Review: Triangle Strategy
On January 28th, 1998, Square-Enix released Final Fantasy Tactics to a North American audience. People who played that game have spent twenty-four years looking for more.
I open with that because I feel it’s very important to note my biases at the very least. When I first heard about Triangle Strategy my immediate dream was that finally, we were getting back to FFT and we were getting a game that might finally scratch that itch again. Every Disgaea game, Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, every single tactical game I could find has been a hope of getting more of that fantastic game.
If you think that the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games even come close to hitting the mark there, I will kick your car until the tires explode.
Now, it’s unfair to judge Triangle Strategy by these standards, because Triangle Strategy is not trying to be a new FFT in mechanics in any way, shape, or form. It’s trying to be its own thing and should be entirely judged on its own merits in that regard, and that is exactly what I have set out to do. But, you know, take the obligatory handful of salt when reading my review. It might be just a little cranky.
Still, that just explains why I was excited to get my hands on Triangle Strategy. It wasn’t why I spent the time after its release on March 4th for Nintendo Switch growing increasingly… not unhappy, exactly, but less enamored than I had expected. Yes, here’s where I need to be a bit contrarian with regard to critical consensus.
Triangle Strategy is the story of a gigantic wiener named Serenoa, the son of Lord Symon Wolffort, who is betrothed to Lady Frederica of the neighboring nation of Aesfrost. You see, about thirty years ago the Saltiron War between the three nations of Norzelia (Hyzante, Aesfrost, and Glenbrook) came to a close, with the three nations forming a treaty and now you have to sit here while the most bland little lordling imaginable does nothing but learn the history of the setting for something like four hours of playtime.
I wish I were exaggerating.
The problem with Triangle Strategy’s plot is twofold. The first is that it takes forever to actually start moving, and this is actually a really big problem with how the game is structured. Rather than giving you a sense of who the characters are and trusting that you’ll be invested because you care about these people while they explain the world, this is a game that is absolutely fixated on giving you a large-scale overview of the world before it starts giving you anyone to care about.
Compounding this problem, though, is the fact that it’s really hard to care about these characters for a long while.
Let’s look at Frederica for a moment. Here’s a character who should genuinely have some interesting things to do. She’s a half-Rosellan woman (the Roselle are a discriminated minority in the setting marked by their bright pink hair) who’s being married off as part of a political alliance to someone she’s never met in a place she’s never been. How does she handle this? By being meekly obedient and just very occasionally mentioning to Serenoa that if it’s not too much trouble, if he’d be willing, maybe she might like to do something related to her heritage. If it’s not too much of a problem.
Of course, Serenoa always agrees because he’s just blandly heroic in the “can’t we all just get along” sense, completely failing to have even the slightest friction with any of his companions. Even when people disagree in the party it feels almost perfunctory, like someone has to be designated as the voice of contrarianism to give the illusion of debate. It is, frankly, tedious to wade through.
When the actual plot starts kicking off, things get a little bit better, but it still suffers from putting the cart before the horse. Instead of giving you characters you care about in a setting that forces them into conflicts, you wind up with thinly sketched characters who take forever to make you actually care what they’re doing. Fire Emblem: Three Houses manages to keep you interested through hours of not much plot happening by filling your team with diverse personalities who have different approaches to problems right out of the gate; here, by contrast, I still can’t remember some character names because they made that little impression on me as I played through the story.
That’s not to say that it’s dire. Once the plot does get moving, things start happening and there’s some interplay between the various factions along with a genuine sense of a carefully managed peace steadily unraveling despite the best efforts of people who believe in it. The problem is that getting to that point takes a while, and it’s never the sort of plot that grabbed me by the throat and demanded more playtime and investment. It’s just… decent, and it lacks the compelling characters that would really make it sing.
Maybe you care more about setting and lore than about characters. If so, it’s going to be your jam. I found it just… adequate. Not terrible, but far from outstanding.
The thing about strategy RPGs is that they really are a genre where you can sometimes push past lackluster plots by having outstanding gameplay. And it’s here when I really have to give you a bit more salt to munch on, because Triangle Strategy’s gameplay is… perhaps the biggest area where my own expectations and preferences clash with what the game itself is trying to be.
Here’s the thing: If you’re expecting the game to work like FFT, you will be disappointed. In many ways, the game is much closer to a classic Fire Emblem title insofar as each character has a set class, a set promotion path, set abilities, set weapon, and so forth. You cannot, say, decide that you’d like Serenoa to train as a mage in order to have some more distance capability; Serenoa has a set list of abilities that he will unlock via leveling, and like the archetypical short hedge in a SNES RPG there’s no getting around that. About the only choices you make are the order in which you unlock stat boosts on each character’s weapon, and even that’s just a matter of order for most upgrades. (There are a couple of exclusive choices but they’re hardly build-defining.)
