“It began suddenly—selection and survival. Alliances were tested, strained, broken. The world was changing, evolving, and Geoff would stand as a central figure in the upheaval. He would have to confront…the Natural Doctrine.”
Natural Doctrine is a game that would make Charles Darwin proud. The basic premise centers on natural selection of the many species that exist in its world. From orcs to goblins to humans, and everything in-between, every species has it out for each other. It’s a story about humanity’s last stand against all the terrible forces that lie in this world. Overwhelmed by much stronger creatures, humanity’s chances seemed grim until Pluton was discovered. This highly sought after substance is what allowed humanity to use magic, and continue to live on.
The problem is, humans can’t manufacture Pluton themselves, as its crude form is highly toxic and fatal to them. It is only thanks to the goblins—a seemingly intelligent, but perhaps not fully sentient species that are often found digging and mining ore—who refine this substance that humanity is able to put it to use. No one quite knows why the goblins refine Pluton the way they do, but it is up to the Bergmans to go into goblin territory, and take the precious substance by any means necessary, which usually ends up involving goblin slaughter.
Geoff (pronounced Jeff) is a young Bergman who wishes to obtain citizenship in the last standing city of the world, Feste. He and his fellow teammate Vasily, as well as their mentor Zeke, eventually take a job working for Anka, and what starts out as simple bodyguard duty becomes something more sinister. Stumbling upon new hideous monsters that may just destroy the final stronghold humanity has left, Geoff and crew soon suffer a deep personal loss and find themselves fugitives on the run; caught up in the civil uprising going on in Feste.
Natural Doctrine is as much a story about politics as it is about the clash of the many different species. The story is actually quite engaging once it gets going, which was a genuine and welcome surprise to me, as NIS America said almost nothing about it, prior to release. Their website barely lists anything about Natural Doctrine’s story, and most of the promotion seemed more focus on the difficult game play than what the single player story mode had to offer. Regardless, the game does its story well. Politics, revenge, misunderstandings, guilt, racism, and the threat of annihilation by a newly discovered species—many different plot elements are introduced throughout the course of the story, and keep things moving. It was actually interesting to see a cast so openly racist, too, as most of the characters harbor deep hatred for the other species. It really does feel like a battle of the fittest at times.
To give you an idea, Natural Doctrine’s story feels like something that would be far more at home in what you might consider a typical Western-RPG, than it does in a Japanese-RPG. Dark color palettes full of dull grays, muted browns, with settings like dark caves, and bloody fields. Stiff, more muscular and realistically proportioned character models, western names for all the characters and locations. There’s a lot medieval folklore, and practically no science-fiction elements, which JRPGs are so often fond of using. It feels like developer Kadokawa Games were aiming to make a product that would be more appealing to people who enjoy The Witcher or Elder Scrolls, rather than people who like Final Fantasy or Tales.
Natural Doctrine even lets you customize the appearance of the portraits in the dialogue scenes, from the much more western looking “realistic”, to “anime”, to “full” (which is just the entire piece of the anime art instead of only the head). That said, on the downside, while the customization was a nice touch and the darker color palette was a nice change of pace for me personally, the game definitely suffers from “dull color overload” pretty early on, and most locations all begin to look the same. In fact, appearances may be this game’s greatest weakness. Character animations are very stiff, and barely convey any sort of emotion on their own. Their movements are robotic, and their faces soulless, like a doll’s. Any emotion is brought forth by the voice actors as the character models help in none of that. Similarly, the backgrounds are all lazily crafted, with very little personality and the color palette is easy to tire of.
Even worse is Natural Doctrine’s UI. It’s troublesome to navigate, takes up too much space on the screen, and never goes away. It feels both clogged up and unwieldy. While it is by no means broken, Kadokawa Games is going to have to work on a User-Interface that doesn’t feel and look so restricting. On the PS4, or even on the PS3, this game looks and feels cheap. It definitely comes off as a Vita game ported over to home consoles, and not the other way around—and a lower-end Vita game at that, as even that system is capable of doing better than this, presentation-wise.
That said, I’m willing to overlook the game’s dull presentation. Natural Doctrine’s battles are tactical, and allow for you to switch between three different perspectives. There is a mid-zoom isometric-like view, a far out over head birds’ eye view, and a closer zoom that puts you in third-person, controlling the character, almost like Valkyria Chronicles. You can move freely within your range, and combat relies heavily on controlling the initiative, i.e. the order of the turns. Great emphasis is placed on chaining attacks, and spamming your enemy. At the same time, enemies can and will spam you mercilessly themselves. You really do have to think about how to control the field, as a single unit’s death equals game over.
That said, while Natural Doctrine is tough, especially with enemies spamming long never-ending chains of attacks on your one defenseless unit, the game never truly broke me on normal difficulty. There are plenty of checkpoints in each stage to retry from so you never have to repeat the whole battle. It’s pretty reasonable for the most part so long as you don’t go off the beaten path. The only truly impossible battle I’ve had so far in my playthrough was because of me not leveling enough. I had to go back to a previous save from several hours ago to fix this with ample level grinding.
(Let it be known—this game does force you into some story battles immediately, and you cannot flee, or travel anywhere else to level grind. Managing your level is important, and I highly suggest multiple saves so you don’t get stuck in a battle you can’t ever win.)
Natural Doctrine was a pleasant little detour from the typical Vita JRPGs I’ve played. It does though suffer from what feels like a cheaper budget; however, that mostly seemed to affect just the presentation. The game play is quite enjoyable when you do finally figure out how to control the battlefield, and the story is surprisingly mature at times. For anyone willing to look beyond the lackluster presentation, and really wants to sit down, and enjoy a bare-knuckle tactical role-playing game on Vita, Natural Doctrine might help.
Food for Thought:
1. I was actually given both the PS Vita, and PS4 copy of the game to play. The game offers cross-play and cross-save so you can enjoy it on the TV with your PS3/PS4, and then save it, and play the game on the go with your Vita. It works really easily—almost seamlessly—and is a great feature.
(Keep in mind that to enjoy this feature, you need to buy the game on both the Vita, and on the PS3/PS4. Whether or not this feature is worth buying the same game twice is up to you. I would honestly just recommend the Vita version or PS3 version. I didn’t notice much quality difference on the PS4, and don’t think it’s worth the extra price at $59.99 vs. the PS3/Vita’s $39.99.)
2. There is an online multiplayer mode to the game that is completely separate from the single player story mode. In it you build a deck of cards out of the enemy units in the game to make your army. You can go head-to-head and have large-scale tactical battles with your friends almost like the multiplayer mode in Advance Wars. If you do manage to get a game going, it is quite fun, and I imagine will add greatly to the life of the game.
3. I preferred to play in Full portrait mode. I thought, the Realistic portraits were a bit campy, honestly. It kind of reminded me of old Square Enix full motion videos.
4. The main character’s name is Jeff. I find that hilarious. NISA tried to stylize it as ‘Geoff’ to get around this, and kudos to them for that. It was a good editorial decision, but it still feels silly to play a game where you’re some dude named Jeff. Maybe that’s just my inner child showing.