the lack of mobility for units to move more than a couple spaces to allow the player to flex their tactical genius and creativity. Add in some quirks, like enemies being able to spam you when opening doors while you are stuck with a cool down, as well as not being able to pinpoint exactly where your units go when taking over an enemy square and leading to area of effect attacks hurting you more than they should, and you start to get a better picture.

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Due to the lack of movement it also creates a very slow pace to the game. Having to constantly move characters two squares at a time, even when nothing is around, prolongs the game needlessly. Holding the circle button speeds things up a little bit, but the moving of multiple units from one point of the map to the other get tedious because you have to physically move them. Something like a point-and-click system would have worked better for speeding up the game.

One aspect that was unique, and I enjoyed a lot because it gave some strategy to your choices, was the levelling up system. Stat points are not permanent, as in other RPGs. When you level up you gain one point, or two in the case of Geoff, which are used to activate boxes on a grid. You can customize that character however you want. If something doesn’t work you can then take the points off at any time and put them into other categories. That mechanic works itself into that trial and error theme of the game.

This game was reviewed solely on PS Vita so in terms of graphics it is a bit lackluster, even for a handheld. The art portraits look beautifully drawn but that is the best you will get. Dungeons and areas are bland looking, and while not jagged they also do not look crisp to the naked eye. Character models are a little more refined but still appear like they would in a PS2 game. This game is obviously made to be about strategy rather than being the next visual masterpiece, so judge accordingly. They did make different weapons models which is a nice plus, especially since there are named weapons. Nothing is worse than equipment looking generic.

Sadly, the musical score comes out as bland as the graphics. Listening to it you can tell where you are and what you are doing but it does not come off as inspiring, as opposed to Mass Effect for example. You’ll be in a dungeon and get dungeon-sounding music, for example, but that is it. Booting up your kickass medieval playlist on YouTube would serve you better. The voice actors do make up for it by giving an inspiring performance. NIS published games are always known for their stellar casting and this is no exception.

Overall, Natural Doctrine is a game for those with masochistic gaming tendencies. The gameplay is slow and unforgiving and making mistakes is doubly time consuming. Gamers who can handle the grind will enjoy the world, but players who need a quicker paced SRPG are better served elsewhere.

Score

6.5

The Final Word

Dark Souls meets tactics in this unforgiving SRPG. Some basic design flaws hurt and slow down the gameplay of what is otherwise an enjoyable game. Not for the faint hearted, but for those seeking a real challenge