I cannot tell you how many times I’ve replayed Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre through the years. The PSP versions alone very likely stole several hundred hours of my life. I try to keep my chin up about Tactics Ogre still being stuck on old hardware by reminding myself I don’t have time for it right now, anyway. It doesn’t help. I’m still upset.
When Triangle Strategy was announced, the early bits of its reveal trailer had me excited for an Octopath Traveler sequel. That’s probably still coming eventually. But for a split second my heart sank as I slowly realized that, unless Octopath Traveler 2’s development path altered full-tilt in an unexpected direction, this was not that game.
But wait. An elemental spell can spread across tiles. Units stand kind of goofily around a grid-like battlefield until it’s time for them to march onward. The world beyond a predetermined combat or exploration space drops off sharply into virtually indistinguishable nonsense. This wasn’t Octopath Traveler 2, or as I insist Square Enix call it, Oc2path. This was something else. This was the potential renaissance of Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. This was Triangle Strategy, and my heart skipped a beat.
Two demos and roughly four dozen news scoops later, and Triangle Strategy has graced the shores of my unworthy Nintendo Switch. It’s a smart, challenging game that has a lot to say in the sociopolitical sphere of melodrama, and it does so fairly well. It has a tremendous cast of recruitable characters, all of whom are completely unique in battle. It’s kind of like if FFT never pulled the Lucavi card. And possessed Tactics Ogre’s branching paths. In a couple of ways, it’s a lesser version of Yasumi Matsuno’s strategic giants. In many more ways, it’s their culmination, their evolution, and hopefully not their denouement but the beginning of a proud return to a fairly dead genre.
Triangle Strategy stars Serenoa Wolffort, a young man of House Wolffort with several friends and confidants who all serve Wolffort. Benedict serves Wollfort in his role as Serenoa’s stalwart advisor. Serenoa’s best friend, Prince Roland, is a rough-tumbling and horse-riding bro who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his father and brother on matters of rule and state. Lastly, there is Serenola’s bride-to-be, Frederica. She hails from snowy Aesfrost and belongs to a lineage of mistreated people.
None of these characters leave a particularly strong impression early on. Nor do the rest of the main party – the stalwart Erador; the free-flying Hughette; the token healer Geela. All right, perhaps Anna the assassin is cool from the start. But her vibe is just that good.
Try not to drop Triangle Strategy in its earliest hours. Compounding the lack of interesting cast at this phase is the fairly dire pacing. Cutscenes will go on for what almost feels like Metal Gear Solid 4 lengths sometimes, and it’s almost entirely table-setting for what is to come. I counted two battles in the first three hours.
Thankfully, all of this withers away shortly thereafter. The characters, at least the leads, are instantly more compelling once the inevitable four-letter word for “bad” hits its proverbial fan. The plot seizes the advantage it’s been granted via early setup. Players must select between branching paths several times across the campaign via a legendary item called the Scales of Conviction, which factors into account each of Serenoa’s seven closest allies.
The Scales of Conviction are really just some medieval balancing apparatus that tilts one way or the other depending on how many special coins are in either bowl. The coins are doled out to the trusted of House Wolffort, who are, of course, all the advisors of one Lord Serenoa. It’s endearingly goofy watching these people treat this piece of metal like a 1-800-COLLECT call to Jesus Christ or something.
But that’s Triangle Strategy’s setting in a nutshell, and it’s stronger for it. Magic exists, and there’s an ill-treated mystical “race” (look, they’re just… pink-haired humans). But look beyond all that and the continent of Norzelia’s a rather believable place. There’s not a dragon in the sky! Politicians and military commanders vied for control of salt and iron three decades before the events of the game in a conflict called – this will blow your mind – the Saltiron War.
Even now, tensions run high over Hyzante’s salt, Aesfrost’s iron, and Glenbrook’s timber. No one serves a demon master; the coldest and most wicked of this bunch are demons of their own making. There’s a late-game revelation involving a plot point so dull in a full-on fantasy world that it would feel utterly devoid of weight in any Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but here it slams down hard like a game-changing political union in Crusader Kings 3. It’s cool.
If you’re wondering if Triangle Strategy plays like Final Fantasy Tactics, the answer is “sure, kind of.” Many of the basic ingredients are there, but there are no generic units on your side; each and every one of the 30 (!) potential recruitable characters are wholly unique. That alone is impressive; the fact that barely any of them are weakly-designed throwaway fare puts it on another level entirely.
