I’ve mentioned Final Fantasy Tactics before. If you plan and/or write about Strategy/Tactical Role Playing Games (SRPGs) like I do, then it comes up. This game came out on the original Playstation almost two decades ago, and essentially popularized the genre over here. It tells the grand story of Ramza Beoulve, the disgraced youngest son of the noble Beoulve house, as he discovers treachery and deceit among the high houses of Ivalice.
In that game, you fight monsters alongside men, discovering that the men are utilizing ancient forbidden relics called the Zodiac Stones, which most often turn men into demonic creatures. This plays alongside a grand sweeping political epic about a struggle for succession between two forces, where a relatively unknown man named Delita would seize power. It balanced the two expertly, while introducing a grid-based combat system that would hold till this day (see my review of Fell Sell: Arbitor’s Mark for more).
Triangle Strategy feels in many ways like Square attempting to live up to its own legacy by reaching back. It’s somewhat ironic to me to be writing this so soon after writing up Bravely Default 2, because a lot of what I’d have to say would double up with what I said there. Both games utilize older mechanics and lessons learned from the past, but they grow and add on more onto them. Triangle Strategy mixes up the tactical grid based idea with a system of TP points. Each character starts with 2-3 of these, and they get one per turn. Different abilities cost different amounts.
This also mixes with some emphasis on positioning in combat. Where you place characters frequently matters a great deal in these sort of games: it’s all about tactics, after all. But in this case, it matters more. Back attacks result in automatic critical hits. And if you use nearly any ability on an enemy and you have a friendly unit on the other side, both units attack.
On top of that there’s height advantages. Plus every action you take that’s tactically beneficial nets you Kudos points, which can be spent on various special shared abilities, lore, or special unique items. It all works together incredibly well.
They’ve built a system that’s easy to learn: every character has a unique role that’s usually obvious by looking at them and only a handful of abilities (eight or nine if you completely max them out), but hard to master. There’s constant thought put into what action to use and when to use it.
The graphics are quite brilliantly done too. This is the HD 2D trend that Octopath Traveler really popularized and Square-Enix is taking and running with (they have at least two more games planned using this style, with teases for more). This combines well done sprite work with brilliant effects that mostly results in a beautiful game that works pretty well on the Switch. I, personally, thought Octopath Traveler looked better (I would argue it’s a better game overall), but it’s still good.
The music’s okay. It’s listenable, but it’s not the amazing soundtrack we got in Octopath (which is done by the same people, making comparison necessary), let alone the standard setting tunes we got in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Astute readers will note I haven’t touched much on the story just yet. That usually means that it’s either good or one of the game’s drawbacks.
It’s… more the latter, but with hints of the former?
This is where it gets tricky for me. I pride myself on this whole in depth review of different games, using my background and the like. But a lot of what I have to say about Triangle Strategy’s story has been said elsewhere. The pacing is awful, one of the worst I’ve seen in a video game ever. The characters do not shut up, and they often spout off exposition and reactions to events around them. It often feels like a High Schooler’s version of the Game of Thrones, with a helping of JRPG influence.
I spent about two hours near the beginning of the game watching cutscene after cutscene as characters I barely knew talked at and past each other for the duration. You can set the game to auto move after people talk, and I often do that as I like listening to voice actors and I enjoy not having to needlessly input after conversations. But this feels interminable.
They made the decision to dump most of the cast of the game into the first two hours. This sounds like a good idea, until you realize that this includes something like two dozen or so different characters from three different kingdoms with three different viewpoints and separate character motivations on top of that.
Plus the voice acting is… uneven. The main character, Serenoa, has some sort of weird accent that makes him sound… off. His steward, Benedict, sounds dry and flat, which may be a personality thing ,but comes off as unengaged. These are the first two player characters you meet, and both play major roles in any and all story. There’s only a handful of good performances throughout. It feels like this is where they chipped down the budget.
The story attempts this grand scope about certain essentially human characteristics. This in itself is intriguing, and if you’re willing to engage as a player, you can get a lot out of it. They debate three essential traits/concepts, which moves beyond the usual duality of good/evil we see in video games. These are Utility, which involves taking practical measures to stay alive and to help save the most amount of people; Freedom, which is about free will and the right to choose what we believe; and Morality, which is about Doing the Right thing and generally putting others first.
These are all actually good traits, and the story allows you to make choices throughout. They’ve introduced a voting system where you, as the player, have to engage the various characters. Each one leans toward different decisions and holds different things dear. You have to figure out how to convince them toward the path you most want to see happen for whatever reason.
I ended up leaning toward Freedom and Morality, to a startling degree. I was actually surprised that I leaned more Freedom than Morality. I went with my gut and heart, and that almost gives this game an engaging personality test sort of idea. I almost abandoned Utility where I could, mostly only picking it for choices that felt like having Serenoa flirt with his wife-to-be Frederica (one of my favorite characters, and in some paths, their romance is beautifully handled) or whenever it made Serenoa come off like a savvy ruler, which had been my goal.
This allows you to tailor the story to your personal choices and ideals, at least that first time around (everyone recommends this). It allows for incredibly replay value too: you can go through and see the paths you didn’t take on a New Game Plus. And they brilliantly handle NG+ too, better than any game I’ve seen outside of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Everything you had at the end of one playthrough transfers: levels, items, characters (even if it doesn’t always make sense), etc. But the levels of the enemies and their tactics drastically shift up too.
My end-level group got their heads handed to them on the first battle of my NG+ file (this is the bandit battle at the dock I showed). Which is great for gameplay (I had to grind my party up and figure out new tactics), and it meant that I got to enjoy seeing the other side of the story: choices I didn’t take (which were mostly Utility ones). At times it feels like I’m playing an alternate universe version of the game, which is brilliant in its writing. Yes, the story does have to meet at a few points, but it’s still drastically different for those points.
I do question some of the choices. I’m at the point where you essentially have to choose to hand over an entire group of refugees who have been kind to you and are the same race as Frederica. A nation demands they be returned to slavery. I obviously chose to help them stay free in my first playthrough, but I am interested to see how they handle the alternate path, given that they’ve been mostly nuanced.
My point here is that this game has incredible depth and has put a lot of effort into telling an engaging story that attempts to get at the heart of the human condition. It wants you to consider several convictions and ideals, considering what you may hold dear and put them in order. It mixes that with highly engaging gameplay. In some ways, it really does aim for that FFT throne, and it seems like it could actually accomplish its goals.
I had initially wished they’d included some more fantastical elements in here. This will come through in the enemy variety, which often features the same types of enemies in various combinations. It does feel like they could’ve had a little more variety, but if they’d gone into too much fantasy, it may have diminished the story somewhat (I personally think that they probably could’ve included some mutants or at least made the various countries a bit more radically different in how they present their armies).
The constant talking will also be a turn-off. Eventually you’ll stop listening to the uneven voice acting and probably skip the needless recaps that happen far too often. The characters really could use more developing: several don’t feel nearly as developed as they should (Serenoa being one of them, but he is supposed to be a vessel for your decisions).
I was eagerly awaiting this game. It’s from the same people who put out Octopath Traveler, one of my favorite games on the Switch and one of my favorite games of all time. (It takes between 60-80 hours to playthrough that game, depending on what you do, and I’ve done it three times since it came out). I am impressed by what it does, but I do find myself wishing it had been as initially engaging as it ended up being for me. It takes a while, but if you’re willing to invest, there’s a story and experience here that can rival some of the greats.
9 for that awkward opening and slightly weak characterization, counterbalanced with exquisite gameplay and a slow burn story