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Triangle Strategy Sings a Song of Salt and Iron

Triangle Strategy is a gem for fans of old school turn-based tactical RPGs.



Triangle Strategy Nintendo Switch Review

Developer: Artdink | Publisher: Square Enix, Nintendo | Genre: Strategy RPG | Platforms: Nintendo Switch | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch

It is said that war never changes. In the case of turn-based tactical role-playing video games, this is far from the truth. Strategy RPGs take on many different forms, from the gritty survivalism of 2K’s XCOM reboot to the surprisingly bright Advance Wars and storybook wonder of Wildermyth. Triangle Strategy, a new entry in the genre from category-defining developer Square Enix, is many things: a triumphant return to form for an infrequently-updated subset, a dazzling showcase of new ideas and new technology, and a satisfyingly deep plot full of twists, turns, and political machinations. While slow to start, once Triangle Strategy sinks its hooks into the player, it is nearly impossible to put down.

Image: Nintendo

Beauty in War

Triangle Strategy makes an undeniably gorgeous first impression. Developed in the same HD-2D engine as 2018’s Octopath Traveler and the upcoming Dragon Quest III remake, Triangle Strategy feels like a nostalgic memory made real. The lush pixels combined with excellent particle effects and beautiful character portraits were a standout from last year’s demo (back when this RPG was known as Project Triangle Strategy) of the game, and the final product upholds those same standards. From menus to melees to music, Triangle Strategy is a treat to behold.

As a strategy game, Triangle Strategy is very much in line with the games that inspired it. Players navigate a Game of Thrones-inspired world map, moving a cursor around to select the next main event to progress the plot. The story is advanced by either observing a cutscene, or participating in turn-based battles, where players move units across a tileset to either defeat their opponents or fulfill some other objective. Between battles players can engage in side conversations to see what NPCs are up to, and improve their units by equipping accessories or spending hard-earned materials to upgrade abilities and stats.

But the presentation is the first hook. That Triangle Strategy looks and sounds great should come as no surprise, but it is a relief to see Square Enix revitalize a style that they perfected in the PlayStation 1 days. Final Fantasy Tactics is often considered the gold standard for this type of game, but those who prefer the density of Tactics Ogre will have something to cling to here as well. Role-playing games have long used abstraction as a tool to explore deeper themes, and Triangle Strategy does so too. The pixelated characters may bear only a passing resemblance to their portraits, but the writing is still powerful and affecting. One minor hiccup are the voiceover performances, which range from “pretty good” to “must-skip”. Some characters take absurdly long pauses between line deliveries, making a case for players letting the voices of the characters come to life in their head.

That said, the world is gorgeous to behold. There is plenty of environmental variety, from the snowy mountains of Aesfrost to the sparkling sands of Hyzante. Interiors of palaces and fortresses are lovingly rendered, and water glitters and splashes in jaw-dropping fashion. Seeing the Unreal Engine used to render environments like this is a revelation.

Players might be drawn to Triangle Strategy for its aesthetics, but it is the way that story and gameplay intertwine that make it memorable.

Square Enix Triangle Strategy Nintendo Switch review
Image: Nintendo

Out with the Old

In the land of Norzelia, three kingdoms share an uneasy peace thirty years after the conclusion of the Saltiron War. In the frigid north is Aesfrost, masters of the forge and all manner of metalwork, where personal ambition and merit is of the highest value to those in power. To the southeast is the holy state of Hyzante, blessed with the world’s only source of precious salt, where the word of the Hierophant is law. And in the middle is Glenbrook, where King Regna and his trusted allies in House Wolffort keep trade between nations flowing. Each region has something the other needs, and while they share a degree of harmony, trouble simmers beneath the surface. When a joint venture plan to open a vast mining operation together goes awry, Norzelia plunges into chaos and the fragile peace is shattered. As a new war breaks out, players must navigate twists and turns; not only on the battlefield but in war councils and throne rooms, too.

This is far from a frothy fantasy story, but it takes a few hours to truly kick-off, particularly if players listen to the voice-over instead of reading dialogue at their own pace. For a strategy RPG, there are shockingly few battles to fight in the first few hours of gameplay. Instead, the table setting is prioritized, almost as though Triangle Strategy were a visual novel. Fortunately, the writing is engaging, and the main cast is compelling. For those expecting to leap directly into the fray, they may have a frustrating experience.

The Scales of Conviction are one of Triangle Strategy‘s most unique features, and also signal one of the more compelling reasons to keep players intrigued for multiple playthroughs. The Scales appear early on, when protagonist Serenoa of House Wolffort must make a seemingly innocuous decision of where to lead to the party: north, to Aesfrost, or across Norzelia to Hyzante. The fledgling group of seven must each cast a vote, with Serenoa having the ability to sway certain members one way or the other. Players can do their best to convince party members to change their minds, but the convictions of the NPCs are strong, often resulting in surprising outcomes.

At first, the Scales may seem like padding as players can spend time before casting their votes wandering around environments and gathering information, but the stakes eventually dizzying heights as the plot continues. Small decisions snowball, and the consequences can be dramatic. Whether or not certain party members join the player’s ever-expanding army can be determined by a small choice made early on.

For those who take the time to read the nonessential dialogue of NPCs and seek out books that lie outside the critical path, they’ll enjoy a richer, more fleshed-out Norzelia. Though the interstitial dialogue between side characters may seem like a distraction, every conversation contributes something to the player’s understanding. Making comparisons to other politically-charged fantasy worlds like Westeros may sound trite, but it is one of the best ways to understand and appreciate Triangle Strategy. This is a world constantly under the threat of war. The younger generations are far enough removed from the mistakes of their elders to make blunders of their own, and though the dialogue feels extremely exposition-heavy at first, character motivations feel real and natural.

