Part interactive visual novel and part strategic turn-based delight, Triangle Strategy is a take on the tactical RPG genre that smartly brings, to plot development, the role-playing that is usually exclusively present in the battlefield
In a moment in time when Fire Emblem safely sits among Nintendo’s most popular franchises, it may be weird to think that not too long ago tactical RPGs were seen as a very niche genre; one that appealed to such a limited audience that many of its best and most famous outings did not even make it to western shores. Case in point, any Nintendo fan who was gaming back in 2001 ought to remember how Super Smash Bros. Melee hit stores carrying two characters that were absolutely unknown to most folks living outside Japan, as both Marth and Roy were the stars of Fire Emblem titles that the company did not bother to localize due to the notion that strategy RPGs were not very alluring to Americans and Europeans.
Twenty-one years later, with that assumption having been proven wrong and the Fire Emblem franchise quite well-established as a fixture in Nintendo’s lineup of big titles, tactical RPGs might not be the most popular videogame genre around, but they have certainly burst their original bubble to reach a much larger market. And given Nintendo’s platforms have shown to be a particularly productive and profitable terrain for efforts of the kind, it should come as no surprise that Square Enix, the studio that is practically synonymous with RPGs, has decided to gift the Switch with Triangle Strategy: a brand new take on the strategic vein of the genre.
The oddly titled adventure takes the place in the continent of Norzelia, a realm that is broken into three regions that have their own forms of government. Located to the north, Aesfrost is a duchy that defends freedom and gives its citizens the chance to rise in life by their own achievements. Lying towards the south, Hyzante is an intensely religious place ruled by the teachings of a Goddess and where equality among all is preached and practiced. Finally, between these two, there is the kingdom of Glenbrook, which thrives in commerce as well as agriculture and that is ruled by a royal family supported by three noble houses. Having just come out of an full-blown thirty-year war where the nations fought over two critical resources, salt and iron, which are respectively controlled by Aesfrost and Hyzante, players catch a glimpse of Norzelia as it tries to solidify recently built peaceful relations.
Rather than taking control of one of the three big powers, Triangle Strategy puts players in the shoes of Serenoa, the young lord of House Wolffort, who ascends to that position following the abdication of his aging father. However, as the leader of a house that is famous for its military prowess, that supports the king of Glenbrook, and that played a key role in putting an end to the aptly named Saltiron War, his position is pretty important within the political framework of Norzelia; to the point that, when the game begins, he is about to be married to the sister of Aesfrost’s duke.
Given Triangle Strategy is a tactical RPG, it goes without saying that peace does not last very long, and soon after gamers are introduced to the main cast from the three regions, war breaks out after a sudden invasion. From that moment onward, players must guide Serenoa and his allies as they try to navigate the troubles of the conflict both in the field of battle and in the equally treacherous swamp of politics, which means that like any effort of its genre Triangle Strategy intersperses segments of plot development with turn-based strategic goodness. Yet, even if that is a formula that should be familiar to fans of either Fire Emblem or Square Enix’s very own Final Fantasy Tactics, Triangle Strategy takes advantage of the fact it is a new property to shake that structure up.
By far, the biggest innovation boasted by the game is its conviction system. If on the battlefield Serenoa and his friends make use of traditional RPG stats such as health, attack, defense, speed, and luck, away from them their tools will be based on three principles: morality, utility, and liberty. These stats, whose values are kept hidden from players on their initial journey through the quest, are enhanced through various means. In dialogues, for instance, whenever Serenoa is prompted to utter a reply players will be greeted with three options, each subtly based on a principle, and according to the one that is selected, a conviction will have its value increased. Similarly, simple actions like buying or selling items, talking to NPCs, using specific attacks, or employing certain strategies in battle also affect these characteristics; collecting a lot of spoils dropped by enemies, for example, increases the utility stat.
Obviously, the conviction system does not exist to simply assess the personality of the Serenoa players have decided to unleash upon their version of Norzelia; given the stats of morality, utility, and liberty are initially kept secret, just like the ways of maximizing them and the answers that correspond to each one, this degree of natural personality-based role-playing is indeed a considerable part of the charm found in Triangle Strategy. But if these stats did not affect the quest very much, they would have gone to waste. It is to give them purpose, then, that the game’s most notable feature enters the stage: its branching paths.
Multiple times during the quest, Serenoa and his allies will stand at a crossroad with two or three possible courses of action, and in those occasions (as the tradition of House Wolffort dictates) the group will use the Scales of Conviction to vote for the desired path. Early in the game, the options are somewhat simple; for example, the first time the scales are brought out is when the protagonists – while peace still reigns – have to decide whether they will travel to Aesfrost or to Hyzante, and although the mission produced by that choice is different according to the destination, after it the quest will continue down the same path. However, as the plot advances and the war gains momentum, Triangle Strategy succeeds spectacularly in cornering the party in situations where no option is without its downsides and where the choice that is made will have immediate mighty impacts on the conflict as well as in how the game will unfold after that point.
