I have a love/hate relationship with tactical RPGs. Fire Emblem Three Houses is one of my favorite games, which a lot of fans of both the franchise and the genre would tell you means I’m more a fan of dating sims than I am of strategy games. In my humble opinion, the two aren’t mutually exclusive; dating sims just make every game better. There’s a reason why Persona broke out in the West while talking about Shin Megami Tensei will earn you blank stares.
Even so, there’s something brilliant about about combining classic RPG elements with what essentially boils down to chess. I love the element of strategy and deliberation when a game allows you to consider your options, weigh each variable, and then make a decision. Considering how many games rely on fast-twitch reflexes and committing a combat system to muscle memory; it’s refreshing to slow down and think about my next move.
The only problem is that we’re coming up on three years since the last Fire Emblem game, and they just announced a sequel to Three Houses that isn’t a mainline game. Three years might not sound like so long; it pales in comparison to what we go through between Zelda or Smash Bros., but it’s the longest drought the series has seen since its inception. There’s never been more than three years between titles, and considering we’re getting a direct follow-up to the last entry, it looks like we’re not getting a mainline title for some time.
I could air my issues with Nintendo taking Three Houses and slapping it on a Warriors-style beat-em-up, but that’s a different essay for another day. For now, let me say I transferred my hopes from Fire Emblem to Triangle Strategy, Square Enix’s newest installment in their HD pixel art pseudo-franchise, and I was severely let down. Let’s just say I did not get the replacement for Fire Emblem I hoped for.
So consider this a soft review of Triangle Strategy, based on my experiences having played both of the demos, although it’s mostly just me complaining.
Square Enix has been quietly refining one of the most interesting art styles in recent memory. It’s this strange retro aesthetic that looks like an HD SNES game. Before this, they published Octopath Traveler, an old-school RPG with modern sensibilities in mind, and I actually quite enjoyed it. It’s not perfect, but if you want a good old-fashioned JRPG and aren’t nostalgia-blind to go back to the old stuff, it hits the spot.
Triangle Strategy diverts from its predecessor by being a grid-based strategy game in the same vein as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars. However, the games in this quasi-series generally have gimmicks. Octopath Traveler follows eight characters who must be individually found and recruited by playing their story prologues, while the upcoming Live A Live remake follows a similar structure across different eras and locales.
Triangle Strategy’s gimmick is a morality system; the game’s protagonist, Seranoa, is the heir to a noble house on a continent about to be thrown into war. The player can choose between three dialogue options that represent three values: utility, morality, and liberty. This will determine different variables like which characters will join your cause.
That’s an interesting idea, and it has a lot of potential. Many games offer choices to cultivate a specific storyline or route, but Triangle Strategy doesn’t offer “bad” choices, merely different ones. You’re forced to decide what choice falls in line with your chosen ideology. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a bit more nuanced than Three House’ recruitment system where “you didn’t teach me in high school so now one of us is going to have to die”.
So Square Enix won my goodwill with a solid first entry in this pseudo-franchise, and piqued my interest by taking a familiar genre and adding a twist you usually don’t see in this type of game. How could we go wrong from here?
Okay, this is actually kind of difficult to talk about, because the thing that jumped out at me immediately was that the voice acting is kind of awful. I won’t reference anyone by name, but the issue affects more than one or two characters, so I can’t be sure whether the fault lies with the actors or the director for this stiff performance. In spite of that, though, some people are actually doing a pretty good job.
People often complain that the English voice acting community is a dozen or so voice actors who get every role, but that’s an outdated exaggeration. There once was a time where Johnny Yong Bosch or Steve Blum voiced more characters than there are voices in my head, but level of saturation has died down significantly in the last decade. Besides, I’m not going to blame the actors themselves for pursuing roles, especially since English dubbing projects work on much tighter timelines than their Japanese counterparts.
So while I appreciate seeing voice actors who have not played a party member in a Persona game, some of these performances are just…not good. I don’t want to be overly critical, especially because voice actors get way too much undeserved hate, but there’s some unbearably flat line delivery here. I’m not saying you can’t go with the first take, but please, do a second at least.
This problem may or may not affect the Japanese cast; I didn’t bother switching while I was still playing, and I’m not going to go back now, but that’s on me. Even so, I don’t enjoy playing games in other languages, so I kind of depend on good English dubs in games. Anime is a passive experience where I can sit back and read subtitles, but it really messes with me when I try to actively play a game, listening to Japanese audio, reading in English. My Japanese is not what you’d call fluent, but the different grammatical structures actually makes the dissonance between audio and text difficult. I’d rather do it all in English.