One underrated feature of Triangle Strategy is that at any moment during dialogue, players can press a button and bring up a profile of whoever is speaking. Being able to glance at a brief character summary at any moment goes an extremely long way towards helping players grow invested in relationships. This is a game chock-full of shifting alliances between dozens of characters, and having an index is a genuine relief. Every cutscene-heavy RPG should steal this feature going forward, as sometimes, life simply gets in the way of a dense story.

The glacial pacing at the beginning of Triangle Strategy eventually gives way to one of the most satisfying stories on the Switch. It may require patience to arrive there, but the twists and turns are satisfying and shocking. Scheming family members, diabolical advisors, and good-hearted heroes wrestling with self-doubt more than makeup for the fact that the space between battles is a little bit long.

Image: Nintendo

Satisfyingly Strategic

For all its aesthetic beauty and compelling storytelling, Triangle Strategy would be a lesser game if it was not fun to actually play. Fortunately, its take on turn-based strategy is a fantastic one. Once players find themselves placing units on the board, it’s an all-out tactical buffet. Positioning, elemental weaknesses, character-specific abilities, and all-around unit cohesion blend together to create a fulfilling gameplay experience.

Triangle Strategy is a tile-based RPG, and characters act in accordance to turn order. There are often upwards of twenty units onscreen at any given moment, so having full knowledge of the battlefield is crucial. Players have full control of the camera and can dig deep into the details of what they’re up against at almost any time. But even with all the knowledge in the world, battles are decided by tactics. There are dozens of ways to turn the tide of battle towards the player, and all of them feel rewarding.

Every character in the player’s roster has a suite of powerful abilities that reflect personality traits. Anna, a spy, excels at moving around the battlefield unseen and scoring critical hits by attacking foes from behind. The shieldbearer Erador, a loveable, loud lug of a man, is at his best in the center of the fray, provoking enemies into a fury and bearing the brunt of an assault. There’s Benedict, a stern advisor with an unmatched military mind who can manipulate turn order and bestow powerful buffs that can completely shift the tide of a skirmish. The protagonist and player stand-in Serenoa may seem bland at first, but his desire to lead the charge in battle results in him having access to powerful physical counterattacks to match his bulky stats. Every character’s abilities showcase who they are as people, and getting to know them through their techniques in battle feels unique. Rather than recruiting blank slate NPCs based on what strengths they bring to the group, every character feels essential in some capacity.

Square Enix Triangle Strategy Nintendo Switch review
Image: Nintendo

Even on Normal difficulty, players have a wealth of information to consider in even the shortest battles. Are the enemy forces composed of archers and battlemages, capable of decimating the party before they can strike with their melee abilities? Does the battlefield feature traps that can be activated, nullifying enemy advantages in one fell swoop? Weather plays a factor too, with the effectiveness of some magic spells tied to clear skies or whether or not there are puddles on the ground. Every map is packed full of details that can be used by either side in battle, and overcoming the enemy always feels satisfying.

The way Triangle Strategy approaches roster management and character improvement is novel. Players level up their characters similar to other RPGs: attacking enemy forces, using abilities and items, and generally emerging victorious are the best ways to earn experience points to level up and learn new abilities. But players must also be aware of collecting precious resources in and out of battle. Iron, timber, fiber, and other natural resources are few and far between but exist as the only way to improve the effectiveness of character abilities. Rather than stumble upon powerful weaponry or armor pieces, players can rank up their character’s equipment using currency and rare Medals, awarded after particularly difficult fights and which are sometimes available for purchase in the Encampment screen. The game does a great job of communicating when characters can and cannot rank up, and doing so always feels satisfactory.

Even the way this RPG handles magic feels unique. Instead of a slowly-refilling MP bar, every character has a limited number of Tactical Points. Most abilities consume a certain amount of TP, with some characters even having the ability to bestow additional points to their allies or take an opponents’ away. Deciding when to splurge with TP and when to keep some in reserve is yet another layer that adds to the feeling of being a strategic mastermind.

Though some battles can feel protracted, particularly on maps with huge differences in elevation, the balance between difficulty and satisfaction is perfect. Victories feel earned, and though the stakes are high, there is no permadeath to contend with. And though the feature isn’t available right away, for those who desire more combat in their RPG diet, the Encampment lets players engage in optional battles where they can still earn experience points and reap other rewards. Its the perfect place to test out that mage who recently joined the group, or try that interesting-sounding Surmount ability that you can’t seem to get a grasp on in a story mission.

Every battle is a gift in Triangle Strategy. It is often difficult for RPG combat to feel exciting, challenging, and exhilarating, but Triangle Strategy stands up to scrutiny.

Square Enix Triangle Strategy Nintendo Switch review
Image: Nintendo

A Tactical Triumph

This is the kind of RPG where players will finish the story and immediately start the game again to see what they missed. The branching storyline feels epic in the extreme, and New Game Plus gives players the opportunity to encounter NPCs they may have missed the first time around. It is to Triangle Strategy‘s credit that the game feels vast enough to justify multiple playthroughs, though returning players may opt to skip some cutscenes the second time around.

For a new intellectual property, Triangle Strategy hits all the right notes. It is an RPG both wide and deep, with something for nearly everyone. The Nintendo Switch has long been an ideal home for strategy games and RPGs in general, and Triangle Strategy is another triumphant addition to an already impressive library.

Cameron Daxon is a video game evangelist and enthusiastic reader. He lives in Los Angeles, California and once nearly collided with Shigeru Miyamoto during E3. His favorite game is Bloodborne, but only when he’s not revisiting Super Mario World. He’s also in the writer’s room for YouTube personality The Completionist and other places on the internet.