Most strategy games have consistent traits, from the required line of sight to turn-based attacks and environmental multipliers. Natural Doctrine takes these basics and develops them beyond recognition. This is a devilishly intelligent title that’s perhaps a little too clever, and it alienates itself somewhat as a result. Think Fire Emblem on that IQ drug from the movie Limitless.
Enter Geoff, our blandly named hero who’s tasked with the cliché quest of ridding the world of evil – one skirmish at a time – in a bid to gain citizenship to the city of Feste. This darkness drags many people into the fray as companions on your adventure; they’re an eclectic and enjoyable bunch that each have their own unique abilities and loadouts. Sadly, the story remains half-baked, never covering any particular plot points in depth, leaving much irritatingly undisclosed; characters remain under-developed, and the intriguing world is largely a mystery. In all honesty, this is probably to avoid complicating things further, what with the insane complexity of the rest of the game, but the absence of a deep story does feel like a sorely missed opportunity.
Whatever’s lacking in the narrative is certainly made up for in actual gameplay, though. Natural Doctrine takes an unconventional approach to the usual strategy methods and breaks up its three-dimensional battlefields into various squares. Moving between squares uses up your turn, but movement within the square is free form, bringing the environment into play and providing something of a cover system.
This is pretty handy – especially when you realise that if any member of your team falls in battle, it’s game over. Although this sounds ridiculous, in practice it’s very functional, and pushes the strategy elements perfectly. Character functions vary between gunners, melee fighters, and magic users, meaning that while you’ll need to play each one to their own advantages in order to keep them breathing, you’ll also need to come to understand the game’s combat system.
This is arguably the most daunting and challenging aspect of the title. Although turn-based, the release implements a system of chaining attacks and forming shapes during these chains that multiply damage called Link Turns. For simplicity’s sake, if you organised your team into a triangle with two ranged members towards the back and someone in a defending position at the front, this tactical position will reward you with a multiplier during your attack phase. You’re also able to chain attack turns by dispatching enemies whose turn is next before they have a chance to make a move. Of course, your foes can turn these tactics against you as well. Yeah, it’s complex, but trust us – it somehow works.
The combat goes deeper yet with character skills such as powerful melee or precision gunshots, and deepens in complexity with consumable buffs and skill points that are normally rewards for successful skirmishes. These skill points can be spent on the classic RPG elements – health, weapon handling, and so forth – but can be reassigned in between fights, enabling you to revamp characters specifically for the battle in hand.
Trial and error gameplay is just as important as forethought and precision, however, as the challenges thrown at you will vary greatly in both difficulty and the method of play – it’s not always about wiping everyone out. Retreating and defensive tactics make up a fair amount of the skirmishes that you’ll play, while treasure chests offer extra objectives, better gear, and the all-important Pluton.
This is a non-regenerating resource that is utilised by the team to perform magic and more powerful skill moves, and can only be gained from Treasure Chests. The use of skill moves can change the tide of a battle, and magic offers powerful ranged options – both crucial to survival. This means that the ever-elusive Pluton can gain quite the demand towards the later chapters of the game, meaning that repeated visits to previous levels becomes the norm as you grind for the precious resource. This hinders the game greatly, though, as it puts everything on hold every time that you need to bump up your Pluton stash – something that we’re sorry to say may even have worked better as a microtransaction.
In fact, squint and the game even has the slightest look of a freemium foray to it, with the PS4 visuals being nothing to really write home about. Characters are painfully generic with similar designs present in just about any Japanese title ever – even if they are admittedly colourful and appealing. Meanwhile, enemies and environments fall into regular patterns, offering minimal variation and differentiation while doing nothing explicitly wrong; they do the job, but don’t exactly break any boundaries. It’s odd, then, that a game that’s done so much logistical progression has all but ignored its other aspects.
Natural Doctrine’s combat system is ingenious, but it’s obstructed by its complexity, while the remaining aspects of the release just about fulfil their roles to the point of adequacy. Although the game’s intricacies will instantly cut itself out of most of the market, it’s certainly a fantastic strategy title in its own right, which will challenge even the most adept players. This is a must buy for genre fans, then – and a cautionary tale for newcomers.