Saturday, September 27, 2014

Natural Doctrine (PS3/PS4/PS VITA)

I was truly baffled by this particular NISA release. It was about as simple in design as it gets in the area of story development, and gameplay. While the game did have it's slight visual perks in the way of art options, and in-game character design the lack of the usual NISA cutscenes really hurt the game's potential. The added fact that the gameplay was geared around long dull fights against a handful advantageous of enemies at a time also did the game a huge disservice. I will however say that the RPG mechanics were innovative enough to grab my attention, and for what it's worth they worked pretty darn well. I just wish that the character's were more fleshed out, and that their story was equally as so.

In 'Natural Doctrine' you'll be following the slow moving story of three mercenaries for hire, and a female treasure hunter who is looking to gain citizenship in a prestigious kingdom community. Zeke, Geoff, and Vasily who are the mercenaries I speak of are in desperate need of citizenship like their newly found employer, and aim to join the treasure seeker not only for that cause, but for the paid work as well. Through the proper connections the trio is able to win over the female treasure hunter's trust, and end up joining her in a team effort designed to fulfill all of their dreams collectively. After proving their worth the threesome, and their new boss lady set out to traverse dungeons, kill off the creatures that reside therein, and score treasures ultimately proving their worth to the kingdom in the process. It isn't until they stumble upon a new breed of enemy during one of their dungeon explorations that things really become interesting though. Their narrow escape from an infested cave has them running to the Kingdom's senate for help, but ends up leaving them to do the dirty work on their own. Roles are questioned, and many battles are fought as the unlikely team unravel a twisted plot. With a kingdom who accepts few, and shady characters in the seat of power you can bet your bottom dollar things will heat up between the party of four as they try to right the wrongs of their world ...

About The Gameplay ...

Gameplay in the campaign portion of 'Natural Doctrine' is unfortunately about as bare bones as the story itself. Aside from viewing the oddly misplaced character banter that appears onscreen through character dialogue boxes, and scripted lines you will also be listening to the voice acting which breathes slight life into the characters of the game. It is through these, and other in-game character interactions that you will mainly be instructing your team to do your bidding. This of course is done in a strategic turn based fashion at each of your various dungeon stops which can be accessed via a large map. The catch this time though is that you'll be using line of sight, and link based mechanics to deal damage to the enemies in the tiles around you. After entering a dungeon via the provided map, and moving your characters to square spaces adjacent to the red squares that house the enemies you will have to decide whether to take an offensive approach, or a defensive stance. It is a turned based ordeal throughout, and every decision you make counts.

Seeing as the game is turn based you'll find that not all characters on your team will be able to perform actions on your turn phase in every situation. Should they be able to act in unison though you can setup your party in a defensive formation that will give you an advantage if your enemy/s are just out of reach during the current turn. By setting a character to guard, and another character to reserve behind them you will be able to negate most of the damage that is dealt. Depending on the type of turn that you are taking (tactical, movement, ...) your choices may are may not be limited. For example sometimes in the defensive phases certain characters can guard while others can only choose the 'reserve', or 'end turn' options. Without managing your defensive, and offensive choices wisely you can end up dying off rather quickly. It is imperative that you pay attention to all of your character options, and the dungeon layout as it will help you decide the best action choices, and best vantage points for taking out the enemies.

In the way of offense you will find that each character has a specific set of attack, recovery, and defense skills that can be upgraded after each dungeon encounter via the skill tree. Skills range from different types of character specific attacks to healing options, and even parrying options. The character skill tree, which uses skill points earned during dungeon outings will help you better prepare your characters for the increasingly difficult challenges ahead, supposing you can afford them. It should also be noted that each character levels up through earned experience points during battle, and that they each get stronger in their various attributes (HP, Agility, Defense ...) as they do so. When a character levels up in-game you will know that they have done so as they will be surrounded by a burst of energy, and their health will be fully restored. Keep in mind that even though health refills are an option through character leveling, an limited potion supplies that dying in a dungeon encounter will be an immediate "Game Over" for you even if it's only one character that falls victim to fate.

