Triangle Strategy isn’t the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy Tactics that it appears to be. Though the HD-2D game certainly looks like the venerated strategy-RPG, it quickly becomes clear from playing that this is a game that wants to forge its own identity with a mixture of new ideas and streamlined systems. And while some of these improvements make for a better, more modernized take on the 1997 grid-based strategy game, others remove a level of player agency and tactical character development that were vital to making that classic feel so special.
The story of Triangle Strategy takes place on the continent of Norzelia, which is split into three nations: the monarchical Glenbrook and Aesfrost, and the theocratic Hyzante. Each controls its own particular natural resource that’s crucial to the survival of all three kingdoms, and this has led to conflict in the past. We pick up 30 years after the “Saltiron War”–a conflict over Hyzante’s salt and Aesfrost’s iron–with a new generation ready to put those past prejudices behind them. The story follows Serenoa Wolffort of Glenbrook, the new leader of a noble family known for its heroism and efforts to protect the crown. Serenoa is on the verge of marrying Princess Frederica from the neighboring Aesfrost, as a gesture of peace between the nations. Their plans are interrupted, however, by an attack that deposes the king and puts Serenoa on the run with his childhood best friend, the prince Roland.
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It’s a story of war over resources, old grudges coming back to haunt a generation that had nothing to do with them, and bad state actors invading a neighboring nation under false pretenses. It’s familiar in the way that war is universal and cyclical, but it’s hard not to feel a pang from the eerie similarities to current world events–at one point, the villainous invaders stage a false attack to serve as a pretext for their war, with the stated goal of installing a puppet regime. It’s also incredibly dense, and the flowery prose drops references to lords of high houses and their own individual political machinations with the unapologetic speed of a Game of Thrones episode. You may want to familiarize yourself with the word “demesne” because you’re going to be hearing it a lot.
It’s a lot to track, and all of this makes the game incredibly chatty, to its own detriment. You’ll often go long stretches at a time without any gameplay at all. At times it feels like an unnecessary degree of dialogue, as the squat pixelated characters go through all the pleasantries before getting down to business. At 16 hours played so far, I would estimate that I’ve only seen roughly 8-10 story missions, although I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on training missions as well. And this talkative quality means it doesn’t really put its best foot forward, as the first several hours consist of a lot of very slow setup and background story details before the betrayals and political machinations really begin. There are also a handful of free-roaming segments where you can talk to villagers–and it behooves you to speak to everyone you can, for reasons I’ll explain later–but I found my interest in talking to everybody sapped by having so much dialogue in general.
Once you do enter a battle, the strategy interface will be immediately familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre games. Your characters are placed on a grid with various terrain and height advantages, and you have to defeat all of the given enemies or reach a certain area to complete the mission. Spellcasters can target multiple enemies at a time, striking from behind an enemy does extra damage, and so on. This is the game at its most familiar, but also at its most streamlined, where it takes a scalpel to some of the systems that longtime FFT fans may take for granted.
For example, selecting a healing spell will automatically target whichever member of your party is in range and needs healing the most. You can always manually select someone else to heal, but for the sake of convenience, this is a great quality-of-life feature. There is no permadeath, so you can treat your units more like pieces on a chessboard–sometimes sacrifices are necessary, and as long as you walk away with a single unit, you win and will have all of those units back next time. And by default, many of the offensive spells will miss your own characters, even if they’re in the area of effect. That change isn’t necessarily better–needing to be cautious about slinging spells actually made strategy more compellingly complex in FFT–but it is one less thing to think about in a game that also adds other wrinkles. Besides, the positioning of your units brings other nuances here–if you have an enemy surrounded on both sides, for example, striking with one of your characters will usually trigger a follow-up attack from the other, and they can surround you in the same manner.
Triangle Strategy is turn-based on an individual level, so you’ll need to plan your moves knowing that enemies will be acting between them as well. A timeline at the bottom of the screen is supposed to make it easy to see when individual characters will make their moves, but so far, I’ve found it visually illegible and not all that important for most encounters anyway. Another wrinkle comes from an entirely separate currency, Kudos, awarded for completing special criteria in battles like targeting multiple enemies at once or exploiting an enemy’s elemental weakness. Those can then be traded for Quietus abilities, which are especially powerful moves you can use only one time per mission. Since some other strategy mechanics have been streamlined compared to its predecessors, these additional options help round out the mechanics to offer enough complexity for strategy fans to sink their teeth into.
