Sunday, 12 October 2014

Natural Doctrine

On Christmas morning back in 1998 I received a copy of Tenchu: Stealth Assassin's, the ninja based action-adventure game developed by Acquire. I was 13 at the time, and literally pumped around 70 hours into what only took 9 hours to complete, if even that. You see, I played and replayed every level in order to get all the available secret items, and to also unlock the “Grandmaster” rating at the end of each level. Hell, I even had fun using the debug cheat mode which allowed for a second player to take part in the action. I loved Tenchu. However, besides the over-the-top limb slicing action, one of the main reasons why I loved it so much was its music. Tenchu has one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard in a game, and I literally listen to it at least once a week when writing. So when Natural Doctrine came across my desk and I looked into it, one name instantly caught my eye- Noriyuki Asakura. She composed Tenchu, and since sinking my days into Tenchu I have enjoyed most of her other work. But while not terrible, Askaura's somewhat disappointing score for this latest title sets the tone for the game itself, as it falls firmly into “meh” territory.

Developed by Kadokawa Games and out now for Playstation 4, Playstation 3 and PS Vita comes Natural Doctrine, an RPG clearly aimed at hardcore gamers, but one that never quite succeeds in making the best of its potential. The biggest disappoint here is the story, as while most Japanese RPGs often tend to fall into plenty of plot clichés, Natural Doctrine isn't just cliché ridden, but also incredibly bland and boring with its story. You take on the role of Geoff who, alongside his companions, is on a quest to become official citizens of the city of Feste. However, looming over this journey is an increasingly dangerous threat of an evil bug invasion. Geoff and his companions must not only deal with the impending bug invasion, but also Orcs as well as internal politics within Feste itself. Killer bugs is a tad cliché, which I can deal with, but Natural Doctrine doesn't even try and make it interesting. This kind of failure in storytelling also extends to character development too, which is ultimately dry, empty and uninspiring.

Combat is turn-based and is highly focused on tactics as opposed to using brute force, and uses a grid based system to navigate the battlefield during combat. For instance, upon being able to control a character, that character can only move within a certain radius at any one time. Depending on which class your character is, where you place them is incredibly important. Characters come in many different classes, from gunners, mages to close-ranged fighters, so you'll want your close-ranged fighter near your foes, your magic user perhaps behind a wall for cover and your gunner a long distance away, yet still have your enemy in their direct line of sight. It's an interesting concept and certainly the best aspect of Natural Doctrine, but as good as it is sometimes getting around the battlefield can be quite a chore, especially when you need to make your way to the battlefield exit. Beyond that the usual RPG elements are also here- finding loot, levelling up and grinding which, if you enjoy the combat, will easily help Natural Doctrine steal 50+ hours from you life.

But as much as I enjoyed the combat, everything else just feels so mundane. Aside from my woes about the plot, levels can be painfully claustrophobic and tight, not only leading to gameplay feeling horribly bottle-necked, but also just plain ugly to look at. I get that each area was almost designed like a small constructed chess board to move within, but there's no reason why locations couldn't be a bit more open, and at the very least better to look at. 

It all brings me back to Tenchu and how much that adventure was intrinsically linked to its music. Whenever I hear the Tenchu track “Execute the Corrupt Minister”, I think of a snow laden village Japanese village, a ninja silently infiltrating the Minister's building and the bloody finale that follows. That music brings back so many exiting emotions and feelings for me. When I listen to Natural Doctrine's soundtrack I feel empty, and a little sad about what it might have been with an extra layer of polish.

Natural Doctrine is a hardcore RPG without a heart and gets a 3/5.


Denis Murphy 

Natural Doctrine at CeX

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