The strategy RPG genre is full of games that challenge players to solve tough scenarios and follow a unique story with interesting characters. Games like Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Disgaea provide this kind of experience while making it all fun and progressively challenging. While challenge and difficulty are at the heart of genre, they are not the sole characteristics that define it. This is where Natural Doctrine stumbles and doesn’t live up to its full potential.
Natural Doctrine is a game that fails to ease players into any level of challenge. Instead of steadily bringing players into mind-straining sections that require strategic planning, the game instead just drops players into rage inducing scenarios that can rub anyone the wrong way early on. There is a story and group of characters to follow, involving a special resource called Pluton that helps with casting magic. The essence of the characters and world is, however, lost quickly as all of your focus will be on the unforgiving situations in each mission.
Natural Doctrine borrows elements from games like Valkyria Chronicles and Disgaea, including a dynamic third-person camera and some traditional RPG customization elements. The most unique part of the gameplay is the Tactical Linking System that allows characters to boost each other when attacking the same target. Understanding this system if vital for conquering every mission in the game, yet is difficult to master as it is based on character positioning and stats. There is a tutorial to explain things and a reference guide to refer to during a mission, so you’ll always have access to the info you need. While this is your greatest tool to use when attacking foes, enemies on the map can also tactically link against you and deliver unforgiving amounts of damage.
Where the game takes a hard turn for the worst is the brick wall you will find yourself hitting early on, in terms of difficulty and accessibility. Natural Doctrine is a game that heavily caters to those who want to be hardcore SRPG players, where the grind and meticulous detailing will reward you but slipping up will leave you dead. Early missions require you to really take advantage of Tactical Linking and character abilities when there isn’t much room to absorb and understand what needs to happen on a map. Even the smallest or weakest of enemies can group up and demolish a character by Tactical Linking against you, causing you to replay minutes of gameplay over and over again.
Trial and error is nothing new to the SPRG genre, but Natural Doctrine takes it to an excruciating level. There are checkpoints at different parts of each mission, mostly depending on an event or objective being completed, but they don’t fully help as you might expect. Depending on the map, you may find yourself playing into an almost no-win scenario that will beg for you to restart a mission. This happens more often than not because the game doesn’t clue you in to what may be looming next, or never fully details the map or mission before you select it. There are hidden areas and doors that lead to treasures that are useful to your characters, but they are almost always paired with groups of enemies or dangers that will decimate you in an instant.
Natural Doctrine will appeal to those that want a challenging SPRG. Those looking for something to test their strategic skills and patience may find some fun in playing through Natural Doctrine. For other gamers who don’t dabble in grueling difficulty, this game will not provide a whole lot of fun and will induce enough rage to make you break your controller or Vita. The substance of the world and the stories for the characters is completely lost by a myriad of difficulty and communication issues that force our attention away from it all. Instead of getting an SRPG we could enjoy, we ended up with one that we just don’t want to play anymore.
This review is based on a digital copy of Natural Doctrine provided by NiS America for PlayStation 3 and PS Vita.