Triangle Strategy is class-based, but each character is their own unique class, and their progression is linear. Serenoa is always a generic knight, his friend Roland is always a mounted lancer, his betrothed Frederica is always a pyromancer, and so on. You have little choice in how they level up, which feels stifling when it comes time to head into battle. Rather than creatively engineering a solution to deal with a particular story mission, you always know you’ll need to bring your shieldbearer to draw aggro, your hawkbow to fire ranged shots, and so on. It strips missions of their individuality when you’re essentially always bringing the same team into every battle, and you have no real ability to match your plans or team composition to the moment. You can promote characters to an upgraded class, using items bought with Kudos, but that just makes them a stronger, cooler-looking version of the class they already were.
This is especially a shame because some characters actually do have unique, interesting class identities. As examples, Serenoa’s longtime confidant Benedict is a tactician who specializes in passive buffs and debuffs, including the ability to boost another character’s turn on the timeline so that they can usually act twice in a row. Anna is a spy, giving her the unique ability to strike twice or turn invisible. And one optional character, an artisan, can build traps to ensnare enemies or ladders to reach new areas of the battlefield. These are all great tools, but having them just reinforces the desire for more freedom and flexibility to experiment and build my own team compositions, creative combos, and tactical plans around them.
Equally inflexible is the equipment system. You don’t actually buy much equipment at all, aside from accessories that grant passive buffs. Just as a character’s class is set, so is their weapon. It can be upgraded at a blacksmith with found materials, which gives you some incremental buffs to stats like Attack or Magic Defense, but you won’t feel the thrill of finding or purchasing a powerful new weapon and heading into battle to try it out.
The rigid class and equipment system means you’re more dependent on your party’s power level than on broad strategic planning, but the main quest battles generally don’t provide enough experience points to keep up with their own leveling recommendations. Your best bet to grind your levels up to snuff is to take part in mock battles in your Encampment, but there are only so many of these. That means that to really raise your levels, you’ll often need to take part in the same mock battle over and over. (Alternatively, you can fail out of a story mission and keep all of the XP you gained in the process, but I found this method of level-raising to be even more tedious.)
Which story missions take place appears to be partly determined by a branching story path, in which you’ll be given choices on how to engage with other kingdoms and nobles. This is part of the Conviction system, which is frequently referenced but never made clear. The system itself is opaque, a black box in which you’re assured your choices matter but without ever explaining how they impact the story. You’ll sometimes be presented with dialogue choices that prioritize attributes like justice versus kindness, but regardless of what you choose, you’ll simply be told that your convictions have been strengthened, without any real indication of what that means.
The rare times your Convictions do clearly matter is when you and your closest advisers are considering a big decision, like which kingdom to visit next or whether to ally with a particular noble. Each major character will have their own opinions on the matter, and they’ll express them in an effort to persuade you. But you can also persuade them, sometimes by collecting information from talking to villagers or investigating points of interest during the free-roaming segments, and then matching your dialogue responses to address their concerns. It’s ultimately a very video game-y system, as you make your own decision about how you want the vote to go and then lobby for that result among everyone who disagrees or is undecided. But it approximates the idea of holding a royal court in a way that’s engaging and often presents complex nuances of these kingdom-shaking decisions. And, despite your best efforts, sometimes the vote among your advisers doesn’t go the way you intended, which accents the characters’ identities as individuals with their own strongly-held beliefs.
For all the emphasis on stark moral choices in dialogue sequences, though, the most impactful came in the context of Triangle Strategy’s battle mechanics. With a vastly superior hostile army bearing down on my relatively small demesne, my advisers and I formulated a plan to use our secret weapon: hidden spigots of oil strategically placed throughout town that could be activated at key moments to set the enemy ablaze. The wildfire would rout the invaders, but it would also burn down the houses of my own people in the process. Plenty of dialogue was devoted to this in the story sequences leading up to the moment, but it wasn’t until I was in the mission itself that I felt the full weight of using the weapon. This wasn’t a mere dialogue choice; I would have to physically activate the spigots during the battle itself. Some interstitial dialogue made it clear that it is possible (albeit much, much more difficult) to win on the strength of my forces and my tactics. But my army wasn’t strong enough, or I wasn’t smart enough. When I eventually stood victorious, it was in the smoldering wreckage of my village. It felt awful.
Moments like those, more than any others, are pulling me through the experience in Triangle Strategy. After a plodding start I’ve become invested in my band of trusted advisors, all of whom are trying their best to carefully navigate a fraught mixture of war and politics. The strategy segments are streamlined without feeling dumbed down, even if the class system is missing the amount of flexibility and nuance that I’d like. Most of all, I want to see where the story goes next, and how else the battle mechanics and story beats might blend together to make an emotional impact.