Learning a new skill is rarely easy; the complexities of a manual transmission nearly overwhelmed me the first time I learned to drive a car. Natural Doctrine calls to mind many of those frustrated nights on the road, because while the title looks like your average fantasy-themed strategy game, its approach to combat is so unique and complex that it will take you a while to get a handle on its intricacies. Once you get the basics down, Natural Doctrine will take you to some exciting places, but it’s still a bit of a bumpy ride.
Natural Doctrine puts you in control of a group of adventurers who set off to cleanse the land of goblins and steal their treasure. Battles are turn based, and you can see each unit’s basic attack order at the top of the screen. This sounds simple, but a lot of sub-systems complicate each encounter. Your party members create link attacks when they attack inside the same battle square, and this combat multiplier increases when they stand further apart. Some attacks break these links, while others make them stronger. In addition, party members who sit out an attack can call in more heroes for another link attack as long as you kill the next enemy in the attack order. It takes a while to get a sense for all of Natural Doctrine’s nuances – such as making proper use of walls for cover and using characters with heavy armor to protect your squishier units – but once you do, you’ll find it highly rewarding to pull off a highly orchestrated chain of attacks that steamrolls your opponents.
Unfortunately, the A.I. always understands the combat system better than you do, and will squeeze every last hit point out of each attack turn. At times, it feels like racing to complete your taxes against an attorney from a Fortune 500 company. To make matters worse, if even one of your party members kisses the dirt, it’s game over, so you have to play defensively or face the game over screen and get set back a few battles.
Sadly, even if you learn to enjoy the battle system you’ll still need to overlook its story, bubblegum characters, and cardboard set dressings. Natural Doctrine also doesn’t explain itself; I continually threw myself against one large opponent in an early dungeon, dying repeatedly until I realized that it was an optional battle and I could just leave the dungeon, level up, and then come back and clean his clock when I was stronger. It doesn’t take long to level up your heroes, because each hero also has a relatively small skill tree. Thankfully, you're free to reconfigure their skills at any time based your needs during each encounter.
After a few hours I got the hang of Natural Doctrine’s systems and felt confident enough to take on each new challenge, but you’ll have to dig through a few layers of rock before you hit Natural Doctrine’s gold. This strategy game will test your battle prowess as well are your tolerance for saccharin Japanese storytelling. Natural Doctrine isn’t noteworthy outside of it’s combat, if you feel like strategy games have grown stale, Kadokawa Games’ curious take on the genre is an interesting change of pace.
Once you get
the basics down, Natural Doctrine will take you to some exciting places,
but it’s still a bit of a bumpy ride.