Aside from the character specific skill trees you will find that each character will specialize in a different type of weapon based combat. Zeke, and Vasily for example can harness a shield, and a sword. Geoff on the other hand is a balanced fighter, and when upgraded via the skill tree can wield either a gun, or a sword & shield combo. Lastly, Anka who plays the role of the treasure hunter is a gun, and explosives expert who can deal powerful ranged attacks with multiple shots. In the case of Anka you'll also find that her explosive special can destroy walls, revealing hidden shortcuts in dungeons. She can also unlock doors, and other things that the other three party members can't handle. It should also be noted that in any battle scenario the party members will be able to perform basic attacks indefinitely, but when it comes to the enhanced skills you will have a limited use of each for each of the characters. Managing which attacks to use when is the key to coming out of the more difficult battles alive.

When it comes to the offensive tactical portion of combat you will find that party formation is just as important as that of the defensive aspect of gameplay. By setting one character to attack you can have other characters link up via a visually displayed tactical link that will give the party's attacks a boost in damage. The links are always visible no matter what perspective (R1 = 3rd Person, Overhead ...) you choose to go with, and will help you decide the best course of action for dealing the most damage. Keep in mind that party links, or tactical links do not have to be a four member effort, but that having all four party members pitch in will help you clear out multiple enemies at once. Unlike most RPGs you'll find that targeting one enemy with a tactical link in this game will result in the attacking of all the enemies near said enemy. The attacking, like defense is an automated ordeal though, and will play out according to your characters' skills, and attributes.

Before the dungeon explorations can ever occur you will be tasked with selecting your next location via a fantasy inspired map with points of interest marked for your choosing. Each dungeon, while accessible multiple times will sometimes be vacated of enemies due to an enemy overkill. Should this be mentioned in the area's description box you'll have to wait until the enemies are brave enough to repopulate that area in order to return for another playthrough. Seeing as this is the case with all of the dungeons in the game you will find that dungeon exploration, and looting is also kept to a bare minimum, and that level grinding is not really an option this time around.

The developer wants you to use your combat prowess to overcome the odds before you instead of depending on specific character strengths. This in itself is what makes the game challenging. As such it's not really the character based combat that hinders potential progress, but more so the fact that one character's death spells a 'Game Over'. That, and the fact that the much needed level grinding of old is no longer a viable option. Characters are often times under equipped to handle the more heavily populated dungeons, and areas, and are lacking in the skills necessary to overcome the odds a majority of the time. Victory on the battlefield, as a result is geared more towards your tactical approach to each, and every situation. It is also geared towards the luck of the player turn system. Often times enemies will get to move, and act more than your own party leaving you wide open for some unfair damage. In fact I personally believe that the developer has designed the game to have only one truly viable course of action in each given dungeon scenario. If you fail in the slightest to play the dungeon as it is meant to be played you will more often than not fail in your attempt.

Speaking of "situations" you'll find that 'Natural Doctrine' does offer a variety of combat scenarios when it comes to dungeon encounters. Sometimes you will have to simply kill off all of the enemies, and then loot the place for any treasures it may hold while other times you'll have to run for your life when you encounter an enemy your party is not ready to handle. Each victory, regardless of it's nature will reward you with more experience points, and skill points as well as an alphabetical ranking that is akin to something you'd find in a SEGA game (E-S++). As you make progress across the world map you will encounter other accessible areas such as the kingdom which you are seeking citizenship in. It is in these significant areas of interest that the plot will be detailed the most. Battle, as it were only gives you childish banter from the characters regarding their efforts in-game.

About The Graphics & Sound ...

In the way of graphics, and sound you will find that 'Natural Doctrine' does have it's interesting features. The dungeon setup that I spoke of earlier is laid out like an RPG board game with tiles in place as well as trap doors, and hidden switches. It's something along the lines of 'Hero Quest (a popular RPG board game)'. You'll find that your characters which inhabit the simplified yet next-gen 3D areas are themselves molded like a more realistic 3D model. They show only slight hints of an anime inspired design, and totally do away with the NISA anime style that you're likely used to by now. As such the only anime art you'll find this time is through the optional character avatar art which can be set to 'Realistic', 'Anime', or 'Full (which is a full character anime display)".