It is precisely in those choices that the values of Serenoa’s convictions will come into play. Invariably, the game’s core party – composed of seven members, besides the main character himself – will be equally split among the available options, with one vote being undecided. As Serenoa, then, it is up to players to talk to the characters and try to sway their vote towards the desired choice; a process which entails talking to them and going through a dialogue tree with a trio of possible arguments. In order to successfully change someone’s vote, not only is it important to pick a line of reasoning that fits the character’s personality, but it is also vital to have convictions above a certain threshold. If the argument hinges on liberty but players have not developed that stat very much, the dialogue option will fail to convince the listener.
Although brilliant and refreshing, the conviction system and its practical implementation are, due to their nature, forced to walk a thin line that might raise some eyebrows because of ironically opposing reasons. The need to sway other characters in order to follow a certain path means that, at times, the quest might not unfold as gamers want it to. In a way, it is a fantastic role-playing of reality and a great test of personality; however, it is likely that some players will be frustrated when the voting ends up not representing their wishes. It is worth noting, though, that such occurrences are relatively rare, because since party members are always equally split between the available alternatives, all that it takes for the desired path to be followed is the changing of a single vote. And because of that another different group of players may wonder if the conviction system should have been more pivotal to these decisions.
Regardless of one’s perception, though, the bottom line is that these choices are a major reason behind the greatness of Triangle Strategy, and they benefit the game in at least two ways. Firstly, it turns the relatively stiff plot development usually found in the genre into a dynamic narrative over which players have a large degree of agency, meaning that the role-playing aspect that is usually only present on the battlefield overflows into the script. Secondly, it makes Triangle Strategy ridiculously replayable, since aside from having four distinct endings, many of its missions can be tackled in multiple ways that sometimes unlock distinct side-paths. Consequently, anyone looking to check all alternatives the game has to offer and to clear all its battle scenarios will have to go through its forty-hour quest more than once.
With so much weight being put into choices, character personalities, and the creation of tricky wartime scenarios from which there is no purely good way out, another major aspect of Triangle Strategy is how thick its plot is. Nintendo gamers used to Fire Emblem ought to quickly recognize the formula of each battle being preceded by dialogues that build to the conflict and then followed by conversations that deal with the outcome of the skirmish. However, Triangle Strategy seriously turns the dial on that balance by separating battles with a lot of scenes filled with political machinations, royal intrigue, character development, and world building. In fact, talking is so prominent that the game could qualify as a hybrid between an interactive visual novel – one that is as wordy as a title like Ace Attorney – and a tactical RPG.
The focus Triangle Strategy puts on its story absolutely yields great fruits. Norzelia emerges as a continent with a rich history and a troubled past that make its current state extremely realistic. The vast cast of characters coming from the three realms – be them members of the core party, major villains, key allies, or minor participants in the plot – are excellently developed, presenting a moral grayness and believable motivations that can only be found in a very mature type of writing. The game’s plot is utterly gripping due to how it sits on a complex web of relations and thanks to how it is anchored on the facts that there are no winners in a war and that there is no purely good deed in the political arena. Finally, the build-up to the battle found in each of the game’s twenty chapters gives them weight and meaning, turning the defeat of rival generals into a catharsis and leading the quest to feature no filler combats whatsoever.
Yet, despite all those qualities, it has to be highlighted that Triangle Strategy presents a very unique balance between battling and talking. During the early chapters, sometimes it is possible to spend more than half an hour following dialogues; later on, breaks between battles get smaller, but some larger intervals still appear. All in all, when the game’s nearly twenty optional battles – which can be accessed from the encampment and that unlock as the story goes along – are considered, Triangle Strategy offers about twenty minutes of exposition for every combat. Therefore, it is not a work that will please those who like their games to be on the quiet side. And although it is possible to skip cutscenes, speed up dialogues, and ignore extra plot development scenes as well as character heart-to-hearts, doing so ends up detracting from the experience.
The excellence observed in the script of Triangle Strategy is also present in its battles. On this front, the game chooses to stick to tradition rather than to seek innovation. Nevertheless, it still manages to pull off a few noteworthy tricks. The essence of the gameplay is the same one players will encounter on Fire Emblem, with characters being moved in turn-based fashion on a grid-layered arena. Moreover, as expected, most of the available units cover the basic classes found in any RPG, such as swordsmen, knights, elemental mages, healers, heavily shielded warriors, archers, flying soldiers with high mobility, and more. As the game goes along, characters level up, acquire new abilities, and can be further improved by equipping accessories, by exchanging materials and cash to unlock bonuses tied to a skill tree, or by being given hard-to-acquire medals that allow them to move up to a better class.
However, differently from what happens in Fire Emblem, in Triangle Strategy it is not the armies that take turns, but the characters themselves, with each one acting in a specific order according to their speed stat. From a tactical standpoint, this choice opens interesting opportunities, as it allows players – with the use of certain strategies or abilities – to toy with the turn order to improve their chances of winning. For example, keeping a character still and not performing any move will make their next turn come more quickly than if they had been moved; at the same time, moving a character but not attacking will make them act again more quickly than if they had both moved and attacked. In addition, many are the units with skills that can delay enemy turns or make allies speedier.
