Talk about weaving a tangled web. While the odd capitalisation of its name raises a few eyebrows before you even start playing, trying to jump into a game half way through a stage on NAtURAL DOCtRINE is easier said than done. With a view that's half way between a 3D fantasy landscape and a tabletop strategy game, no sooner had we sat down than we found ourselves faced with a web of lines, text, percentages and bonus hits that made our mouth rest slightly agape. It's probably easiest to explain with a picture.
This, is NAtURAL DOCtRINE, a turn-based, grid-based (but not as grid based as you might think) strategy game that looks like it should have a lot in common with Nintendo's strategy role playing tour de force, Fire Emblem. As it happens, it's actually less like Fire Emblem than you might think, although they do both have several things in common. They both have a fantasy setting, both star a guy with blue hair, and both have a lot of learning to do before you can really sink your teeth in.
Luckily, a lot of work's been spent making NAtURAL DOCtRINE a game that's easy to learn, yet hard to master, with a comprehensive tutorial taking you through the basics. Having originally launched in Japan with a difficulty level that was so off the wall, even the Japanese thought it was a bit tricky, a hasty patch managed to bring the game's challenge back to a more reasonable level that mere mortals could at least attempt to conquer. As the game's publishers, NIS America explained, when we sat down with the game recently, there are two distinct types of challenge in a game - a reasonable challenge, and a frustrating one. The new difficulty mode (handily labelled as "Easy") looks to make the game lean more towards the former, with enemies that do less damage, and tougher characters on your team, along with a variety of interface tweaks - but for those of a more masochistic disposition, the original difficulty is still available. It's just been more accurately labelled as "Lethal".
Set in a fantasy world of goblins, orcs, and, er, lizard priests, NAtURAL DOCtRINE tells the story of young hero, who adopts the traditionally fantastical name, Geoff. Acting as a bodyguard for young privileged kids who tire of life in the city and fancy adventure on Mommy and Daddy's dollar - so long as they don't actually have to do anything for themselves - your main purpose in life is to accompany rich kids on an adventure into the mines - but poor old Geoff soon discovers this whole bodyguard thing isn't as easy as it's cracked up to be.
While it may be a turn-based strategy game, though, NAtURAL DOCtRINE has so many twists and original features, it feels totally different to anything that's come before. Starting each level with a party of characters, none of which have specific classes, it's up to you to try and complete each map's victory condition, whether that's simply wiping out all the enemies, surviving for a certain number of rounds, or reaching - and protecting - another character.
While other games take a very 2D, grid based approach, NAtURAL DOCtRINE adds an extra dimension to the proceedings, and an extra layer of freedom, by giving you full control over each character. While the map is divided up into a grid, your units don't "snap" to each square, as you instead have free control over each unit, and can position them wherever you like within the grid. And their position really matters. Not only can enemies not enter a square that has one of your troops in - but you can also make use of the terrain to offer cover, or give you a vantage point to take pot shots at your enemies. If there's a ruined piece of castle in the the grid square, positioning your unit behind it will keep them out of harm's way - while if there's a hill, marching one of your ranged units on top of it will give them a clear shot at anyone around them.
However, positioning your units isn't the only thing you need to think about. One of the game's key features is known as linking, which is essentially a fancy (but shorter) way of saying that characters in the same grid can work together with each other. At the top of the screen at all times is a move order list, which shows you who gets to go next. Move your troops into the same space, and choose to attack an enemy, and you'll see that fellow units in the same square get their moves bumped forward. Have four of your soldiers in one square, and, if you choose the right moves, you can chain all four of their moves together in a devastating combo - although, as with everything NAtURAL DOCtRINE, for every positive, there's at least a few potential drawbacks.
First off, the game features friendly fire. That's yet another reason why positioning is so very important for your units - if you try and make your sniper shoot through the back of the head of the guy in front of her, she'll do it without thinking, as they obey your orders to a T. Perhaps more interestingly, though, should you actually manage to kill one of the enemies, your unit will move into their square and take their place, as if you were playing chess. While you may have the upper hand to begin with, an unlucky critical hit topping an enemy can very quickly turn against you, as your unit suddenly finds themselves surrounded behind enemy lines.
And if that didn't all sound challenging enough, NAtURAL DOCtRINE has plenty more it can't wait to heap on you. Not only is friendly fire on, but should a single unit on your team get killed, it doesn't just result in a perma-death for them, and force you to start afresh with a new character - it actually spells game over. If just one of your troop falls on the battlefield, you're forced to start over again - luckily, from one of the game's mid-level checkpoints rather than the very start of the stage (as was the case in the original Japanese difficulty). Oh, but did we mention there's no way to save mid level? So if you can't make it past one of the checkpoints, and you decide to call it quits for the evening, you can't save your progress and come back tomorrow - you'll just have to switch your console off and start from scratch the next day? Yeah. That too.
Luckily, NAtURAL DOCtRINE doesn't just get off on making your life a living hell - there are a few interesting features to make the game a little bit easier, too. One of the most interesting is a product of the game's lack of character classes. Instead of having specific, varied, deliberate character classes to choose from, your character's abilities are instead entirely controlled by you as they level up. Choosing to take them down different paths, distribute ability points, and unlock new skills, you can mould the characters to your liking - and perhaps most interestingly of all, you can change them at any time.
Should you come up against a level that requires a load of snipers, for example, and seems to not be all that kind to those who prefer to wade in all guns blazing, a quick trip back to the menu is all it takes to completely reconfigure your squad. Letting you reassign ability points, and abilities themselves at any time, it's a great way of letting you try out different tactics, and experiment with combinations of "classes", rather than letting you find out the hard way that you really should have been boosting your character's defence from the beginning...
While it all sounds a bit confusing when it's thrown at you in a short space of time, NAtURAL DOCtRINE looks set to be the right kind of challenge. A slow paced, turn based, thinking man/woman's game, if ever there were a game that values brains over brawns, NAtURAL DOCtRINE is it. Check back in a few weeks time, where we'll be getting slaughtered in our full review.