"This is a system guaranteed to produce numerous failures as you learn, eventually giving way to the satisfaction a well-executed battle plan can deliver."
When I stop and really ask myself the hard questions, I'm always interested in the responses that float to the surface in my brain.
"How much do I love looking at lines with numbers on them?"
It can't be that much. I never made it far with calculus, and whenever I see a football field, my eyes glaze over.
"Do I respect it when people try to spice things up?"
Of course. That's why I'm constantly putting Sriracha on everything.
"Can I enjoy an experience even if the conversation is awful and my friends' voices are terribly grating?"
Sure, but I might be a little apprehensive recommending the experience to everyone else.
"How much do I love killing bugs?"
KILL ALL THE SPIDERS!
Not only are the above questions at least ninety-percent salient to everyday life, they're great to ask yourself when considering whether or not to play Natural Doctrine. This is Kadokawa Games' first fully independent development (though published by NIS America over on this side of the swimming pool), a "for-the-hardcore" tactical RPG starring every anime trope you've come to know and love/hate over the years.
Beginning with the blue-haired sword-wielder packing a plucky persona at its center, the game never goes anywhere interesting with its plot, which is replete with cliched characters, 90's anime villains, and the most repetitive battle quotes since Zero first uttered a hoo-hah-hoh. Despite this, your band of heroes never quite veers all the way into insufferability — though you might find they come close after you've heard your five-hundredth "THE FINAL STRIKE!" on the opening attack in a volley. Point is, this isn't a game you play expecting War of the Lions-level plot or nuance in character.
What you might want to play it for, though, is its interesting and challenging combat system, which does a lot of things differently than its brethren. On the surface, it looks completely impenetrable: multicolored lines criss-cross the battlefield, each with status effects and numbers plastered across them. Characters seem to get turns out of order, and the whole pot seems totally unmanageable, likely to bubble over at any second. While that initial assessment might not immediately give way upon actually taking control, after the first few foes have been vanquished, you'll gradually find that there's a simple logic to every action. That logic doesn't necessarily adhere to real-world standards, but this is a game that sets up its rules and sticks to them.
Before one can understand all those lines, figuring out how the battlefield works is key. Broken up into zones rather than the more traditional squares or hexes, the battlefield is traversed freely with direct analog stick control. Characters have a certain range of zones they're able to move each turn, and the first thing to wrap your head around is that positioning within each zone matters. Hiding behind cover, walls, or outcroppings can put you out of the reach of ranged attacks or magic, even if traditional tactics logic would say you're within attacking range. Each zone can play host to up to four units (depending on size), and positioning your softer units behind the ones with heavy armor and protective shields is an absolute must for success.
The other necessary condition for victory is understanding the link turn system. For each action a character has, there is a condition for a "link," and if fulfilled, other characters are immediately given a turn, regardless of where they sit in the queue. This can be used to carry out cooperative attacks, lay down covering fire, move more quickly across the ground, and is essentially the lynchpin on which success in battle rests. Enemies are able (and absolutely will) take advantage of link turns, so the key lies in maximizing your own characters' turns, cutting down your adversaries before they even manage to move. Depending on how characters link, different bonuses are conferred; that's where the lines come in. Engaging in a link attack with four characters? Positioning them in tactical formations can grant damage bonuses, boosts to your critical rate, and more. Each line updates in real time as you position your characters, so while there's an initial shock of "oh dear lord what is going on," it eventually becomes a simple task to maximize your strategic bonus.
Character progression is tied to level-ups and skill points. Each hero has a relatively small skill tree that you're able to freely reconfigure at any time based on the needs of the upcoming skirmish, and you'll often find that a test run, destined to fail, is required so that you can understand how to redistribute your skill points for success. While this won't appeal to the "my skill alone should let me succeed" mindset some players have, there's definitely satisfaction in executing a perfectly-planned and methodical combination of skills, planning, and battlefield strategy.
A breakdown of minutiae of the combat system is perhaps not the best way to assess every game, but in Natural Doctrine's case, I think it's essential. This is not a game that aims to garner a wide audience: it's designed with special care to appeal to hardcore tactics gamers. Battles can often be lost based on a single misstep, and thinking very carefully and planning out each action is absolutely critical. To understand its systems is to understand the soul of the game. If you need an engaging plot, pretty graphics, or lots of side quests and frills to keep you interested in your RPGs, stay far away. There is a multiplayer component, featuring cooperative and competitive play, but I was unable to test it out by the time of this review.
How do you feel about plumbing the depths of a fresh strategy system, with a very specific kind of play required for success? This is a system guaranteed to produce numerous failures as you learn, eventually giving way to the satisfaction a well-executed battle plan can deliver. If that sounds like your jam, you might be able to to rock with Natural Doctrine. It's a rough product in almost every way, but not one wholly without merit.