In Triangle Strategy, though, the variable that rules combats and makes them have a unique flavor is the importance of position. Sure, one could argue that such a statement is true for any strategy game, and they would be correct. After all, in Fire Emblem as well as in Triangle Strategy it is of great importance to check if the square where a unit is being sent to is within the range of many enemies, and Triangle Strategy makes that task awfully simple by drawing red-colored arches between said unit and the foes that can get to them in a certain place. But here Square Enix greatly increases the value of position by allying simple battle mechanics and level design. Using the gorgeous HD-2D art style they pioneered in Octopath Traveler, the company turns the environments of Triangle Strategy into detailed 3-D dioramas where character sprites extracted out of the 32-bit era roam and interact. Although this artistic choice permeates and beautifies all moments of Triangle Strategy, it is in battles that its dividends become more blatant.
Thanks to their marvelous verticality, getting the high ground in these diorama battlefields is critical: archers and mages become more effective when positioned in tall platforms, movement range is increased when going downhill, regular attacks receive bonuses if performed from an elevated position, units might be safe from the blows of foes that are below them, ladders or hills can be protected as choke points, and units can receive fall damage if they are pushed (via certain abilities) towards a considerable drop. Simultaneously, because of their 3-D nature, turning the camera around to look at the battlefield from all angles is a must, for it may reveal more efficient ways to go between two points as well as hidden ladders, platforms, and other helpful elements. Finally, Triangle Strategy further increases the value of position by making hits delivered from the back deal critical damage and by allowing two units to perform an attack combo if they encircle an enemy from opposite sides.
Taking advantage of that simple yet brilliant setup, Triangle Strategy builds an excellent set of battles that is both varied and creative, forcing players to use a myriad of strategies. Combats that may seem overwhelming at first can become perfectly manageable if the proper moves are performed, whether it is controlling a choke point, getting the high ground, or finding the most effective way to navigate around the dioramas. Sometimes, though, the solution might be tweaking the composition of the deployed units based on the map at hand; an ice mage that can block a path with ice pillars might be ideal in a tight battlefield, but occasionally the best choice is sending out two archers to place them at the top of the village’s houses. In other situations, the game’s quirkier units can drastically turn things around, like the young girl who is able to create a decoy, the merchant that is so good at talking he might convince enemies to change side, or the carpenter that can build ladders and traps.
The cherry on top of those tremendous qualities is that Triangle Strategy exhibits a level of polish comparable to, and sometimes even better than, what is seen on the very best Square Enix games. The adventure is incredibly balanced, with all battles packing a good but fair challenge; and even if one does all optional combats, that will not lead the units to be overleveled to the point that skirmishes become too easy. In addition, other than presenting spectacular HD-2D visuals, the game has a great orchestrated soundtrack, and good voice acting that covers almost the entirety of an extremely thick script. Finally, the project is sprinkled with nice quality-of-life touches: it has four difficulty levels that can be changed at any moment, experience acquired from failed battles is not lost, and the New Game Plus mode – which ups the difficulty while allowing players to keep their party – pulls the veil on the conviction system, allowing players to see which dialogue option can be chosen and what actions can be performed to increase each characteristic.
Overall, there are a couple of nitpicks to be made: optional battles could have been a bit more varied in their setup and the storyline combats that involve protecting units controlled by the CPU can be annoying since they might put themselves in unnecesary trouble. However, the only area in which Triangle Strategy could have been considerably improved is in the exploration segments that occur every once in a while. In these, which usually precede battles or decisions, Serenoa must scout a location, and that basically means walking around a diorama whilst talking to characters and examining sparkling objects, which might be either items that can be used in battles or pieces of lore and intel that will allow the character to make certain arguments when trying to sway the votes of his peers.
Given they simply entail walking and pressing the A button, the problem is that during these phases of the journey there is simply not much going on, with the exception of some late exploration bits that require more intricate actions. Truth be told, players are free to end these segments whenever they wish; consequently, most of them can be skipped without much repercussion other than missing information that will be key to changing a character’s mind. However, it is hard not to wish all exploration segments had been made as eventful and significant as the two or three pivotal ones that happen towards the end of the game. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this is but a small problem in a game brimming with great refreshing ideas.
In the end, Triangle Strategy is an amazing gift to fans of the strategy genre. It is a take on the format that smartly brings, to plot development, the role-playing that is usually exclusively present in the battlefield. By doing so, it paves the way to a journey that can unfold in multiple ways according to how players interact with its conviction framework. Throw into the mix a great battle system where position and strategy rule the day, a quest that is highly replayable thanks to its various branches and multiple outcomes, a fantastic plot filled with moral grayness and tough choices, as well as spectacular production values, and the result is a classic that will be loved by anyone who does not mind wordy games. Part interactive visual novel and part strategic delight, Triangle Strategy is Square Enix firing on all cylinders; and tactical RPGs should henceforth look at it as an example of the genre working at its best.