Natural Doctrine Review

by on October 5, 2014

Challenge is good. In fact, many of us seek it out in video games, ramping up the difficulty slider or finding ways to play that enhance the sense of accomplishment that comes from surmounting the seemingly insurmountable. That being said, Natural Doctrine, a strategy RPG from Kudokawa Games, just feels mean spirited.

For a start, casual gamers will find it near impenetrable. The fantasy setting bares the expected hallmarks: humans exist within a fortress city – here called Feste – and must defend against other sentient races as well as staple monsters like goblins and ogres. You play as Geoff (no, really), a young warrior initially charged with slaying goblins that infest the caves and mines around Feste. Alongside a handful of companions, including sharpshooter Anca and trademark “loud giant friend” Zeke, Geoff finds himself facing tougher and tougher challenges in an attempt to keep his city safe.

To be fair, the story is the usual JRPG fare we’ve seen many times before, with different hairstyles, and for several hours I failed to read anything into it, to the point that I resorted to skipping through the reams of text to get to the next fight – which only left me frustrated for various other reasons. As stated, this is not a game for the casual. The combat system is borderline unfair and, while it may be the case that perseverance and a gradual increase in player skill and understanding will see you through, it simply doesn’t feel balanced.

I struggled to get through the first few missions (it took me four attempts to pass the first mission after the introductory rumble), and all I was facing was goblins – up until the end of the mission, whereupon I freed a huge troll from its prison, which proceeded to more or less one-shot my entire party. It’s all about synergy, and in theory it’s a solid system.

You move your characters freely within a predetermined grid arrangement, positioning them in such a way that they form a triangular link between any two of your fighters and the encroaching enemy. This increases your chances of critical hits and evasions, and actually makes battles look quite dynamic as your characters dodge, parry, block and strike alongside one another. Unfortunately, Natural Doctrine doesn’t want to really explain anything, and besides a couple of minute-long tutorials in the opening mission, you’re left to work it out on your own. Curatives are in short supply, which means you’ll spend half the mission with at least one of your party limping around at half-speed, adding to the frustration.

If a main character dies, it’s game over, and you’ll have to restart from a checkpoint. The problem with this is that most of the missions appear to take place in fairly confined areas, so the scope for tactical strategy is narrow. When you consider how much of a factor luck is in combat (this is a number-crunching RPG after all), it all becomes very frustrating. Fiddly, unintuitive controls compound the sense of overall underpoweredness (we made that word up) and turn missions into slogs of endurance and tests of patience that rob the joy gleaned from the oddly satisfying battle animations.

Each character has a decent sized skill tree, unlocked piecemeal by way of Ability Points earned through XP. There’s not a huge variety to the different abilities, but you are able to steadily build a custom party to cater more towards your personal style of play, even if it’s not always clear what a skill does and the menu is horribly unappetising. The UI in general is cluttered, in fact, with a quarter of the screen taken up by stark red and white battle text.

Characterisation is what you’d expect, too: lifted straight from the JRPG playbook, characters are either broody, sarcastic or irritating, while the sinister are needlessly hammy. None of it is helped by the relentlessly brown colour palette and stock visuals, or the teeth-shatteringly repetitive battle music. Natural Doctrine’s worst crime is that it does absolutely nothing to immerse you in its world or its systems. It’s combat is so needlessly, artificially difficult, that you rarely feel like you’re progressing smoothly, the story is uninteresting, the sub-par visuals are marred by the clunky, over-burdened UI and the music is impossible to like.

Certain elements of Natural Doctrine do feel new. The combat mechanics are interesting on paper, and – if refined – might even be considered original. Sadly, as they stand they’re simply imbalanced and combat feels like an uphill struggle every time, ponderous and one-sided. What could be an interesting story full of JRPG whimsy comes over as stilted and underdeveloped, and the simple joys of watching a goblin’s head get stoved in is drained by the fact that it takes so long to actually achieve that, and when you do it feels more like luck than skill.

Hardcore strategy RPG fans may find a decent experience here. In fact, it may simply be the case that Natural Doctrine’s blend of punishing difficulty and simple presentation don’t gel with everyone. One thing that is certain is that Natural Doctrine us not designed for the casual crowd, and unless you’re prepared to invest time and energy into learning its systems inside out – and then are still prepared to try and try again when you do know what you’re doing – you’d be advised to away from this one.


DECENT. A 6/10 indicates that, while this game could be much better, it still has a fair amount to offer the player. It might be an interesting title sabotaged by its own ambition, or a game denied greater praise by some questionable design choices. Don’t avoid it outright, but approach it with caution.

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Review code provided by publisher.