We spent some time with Natural Doctrine during E3 2014, and "hardcore" is the name of the game. It's set in a postapocalyptic wasteland where the players are humans who must prove their worth by fighting nasty monsters before they're allowed into the only safe city in the world. Additionally, character death is a major part of the game and a tremendous obstacle to overcome. Every character in your team is an important part of the plot, so they're not expendable. For a good chunk of the game, losing a character means an instant game over. Later on, characters can die without the game ending, but they'll remain dead and the plot will change to compensate for that character's death.
The original Japanese version of Natural Doctrine was infamous for its hard mode. Many players had an extremely tough time with it, leading to a patch that introduced a more substantial tutorial and a new difficulty mode. This patch will be integrated into the North American release from the start. "Easy" is the new lower difficulty mode introduced in the Japanese patch, and every other difficulty mode has been moved up one tier. (Easy is Normal, Normal is Hard, and Hard is now Lethal.) Despite this, publisher NIS America fully expects the game to be a challenge, with an emphasis on players swapping strategies and bragging online and in forums.
The gameplay in Natural Doctrine is somewhere between Valkyria Chronicles and XCOM. It's a turn-based strategy game where players control grids of space. Each character has a set of skills that determine how you can use them in combat, although each has multiple build paths that you can re-spec at any time. For example, Geoff, the protagonist, can be a powerhouse attacker who uses two-handed swords and heavy rifles to do a ton of damage. You can also make him a defensive specialist who is there to tank attacks and lure enemies into traps set by more vulnerable members of the team. There are also interactive objects on the field that potentially allow you to alter the combat flow. The example in the demo was a wheel that could be turned to lower a barricade and block enemy advancement. You had to use a character to lower the barrier, and they were vulnerable and needed to be defended until it was down.
I mentioned swords. Much like Valkyria Chronicles and Operation: Darkness, Natural Doctrine mixes roughly WWI-era weapons and guns with fantasy elements like magic, minotaurs, orcs, shields and swords. Magic depends on a rare resource called Pluton, which is the fuel for your special move but comes at a price. Pluton needs to be replenished, and your supply is shared among all team members. Using a magical power to attack, buff or perform any other action takes away some of your precious Pluton, so you must use it strategically.
Natural Doctrine's biggest combat feature is the Link system. By default, the turn order alternates between ally and enemy until the end of the turn. Slower units move later down the line, which can be dangerous if you're not careful. You can "link" attack and buff moves together, allowing you to instantly move up a character's turn so he or she can act right away. The downside is that you're trading multiple turns for the enemy getting the same benefit later down the line. It's great for finishing off an enemy before they can get a turn, but if it's misused, it can leave you tremendously vulnerable.
Natural Doctrine looks to have a fair bit of content. The main game will take around 40 hours to complete and is comprised of mandatory story missions and optional missions, which you can complete to gain better equipment and Pluton. There will also be a New Game+ mode that has an impact on the story and can lead to an alternate ending. One mode we were told about but didn't get to see was the multiplayer. It's based on building a "deck" that can include monsters and player characters, each with their own rankings. You take on the other player using your deck, and winning rewards you with points to get an even better deck further down the line. There's also a cooperative multiplayer mode where two players can team up to take on difficult enemies.
Natural Doctrine has the potential to be a cult favorite. The concept of hardcore difficulty may sound intimidating, but some players are energized by the idea of taking on such challenges, and Natural Doctrine is geared toward that kind of player. The core mechanics look interesting, and the ability to freely re-spec your characters and link their abilities together should provide for some very interesting interactions. Much of the story and characters are still shrouded in mystery for the moment, but the postapocalyptic setting should provide for some situations that aren't often seen in JRPGs. Natural Doctrine is due out Q3 2014 for all PlayStation systems, and it will support Cross-Save between the various versions.
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