Judging by the success of the Fire Emblem series, there’s a healthy appetite for more tactical RPGs. So it was only a matter of time before Square Enix dipped back into the genre, and if you’ll forgive its terrible title, then Triangle Strategy is a worthy retro-inspired spiritual successor to the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics that takes a modern approach with deep narrative choices.
Four years since the release of the equally hilarious-named Octopath Traveler, it’s only the second game to make use of Square Enix’s patented HD-2D art style, as classical 16-bit-style pixel art combines with modern lighting, particle and water effects that’s just a delight to behold. While we’ll be getting more of this aesthetic in 2022, including Dragon Quest 3 HD-2D Remake and Live A Live, Triangle Strategy feels uniquely suited to it as an isometric 3D game with a fully rotatable camera, harking back to a transitional period when Japanese developers continued using 2D sprites while adapting to 3D environments, such as Square Enix’s own Xenogears and, of course, Final Fantasy Tactics.
While there’s charm to the pixel art, an overall earthy palette also makes this a more grounded affair. Sure, there may be magic spells and an elegant narrator, but Triangle Strategy feels less inspired by JRPG tropes than it is by Game Of Thrones. Not that you should expect sex and violence in a PEGI-12 game (that said, marking character deaths with their sprites collapsed in a pool of blood leaves an impact) but the world-building is layered with a rich intricate web of history and politics between the game’s three nations – the feudal kingdom of Glenbrook, the industrious classless duchy of Aesfrost, and the theocratic state of Hyzante – where you’re even privy to finding out individual character motivations beyond your protagonist’s perspective.
After a period known as the Saltiron War ravaged the continent of Norzelia, peace came to the three nations for 30 years. However, behind the diplomacy is a truce on shaky foundations, tensions and resentments simmering beneath the surface. Caught in the midst of what threatens to engulf the realm in war once more is Serenoa, a young swordsman and future lord of Glenbrook’s House Wolffort, and the path he takes is in your hands.
The paths allude to the first part of Triangle Strategy’s title, governed by a worldview made of three convictions: morality, utility, and liberty (although you might notice the rule of three is a running theme).
Crucially, plot-pivotal decisions are decided democratically by Serenoa’s closest allies via the Scales of Conviction, although you can do some Ace Attorney-style detective work and argue your case to sway the votes in favour of your preferred outcome. But convictions also relate to a whole range of actions, including your strategies in battle and even what you do in the exploration and encampment modes in between, which result in regular notifications on the top right hand corner of the screen that “Serenoa’s convictions have been strengthened”.
Which conviction however, it doesn’t tell you. It’s strange and frustrating that such a core mechanic is kept hidden, while it’s never spelled out which conviction the BioWare-style narrative choices you’re given actually align with, though the upside is you often have very nuanced responses rather than stark binary options. Nonetheless, when this can impact the paths you take and even who joins your cause, it’s like being forced to make a choice without all the facts.
I suppose keeping it opaque allows players to go with their gut the first time instead of being too calculated to get the desired outcome. In any case, choices stay intriguing and agonising because it becomes apparent there isn’t a “correct” choice that won’t yield a concession or consequence. For instance, you can bend the knee to an invading power for the sake of protecting your own, or fight defiantly even if being outnumbered will force you to use more destructive tactics that leaves your people worse off.
Then of course the second part of the title refers to the turn-based tactical gameplay. But while it’s tempting to draw comparisons with Fire Emblem, Triangle Strategy is much closer to Final Fantasy Tactics in the way turns are based on individual unit speed rather than having each side move all their units in a turn. Despite the title, there’s no weapon triangle in combat, though instead you get even more tactical depth with attacks taking into account height, position and direction. Terrain can play a role too as fire magic can set some environments ablaze while puddles of water can spread the damage of lightning attacks. Another key difference is that, between battles and tough choices, you won’t find a ship sim between its characters. Even romance takes second fiddle between Serenoa and his bride-to-be Frederica, though her own arc is far more compelling as a descendant of a persecuted and oppressed people distinguished by their pink hair, though whether or not you help them depends on your choices.
The different paths in the campaign influence who you end up going to battle against, though in my playthrough, the story’s uneasy alliances and double-crosses meant almost everyone in the realm becomes an enemy sooner or later, which keeps battles as fresh as objectives are varied beyond simply wiping out the opposition. Your units may not be very customisable beyond their own specific upgrades and promotions and the large roster means not all are afforded as much screen time (using a unit more often however will yield scenes providing their backstory) but each character stands out. Some have defected from neighbouring nations to stand with House Wolffort, and, in a surprising touch, even typical NPCs like the merchant or smithy at your encampment can eventually be recruited.
Almost all have skills that are unique to them, such as the apothecarist who can use items on allies at long range or the circus acrobat who can create a clone of herself as a decoy. These skills require TP, which prevents you from spamming a unit’s most effective skills every time although you’ll regain 1 TP each turn. More importantly, any action a unit takes can contribute to gaining XP so everyone can make themselves useful besides fighting on the front lines (a follow-up mechanic however means your mage could still go for a weak strike if it triggers an attack from a more powerful ally that’s positioned opposite the enemy unit).
If, like me, you value each party member, then you’ll have to prepare to grind quite a lot of battles to ensure no one’s left behind level-wise. But even if you choose to just stick to a core party, you’re still going to find yourself repeatedly participating in optional mental mock battles so that you can keep up with the story missions’ recommended level. The grind is at least alleviated by rewarding significantly more XP to under-levelled units while you’ll keep any XP gained even if you retreat or lose a battle.
Permadeath is also mercifully absent, meaning you can still scrape through the toughest battle when down to the last person, though the option to change difficulty settings during the campaign is also welcome. That’s ultimately important because despite the grind, Triangle Strategy doesn’t want you stuck for hours on end – it’s got too epic of a yarn to tell, before compelling you to start another playthrough on another path you could have gone down. Where it lacks in Fire Emblem’s heart, it makes up with strong convictions.
Triangle Strategy launches for Nintendo Switch on March 4.
Where Square Enix’s first HD-2D game Octopath Traveler suffered from a disjointed narrative, Triangle Strategy excels with rich world-building with an ambitious but grounded story of conflict and loyalty that will test your convictions as much as your tactical prowess. With engaging battles and a varied roster, it’s an old-school tactical RPG you’ll be glad to return to and make more devastatingly conflicting choices.
- HD-2D presentation just as beautiful in 3D environments
- Gripping and wide-ranging epic narrative with many conflicting paths
- A varied cast with unique abilities useful for any battle
- Conviction system is frustratingly opaque
- A fair bit of grinding required