Natural Doctrine Hands-On
When I first sat down to see NAtURAL DOCtRINE, which, yes, officially spells its name in that oddly capitalized fashion, I found myself skeptical to say the least. It sounds like the sort of game that might be a little too ambitious for its budget, and seems to be combining tropes from other popular series' in a way that's as dangerous as it is intriguing.
Based on what I'm shown during my first hour-long demo of the game, and later go on to play, however, it works. How about that? In a nutshell Natural Doctrine is XCOM: Enemy Unknown by way of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem - excellent company to keep, and to me a very exciting proposition indeed.
From Final Fantasy Tactics and its kin comes grid-based strategy RPG combat, plus the general feel that only a Japanese RPG can carry.
Blended with that, though, is a decidedly Western-feeling action-based influence, and one that to me feels most similar to the most recent XCOM release.
The kicker is this: Each 'square' of the battlefield is actually rather large. There's enough space in it for several characters - friend or foe - to share it. Within that square of space characters can move when their turn rolls around in real 3D space. There's a slight bit of Valkyria Chronicles here too, then - while your movement is limited by one or two 'squares', within those squares you can position yourself freely.
For a brief moment in controls the game resembles a third person action game, but any act you take comes in a turn-based fashion from an RPG-style menu. The idea is to position your character for maximum impact. In this system, terrain matters.
One part of a square might have a nice big rock that'll protect you from ranged attacks - but conversely, if you line up a shot with your own weapon and there's an obstacle in the way, Natural Doctrine doesn't babysit you - that shot will simply slam into the obstacle and miss its intended target. High ground is important, too and notably, the game has friendly fire - so attack carefully!
The above is just one example of the cruelty that Natural Doctrine revels in. In our demo, the guy behind the controller describes it as "Brutally Hardcore," and he's right. It is. One difficulty level has been renamed 'Lethal' for the Western release.
This game might well be the Dark Souls of Strategy RPGs - and that's after a slew of balance patches added by the original developers on request of the Western publishers, as well as a friendlier checkpoint system and the addition of an all-new, easier difficulty level.
Complex chain attacks, known in this game as 'Linking', add to the list of considerations the player must make in any battle, specific actions allowing you to stack up character turns in order to deny the enemy more frequent turns while allowing for powerful combination attacks.
The game's slew of characters, all story-based and fleshed out individuals, each travel down a typical RPG character progression path with hard choices to be made. The player character, meanwhile, has a little more freedom of ability but still will end up locked in to a certain play style depending on the choices you make.
The balance changes described by the Western team seem to be geared towards pushing the game away from frustratingly difficult as it was in its Japanese release and more towards challenging fun.
The Japanese version had a middling critical response in part thanks to its difficulty, but that appears to have been particularly strongly addressed here.
As press, there's nothing quite like seeing a demo that isn't carefully planned and executed. With each moment, pressure and luck changes the flow of the demo I'm given - and initially, an early death prematurely ends the presentation five minutes in. Ouch, yes - but it also makes the game come alive.
After playing the game for myself later on, that same sense of excitement and dread rears its head as I realize, in terror, I've left a flank open to the enemy... and that's where Natural Doctrine shines. I'm looking forwards to getting my hands on the final retail release.