Natural Doctrine is a very interesting strategy game in the same vein as Fire Emblem, but with a few twists.Characters move on grid based map, enemy line of sight had to be on point for a successful attack, two squares are needed for advancement—that sort of thing. These are all variations to the standard formula, but Natural Doctrine takes strategy much further.
The main difference between other strategy role-playing games and Natural Doctrine heavily lies in the game’s excruciatingly gruesome learning curve. There are so many rules and regulations to follow, just trying to explain it is exhausting.
For starters, using certain abilities will allow you to use other nearby characters to join in on the attack or take some other action. However, using another character before their official move in the round will cause this to be their “official” move instead. Therefore, it is best to leave characters that can rally troops until later so that they can allow those that have already taken their turn to have another go. While tedious and confusing in nature, these tactics are always the keys to victory. However, the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining these setups as the actual learning process for this particular part of a battle turn takes around 7 or 8 hours into the game.
Part of that is the game’s fault for being punishingly difficult; you can die most rounds if you leave someone in the open to be targeted. The tutorial also takes the blame for not emphasizing it enough. I know for a fact that the game did go over these tactics, but it didn’t seem so life or death at the time.
The first 4 to 5 hours of Natural Doctrine is contrastingly enjoyable thanks to the ease in difficulty and the somewhat bearable story. The story revolves around Geoff and friends as they battle monsters and save the world. It’s interesting enough to where I didn’t ignore it but it won’t be winning any awards for originality.
As far as my playthrough, the party was never overwhelmed by scores of enemies and I could generally take out the next enemy whose turn was next before they could use it. Then, everything changed. For a few missions in a row there were either traps or triggers that released 15 or so enemies onto the field, ensuring death; tricky ‘escape sequences’ where the whole party had to run away; or a combination of the two that made Natural Doctrine almost infuriating.
At this point, I was tempted to quit playing, but after the first few hours of generally good fun, I wanted to see where this all would lead. There had to be something here.
After one horrible situation where the party ended up in an erratic formation after a surprise enemy ambush—which also forced the objective to change to ‘run away’—the next mission changed things. It was a standard ‘fight the enemies’ map with no surprises, but things started to click. It was here, almost 8 hours into the game, where I started to fully understand the linking of turns and possible movement patterns to take advantage of every round. By the end of the following mission, I had it mostly figured out and was using these tactics every single time I moved a character. It was like finally solving a Rubix Cube. Everything had become clear. Sure, the game was still difficult but I could now ruthlessly attack the opposition in the same way they targeted me.
And you know what the most important thing was? It ended up being a tons of fun.
It’s still hard to ignore the harsh road to that point. Natural Doctrine requires constant, intense strategy with character positioning, with when and who they attack and an assortment of other battle-related setting. This is layered on top of a multitude of class specific moves and rules. For example, certain attacks and buffs will let you link to everyone else in the party–which is supremely useful–while others will only let you link with those close by.
Knowing when to use certain characters out of order so that they will be used more often in other characters’ turns is great but… you probably get my point by now. This type of thing isn’t super clear or easy to convey nor remember. Maybe this video of me playing right around the time where I was figuring this all out will help.
The bottom line is once you start to understand the deeply critical strategy outline, Natural Doctrine shows its true colors as a deep and satisfying strategy RPG with some new and interesting mechanics.
The skills sets were also very enjoyable and surprisingly intuitive. Each character has their own skill tree and points are awarded upon level up. The trees grant new skills and stat bonuses that are vital to survival. Additionally, skill points can be redistributed when not in battle as many times as you want with no penalty. This became especially important when I realized that I never used the main character Geoff as a swordsman and was able to reallocate those points.
In addition to the main story locations, there are areas to grind for experience in, but I only played a few of them so it is possible to finish the game with very little grinding. I did have to severely change my strategies to defeat the final boss. With some skill rearranging and the aforementioned strategy change, I was eventually able to win.
Despite its crushing difficulty and sometimes questionable checkpoints, Natural Doctrine is deep and refreshing. It tries a lot of new things all at once, which is counter intuitive and perhaps less fun for the player. It demands a lot of patience and forethought to understand the poorly explained battle system. Those who take the time to learn it through and through will be satisfied with the 30-hour journey.
A digital download code for Natural Doctrine was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.