I had heard about Natural Doctrine’s famously fiendish difficulty. Reports from Japan suggested that, Kadokawa Games’ strategy RPG was almost unbearably difficult with outrageously powerful enemies, horrible checkpoints and an unforgivably unfair fail condition combining to create an experience that was simply too difficult to enjoy……it seems that Japan wasn’t lying. To appease fans for its Western release, Kadokawa did employ an ‘easy mode’, but as far as I can tell, it’s all but identical to the standard settings i.e. as hard as nails.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a challenge and count Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls amongst my favourite games, but a challenge is only enjoyable as long as it feels fair, and far too often, Natural Doctrine feels painfully unfair. From outrageous numerical odds to that bizarre decision to have a single death lead to a complete game over, Natural Doctrine is a bully of a video game.
I’m sure there will be a handful of gamers who thrive on this sort of challenge, and all power to them, but for the majority of gamers, and I count those who enjoy notoriously difficult tactical RPGs in that list, Natural Doctrine’s often ridiculous difficulty and array of poor design choices will ensure that this is a game that, despite its many positives (there really are quite a few), is ultimately all but impossible to enjoy.
Of course, there are moments when everything comes together, and to be honest, winning a hard fought battle is an extremely rewarding experience, but as enjoyable as these moments are, they are ultimately overshadowed by the moments in which an hour plus of gameplay is suddenly lost because the AI decides to gang up on a single team member to ensure a painful and apparently unavoidable game over. Cue much in the way of cussing.
It really is a shame that these poor design choices get in the way of the fun, as behind these easily amended decisions is a pretty solid strategy RPG from the makers of the brilliant Patapon games on PSP (many of the staff involved also worked on the fantastic, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre games). The battle system is deep and potentially compelling while the localisation in particular, is well above average for a tactical RPG from Japan.
The battle system, which does have elements of the Tactics games about it, not only allows for traditional strategy RPG combat, but also employs a unique link system that allows for numerous characters to occupy the same tile with abilities then linked together into a wave of attacks. It’s a clever system, one that when combined with the magic power shared across the entire team, allows for some very interesting approaches to battle based upon careful angles and team-ups. It’s a shame that the nuances of the system aren’t explained very well, but through a degree of trial and error, it can be fun to figure out the possibilities inherent to the systems employed.
The skill tree too, while somewhat cumbersome (just about every menu in the game is), can be redeployed from scratch before the start of each battle which is a fantastic idea and again adds to the tactical options available ahead of any given battle. Those who really want to get lost in the minutia of the options available will have plenty to work with.
Again though, as positive as these points might be, they are once again overshadowed by poor design choices. I hate to go back to the fact that a single death in your team leads to a complete game over, but it really does have a huge and almost exclusively negative effect on every aspect of the gameplay. As great as these tactical options might be, the AI will often use them to brutal effect. With your team often outnumbered, it’s almost unbearably annoying to watch a group of grunts pack hunt a single team member as you watch on in horror as all your work is undone by cheap game design.
Thanks to the strong fundamentals that underpin the core mechanics of battle, many will want to fight through these moments of annoyance (I certainly did), but the fact that you can see such a solid strategy RPG so close to the surface only makes the poor design choices that tarnish the experience that much harder to bear. The game world might not be the most interesting and the level lay-out can be somewhat clunky, but the story is solid and the characters mostly likeable. The battle system shows signs of brilliance and behind the poor menu design is an array of interesting tactical options, but when all is said and done, Natural Doctrine simply isn’t fun to play.
Challenge is one thing, but you need to leave a little room for error, and above all, that challenge, however unforgiving, needs to be fair. Far too often, Natural Doctrine is anything but. There are moments of entertainment to be had here and signs of the game we all wanted this to be, but ultimately, this is an infuriating experience that should be left to only the most masochistic of gamers.
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