Speaking of levels, this game doesn’t play around. By the time players hit the eighth chapter – I’ll refrain from saying how many chapters there are, but I’ll acknowledge here that this isn’t exactly close to the end – they will have gone up against a boss who means business and has a big blade to prove it with. Later battles start you off down in deep ravines below ranks of ready-and-able archers, or in one of several other ways that quickly establish your party is in for a tough one.
And even though Triangle Strategy offers infinitely replayable fights to grind with (they’re called mental mock battles, which is sort of hilarious), experience points scale big-time, so you’ll never really have a chance to get too far past the recommended level the game wants you to be. In fact, if you don’t play around with mental mock battles at all, not only will you be blatantly under-leveled but you will lack the resources necessary to upgrade your weapons and elevate your units to higher ranks, both of which are crucial to success.
Some will see this as a bad thing. It’s not great when a game clearly expects the player to engage in a grind like this, but those mock battles aren’t so bad. They’re swifter, and they give you ample opportunity to really engage with the truly excellent cast of playable characters. You can practice stuff in these that will come in handy big-time when the going gets rough in the main story; looking back, I’m particularly fond of the time I realized I could use a certain shamaness’ lightning-elemental spell to electrify a big royal pool and zap nearly half the health off no fewer than seven enemy soldiers simultaneously.
Strategy RPG junkies will thrive on these moments. There is an utter thrill in watching this stuff happen. Torch several grassy tiles at a choke-point and watch the enemy troops burn themselves in a mad bid to reach you. Send hawk-flying Hughette to a nice perch and have her fire off arrows that will immobilize foes before they can ever reach your weaker units. Build a wall of ice (!!) with Corentin that halts an otherwise-deadly advance. On hard and even normal difficulty, these feel like miniature triumphs worth remembering.
It’s important to savor these tiny victories because the story of Triangle Strategy contains some dark beats that mire the world in tragedy. There are four potential story routes, and even outside of this fact, several instances on the road to them where you must choose between two paths in a given chapter. The decisions made at the Scales of Conviction ultimately combine to dictate which route you’re on, three of which climax with bittersweetness. The fourth, which fans have labeled the golden route, is somewhat happier and slightly longer, but unlocking it requires several precise choices throughout the campaign. I recommend going through the game blind the first time and figuring that out later.
This is especially easy to suggest since New Game Plus exists in Triangle Strategy. A fair few things transfer over, enough to make replays a relative breeze. And with a handful of exceptions, you’ll probably enjoy the game’s great soundtrack enough not to mind jamming along with it a second and third time around. (That said, if I never hear the encampment theme again in my life it will still be too soon.)
Are there any glaring negatives? Yeah, maybe. The aforementioned “need” to grind is kind of one of them. I put that word in quotation marks because inevitably someone will point out that the answer is instead to “git gud,” or comment that they never ran into any issues. That’s fabulous, but for those who wish to willfully avoid being underleveled the monotony of mock battles can wear thin over time. That takes me to the biggest issue, which is that there really isn’t much side content at all.
Sure, the game labels some of the cutscenes “Side Stories.” But these aren’t random tales of moogles in love, my friends. They’re integral aspects of the plot that just so happen to be… slightly less so than the “Main Story” events. Do mock battles count as the primary source of diversion? There’s no hard and fast rule stating that an SRPG requires more, but I wouldn’t have complained if Square Enix and Artdink tossed in a chessboard or something. Hell, I’ll say it. I would have taken fishing over nothing.
Some of the sprites are less than stellar, which is a bit surprising when Octopath Traveler’s are mostly immaculate. Compounding matters, there’s kind of this strange line that passes over them at times that makes it hard to stare for long periods of time. I guess there’s no reason to gawk at the small spritely frame of Archduke Gustadolph for more than a second or so, anyway, but it’s still a weirdly ugly thing when it happens, especially in a game that otherwise takes keen advantage of the wonderful HD-2D engine.
These are small enough gripes in the final telling. A sequel with sharper sprites and added bonus content would be positively sublime. As it stands, Triangle Strategy is already delightful. It’s a well-written tale set in the swords-and-salt era of medieval fantasy, which is totally a thing, don’t tell me otherwise. The gameplay is engaging, the sheer size of its cast is deliciously impressive, and there’s this pair of twins, you’ll know them when you see them, they’re the most detestable twerps I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen me some detestable twerps in my time.
There’s a whole lot of 2022 left in the tank. But it’s going to take something special to dethrone Lord Serenoa from the top of my yearly list, I’ll tell you that right now.