As it stands, the best performances I saw in my short time playing the game was just passable, but the worst was startling. Seriously, we have gotten spoiled on the English casts we get in something like Genshin. I thought we left this sort of stilted dialogue behind in the PS2 era, but you know what? That’s on me too, so I’ll adjust my expectations accordingly.
However, voice performances do not make a game. After all, the music was good, even if the sound design was hit-or-miss. I could have waited a little longer, switched the audio to Japanese, if not for the fact that Triangle Strategy isn’t fun to play.
I will do my best to not lean too heavily on Fire Emblem Three Houses as my gold standard for a strategy game. It’s not fair to Triangle Strategy, even if it makes my job considerably harder. Three Houses isn’t perfect, but Intelligent Systems gets so much right about the gameplay that it’s basically impossible for me to talk about any other strategy RPG without comparing it to Three Houses.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare because Fire Emblem is burdened by “long-running Nintendo franchise syndrome” where you can tell the devs have added small quality-of-life improvements gradually with each title for the last couple of decades. By the time we get to the newest Pokemon, Fire Emblem, or Mario, we’re getting the kind of features fans would have killed for in previous games.
Simply put, Triangle Strategy is clunky. You don’t get to choose which units move in what order; the turn order is thrust upon you by the stats of your units. I mean, Square Enix doesn’t have to do the same “one side moves, then the other” turn scheme of Fire Emblem, but it runs so much smoother. This is a strategy game, so let me strategize; I’d like to move the unit who will be most effective in this situation, so when you tell me who I have to move, it feels like the game is purposefully limiting what I can do.
Then there’s the movement itself; your characters automatically map a route as you move your cursor. That doesn’t sound bad on its face, but the step between studying your surroundings and then selecting the unit you want to move is a major part of the deliberation process. It forces you to think of a plan and then execute that plan. Why not just free up the movement order? I mean, you basically lifted other features straight from Fire Emblem, so I don’t know why you’re ignoring the other QOL features.
Other than that, the game employs a stamina system like Octopath Traveler, where characters gain charges for their spells or special moves. A charge accumulates when a unit uses a normal attack or passes on their turn and…actually, I like this. In Octopath, it added an element of strategy to what was otherwise basic JRPG party combat, and considering this is a strategy game, it works here too.
I also like how you have to consider positioning a bit. The attacking unit gains the advantage by attacking from a higher elevation, and that’s great. Most games actually punish you for attacking from the high ground just because of the way hitboxes work. This game is supposed to be about strategizing, though, so it makes sense to use terrain to your advantage.
What I don’t like about the positioning system is the orientation feature. After taking an action, the unit can face one direction. When attacking from behind, a unit is guaranteed a critical hit, so it adds another layer to the strategy, even if it doesn’t add much. It rarely comes into play because the AI isn’t stupid, it doesn’t expose itself to you, and it only comes into play if you gang up on a single unit with multiple, in which case you don’t need the advantage of a backstab. Usually it just makes the process of a unit’s turn take longer, and by extension, clunkier.
This is just a side note between sections, but I also hate the camera here. You can rotate the camera around the battlefield to get a better perspective, but it doesn’t let you do a full rotation. On the first battle on the pier, you can’t actually look straight down the pier; the janky camera forces you to look at it from an angle. That’s just astonishingly dumb. Okay, mini-rant over.
Triangle Strategy isn’t a bad game, but I can’t call it a good one either. It has brilliant presentation, but that can’t rescue a game. Red Dead Redemption 2 is the prettiest game I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the worst. The fact that Jedi Fallen Order is a broken glitchy mess is the only thing that saves that particular war crime of game design, but those are both essays for another day.
Triangle Strategy just fails on so many tiny pieces that it adds up to one massively unpleasant experience. The UI contributes to the sense of clutter and clunk that makes this game so hard to play for me. I don’t mind navigating menus; I’m an RPG fan, after all, but they throw so much useless information that I struggle to find the information I actually need. Overall, Triangle Strategy somehow worked to undo all the goodwill that Octopath Traveler and its novel concept earned.
This won’t get a proper review score because this is more of a rant than a review, and I only played the demos, not the game itself. You can call this a first impression, and that impression is disappointment. I was really looking forward to this game, and it’s just not what I wanted it to be. That was a running theme here, but yeah, that’s on me.
So whether Triangle Strategy fills that Fire Emblem-shaped hole in your heart or you agree wholeheartedly with me, I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I talk about a lot more of this stuff. Seriously, 90% of the ideas I express on Twitter never make it to a proper essay, so it’s a nice place to have a discussion. Anyway, I’m going to go back and play Three Houses again because I’m about to reach 700 hours of my life wasted on this dumb chess/waifu dating sim. Until next time, thanks for reading.