These artistic tidbits will make themselves known whenever a character begins to speak out, or when dialogue is shown on the screen. It should be noted that character interactions come in three different varieties. You'll find the annoying screen filling script that can be turned of with a certain button press (L1), the character bubble dialogue which is slightly less annoying, and the voice-overs which are spoken only in English. I will say that some of the English voice-overs will be familiar to anime fans, as the they seem to be from top dollar voice actors, and actresses. If I'm not mistaken Zeke's voice actor is that of Batou's from the 'Ghost in the Shell' series. Don't quote me on that though. In regards to the music soundtrack you'll find that it is mostly thematic, and enjoyable to listen to. It is one of the games more noteworthy features. The added blood effects which add to the game's "Mature" rating leave the characters a bloody mess when hit, and have the enemies bubbling up in a pool of blood when they are defeated. The blood effects themselves seem like an unnecessary add-on meant to attract those older gamers interested in a little more bloody realism.

Multiplayer ...

Aside from 'Campaign' mode, and all that it entails you will find that 'Natural 'Doctrine' has a rather unusual Multiplayer option. If you've ever read my review of Idea Factory's "Monster Monpiece" you'll have an inkling as to what I'm talking about. In multiplayer you will be tasked with setting up a small card deck (yes I said "card deck") that features enemy, and soldier type characters with RPG attributes, and skills similar to that of the core game experience. You can purchase cards in a variety of different packs using in-game credits. These packs range from the more common to the more rare. Like 'Monster Monpiece' the cards come in standard issue designs with character images, and flat colors as well as rare prism colored cards featuring stronger characters with better attributes, and skills in place. Each character card has a letter rating assigned to it as well as a five circle rating that will clue you into that card's potential. Some cards even have dual weapons displayed on the card's surface.

After building your deck to your liking you will find that your deck construction will be rated alphabetically with "S++" being the absolute best, and "E" being the absolute worst. Aside from basic deck construction options you have to keep in mind that each deck you build can only carry so much weight. Character cards each are weighed by the gram, and can only be assigned to decks with open spaces, and weight limits that have not yet been met. The rarer cards will sometimes take up an entire deck's space making them a poorer choice when it comes to deck construction. One thing I forgot to mention is that decks are divided into two four card sections which in itself limits deck building potential. Another thing you'll need to know is that each character card comes with a set cost. This "cost' must be met in order for the character to be used in battle.

Without having had the chance to get past the deck building phase I can only assume that the multiplayer will play out in a way similar to the game's 'Campaign' mode. You'll likely have to select your cards to play in order for the characters to be placed on the battlefield, and will then have to battle it out tactical link style in order to win a match. For those of you curious about matchmaking options I do know that the developer included 'Quick Match' options as well as the other generic matchmaking option setups included in modern-day multiplayer experiences. Like the rest of the game though the multiplayer in 'Natural Doctrine' does seem a bit bare bones, and is more akin to an additional mode thrown in there to make up for the lackluster core experience.

The Verdict ...

Whether it be on the PS3, PS4, or PS Vita 'Natural Doctrine falls short of being the grand RPG release that NISA, and it's chosen developers are known for. The story pacing is extremely slow as are the battles which seem to take longer than any other tactical RPG out there. The level, and character design is also not the best I've seen. Sure the characters, and dungeons sport next-gen textures, but they still look like oldschool RPGs with a mere skin upgrade. The characters in particular have movement akin to an older 32bit Final Fantasy game. When it comes down to combat scenarios the fact that most dungeons are populated by a small group of enemies makes the game seem so void of action, and action opportunities.

In regards to the in-game mechanics the provided tactical links were innovative enough, and did their intended job well, but in the end it seemed unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. I never once felt that the battles that took place were epic. I also felt that the only reason the game was as challenging as it was was the fact that the characters were often times ill-equipped to take on the battle with their current skills, and attributes outside of the provided tactical link mechanics. When it comes to RPGs the battle matters, and when the battle seems as dumbed down as it is in 'Natural Doctrine' it's honestly hard to get into. The fact that the graphics are a poor excuse for next-gen consoles makes the game an even tougher pill to swallow.

I just wish there was more of that signature NISA storytelling through anime cutscenes. I also wish there was more anime art. It definitely makes me appreciate older NISA games more. I hate to be the bearer of bad news folks, but I honestly think this game is a flop. I don't think it lived up to it's hype at all. It's just too bare bones for an RPG enthusiast like myself. I cannot recommend it. Sorry NISA, I still love you!

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