Is this a bad thing? Well… it’s not my personal preference. I tend to prefer strategy RPGs where your choice of how to build your team is as important as anything. But that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad or anything of the sort, it’s just different. It forces you to think about your team much more in individual terms. Moreover, you have freedom to grind as much as you need and a variety of accessories to shuffle around, so your team’s capabilities can be altered and improved over time.
The actual battle mechanics remind me of Octopath Traveler in terms of being sort of like a stripped-down version of other games. Instead of having a bunch of different abilities, you have a handful that each carry with them substantial impact. Spells alter the terrain of the battlefield; Frederica’s fire spells can melt ice and light things aflame when necessary, for example. Roland’s horse gives him great horizontal movement but poor vertical mobility. Benedict is very much a boost and support character who can improve character stats for a short period of time. You get the idea.
Abilities are regulated by TP, which caps out at three to start with and regenerates at a rate of one per turn. This makes for a balancing act of abilities; you can’t spam out your most powerful attacks at all times, but most of those powerful attacks are themselves more situational than anything. Serenoa’s first ability, for example, does less damage than a normal attack but delays an enemy’s turn. Frederica can cast for a couple turns in a row, then she needs a break to prevent her from getting overpowered. It’s all well-balanced enough, and like any good strategy game, you’ll find yourself easing into the flow of battle and getting a sense of how to approach your turns in unison with high ground, follow-up attacks, backstabs, and the like.
The big problem with battles isn’t actually that they’re not fun or not engaging; quite the opposite. I found myself really enjoying the fights once I had a little more time to grind and start getting a feel for each unit’s capabilities. The biggest problem I found was the length of some fights, when it’s easy to find yourself having fought for a while only to realize that your strategy isn’t working and you now need to redo the whole fight with a different approach.
One other flaw that’s present is relatively minor on one level but really frustrating. The game has a three-pronged “conviction” system, measuring Serenoa’s stance on Liberty, Utility, and Morality. Each one is increased by certain actions and certain answers in exploration phases. So what are your values for these stances? How far are they rising? What do they unlock? Ha! You don’t get to know that until New Game Plus. This frustrates the heck out of me; you’re making choices that are supposed to have an impact, but you haven’t got the vaguest idea of how they are impacting anything until you’ve beaten the game once. I don’t think I should have to play the game multiple times just to understand some of the basic mechanics because they’re kept hidden until then.
For all my measured comments up to this point, the presentation of this game requires no qualification. This is a gorgeous game to see in action. Animations are smooth and expressive, sprites are well-posed, the maps are interesting and well-designed, and everything has a lot of visual character woven into every part. The stages feel like beautiful little dioramas that your characters are acting on, and I can’t stress enough how much I enjoy just looking at the game in action.
The music is great too, even if some pieces veer full-on into 70s-style muzak which seems… thematically odd. It’s still catchy, though.
Not so great is the voice acting, where most of the primary characters just sound distressingly flat most of the time in English. I don’t think this is down to the voice cast themselves; Frederica, for example, shares a voice actress with Ryne from Final Fantasy XIV, so I know for a fact that she is capable of turning in a good performance. I think the direction just wasn’t great. Unfortunately, when the characters are already struggling to draw you in, the fact that most of the lines are delivered flatly doesn’t exactly help in that regard.
In many ways, I keep going back and forth on Triangle Strategy. On the one hand, it’s not exactly the game I was hoping it would be when it was first announced. On the other hand, it’s also not fair to hold that against the game; it’s not whether the game is what I dreamed of but what it is actually trying to be and how well it succeeds at that goal. On the third hand, there are some actual issues there with what the game is trying to be, some places where it winds up falling short of the marks it sets for itself.
Therein lies the problem, I guess. A lot of people have really raved about Triangle Strategy and held it up as an excellent game. I don’t think it’s a bad game, but I do think that it’s ultimately just an alright one. It’s solid and functional, takes too long to get to its plot, has some awkwardness that prevents me from really falling in love with it, and has some fun parts that don’t eliminate those issues even as they make things a bit better.
And if you’re like me and still looking out for more Final Fantasy Tactics… well, keep waiting. This ain’t it.
Review copy purchased by reviewer for Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix.