Whenever a game is labeled as a tactical RPG, there's a certain style that tends to pop into my head thanks to Shining Force being my first experience with the subgenre. The games that came afterward for me were Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, and Vandal Hearts. Since the days of those games, tactical RPGs have taken many new forms with titles like Valkyria Chronicles and the underrated Rondo of Swords. Each of these games put a new spin on things, and the upcoming Natural Doctrine seeks to do something similarly unique.
"This tactical RPG might be a little rough around the edges in some places, but it offers a fresh take on the subgenre."
Natural Doctrine starts you off right in the middle of combat as a means running you through a much needed, though overly talky, tutorial. The first thing of note is the game is not grid-based, but instead battlefields are broken into sections large enough to hold up to four characters and as a result has a strong focus on positioning. Each section of the field is either controlled by the player (blue) or the enemies (red). There can be multiple characters or foes within controlled areas, which is meaningful when deciding where to focus an attack. If surrounded, you can attack the area with fewer enemies and then take control of that section once they are defeated. Natural Doctrine has a hint of the board game Risk in it, since controlling areas is key to gaining the upper hand.
Things get even more complicated in terms of actually attacking and defending, but not in a bad way. Nearby characters are encouraged to link their attacks together in an all-out attack combo that can plow through a group quickly. For example, you can have two sword users next to an adjacent enemy area and a gun user two away link up to offer three attacks at once. Even though the game has an initiative bar showing the movement order, linking nearby characters moves their turn up which can help clear out an area faster. This can leave these characters open to attacks in later rounds, however, so use linking with caution. It takes thinking outside of the typical TRPG box, but there's an enjoyable, unique twist to the strategy offered in Natural Doctrine.
Another interesting aspect is the character development system. Geoff is one of the starting characters and is listed as an all-around warrior. As such he can use swords and shields and can even learn to use guns, which allow attacking from two battle areas away. His partner Vasily is a sword master, and she can only focus on sword and shield usage in her skill trees. Skills follow the standard formula of granting skill points to assign upon leveling up, but Natural Doctrine offers a bit of flexibility often lacking in RPGs. After you put points into a skill, if you don't like what it offers or want to readjust, simply go into the tree and turn that skill off to get the points back to reassign elsewhere. It helps those like me who often get choice paralysis when looking like huge list of options, because your decisions are easy to undo.
I'll admit, Natural Doctrine wasn't really on my radar, but that's changed. Available near the end September for PlayStation Vita (the version I've been playing), PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 3, this game is not cross-buy, but it offers cross-play for multiplayer and cross-save between all three platforms. This tactical RPG might be a little rough around the edges in some places, but it offers a fresh take on the subgenre. Natural Doctrine could very well be a sleeper hit or at least garner a cult following. That said, it could get rougher later on, but for now I've found it to be surprisingly engaging.