This episode breaches the peace treaty with Tetsuya Nomura
Natural Doctrine is a bit like a feral cat: It’s vicious, tedious to train, and when you finally tame it it’s quite fun, but in the end you’ll still be wondering why you didn’t just buy a tame one. I really like this particular cat of a game, but she’s definitely not for everyone.
The game is, at its core, a reasonably straightforward turn-based tactics game, but the twist is in the game’s turn-order mechanics: Whenever a unit takes certain actions, allied units near the acting unit can either take extra turns, or take their turn early depending on whether or not they’ve acted yet. This means that, if positioned well, you can take long streams of turns and wipe opposing units off of the map quickly. The downside is that your opponent can do this as well. Consequently, you will generally see a lot of very safe setup turns, and then a big few crashing turns where there’s a lot of action and you either win or fail in short order.
Unfortunately, that ‘fail in short order’ part is a bit of a kicker: Natural Doctrine is pretty difficult, and you can expect to fail quite a bit in the various single player scenarios. This unfortunately means that you will take a lot of very similar setup turns where not much happens whenever you try a battle over. Also, in a massive oversight, the game’s skip function doesn’t skip the battle animations for things like buffing or attacking, which really makes setup turns that would otherwise be very fast real slogs. To make matters worse, a single unit death on your team means game over, which really promotes an excessively safe style of play in the singleplayer that can make the game take a lot longer than it probably should.
That’s not to say the gameplay isn’t fun, however. There’s a good amount of depth to the mechanics, and even though the singleplayer mode’s tendency to have set solutions to its tactical puzzles can be quite frustrating, the underlying gameplay systems are actually quite engaging. Getting the perfect setup to sweep an enemy formation without a scratch is really rewarding, even thought it requires some patience to actually do.
The game’s tutorial also deserves mention for being woefully insufficient for explaining the game’s systems: Outside of a few basics like moving and attacking, the tutorial doesn’t really explain things very well, meaning that to really play the game you need to mess around in battle for a few hours. There’s also a rather questionable “hints” interface that explains the mechanics in a bit more depth, but that stuff really probably shouldn’t be hidden away like that.
The worst trouble with the game is found in the interface: It’s horribly cluttered, and the various camera options do a good job of making things even worse, to the point that I often had to literally read text upside down in order to determine how large of a bonus certain units were receiving. The game also requires you to keep lines of fire open for gunners or else risk shooting your own units in their backs, but the game doesn’t have a way to zoom out and get a big-picture view of the battle, meaning you need to manually fly the camera around and inspect each gunner’s firing line to make sure you’re not wasting your turn. Often times, the actual map the units are on is just hidden beneath too many interface elements. This can be especially egregious when targeting area attacks, as the aiming cursor will want to snap to enemy units making it difficult to position your explosives right in the middle of a group.
Sound-wise, the game has a problem with repetitive audio. The various battle theme tracks aren’t especially long, and given the frequent restarting of missions you’ll often be hearing them a lot. There are also issues when passing a lot turns quickly (for instance, when marching a few straggling units to a battle exit zone), leading to an extremely annoying mess of menu sounds. Apart from these however, the sound in the game is best described as ‘inoffensive’. I also, personally, like the game’s main theme a lot, but obviously opinions will vary there.
The game’s story is perfunctory and largely divorced from the characters that act it out. The writing never feels grating, and it does an acceptable job of moving you from battle to battle, but a lot of the reasons for doing things are often very….flimsy, with characters making questionable leaps in logic that always seem to work out. Aside from a rather brutal and unexpected plot twist early on the story never really does anything unexpected, but it also seems like it never really asks you to expect anything of it. The character’s are similarly bland but functional, feeling more like character-archetype puppets to be moved around in the service of a plot that never really engages them personally. In a way, the very standard story is a disappointment because there’s clearly a lot of lore and ideas in the setting that never get fleshed out, but at the same time it really seems like Natural Doctrine is just asking you to follow it along for the next tactics puzzle and not to worry about the plot so much. Personally, I’m willing to oblige it.
Natural Doctrine has a solid strategic core, but unfortunately the various systems around it are rather shoddy and degrade what would otherwise be a very engaging experience. The game isn’t bad, so if you love strategy games, or are otherwise just very patient, then Natural Doctrine may be for you. Just don’t expect a Fire Emblem game.