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Sunday, March 6, 2022

Triangle Strategy

A medieval fantasy tactical RPG under the Square Enix banner, it certainly got people buzzing before launch, with many hoping it would be a return to the style of earlier Square hits like Final Fantasy Tactics.  But does Triangle Strategy slake the long-standing thirst, or does heavy competition from other serious-minded tactical RPGs just render this one irrelevant?

Artdink is a company I haven't had much opportunity to talk about on either of my sites; they're not a particularly prominent name in the west, haven't made many high-profile games in the RPG genre, and in fact I mostly remember them for odd, erm, software titles that debatably don't even qualify as games.  From the ocean-exploring experience Aquanaut's Holiday to the turn based robot-designer Carnage Heart (wherein you design and program a combat robot to overcome progressively tougher challenges, but never get to directly control it) to the railway building/logistics simulation series A-Train, they certainly live up to their name, having players approach their games more as complex projects or experiences rather than a source of visceral thrills.  Netchubiyori is a similarly obscure name, mostly working on forgettable licensed titles and the odd, not-especially-well-received theme park RPG called "Heroland", with very few of their games ever leaving Japan.

My point in all this is that I certainly didn't see either of these companies, let alone both, collaborating with Square Enix to create a turn-based tactical RPG.  However, the actual minds behind it were something of a secondary consideration - being associated with Square Enix, Triangle Strategy was also hyped up as the long-awaited proper followup to Final Fantasy Tactics, seeming to show a more serious-minded brand of storytelling and in-depth tactical combat and character management reminiscent of that game's in early trailers.

Well, if you go in expecting exactly that you're probably going to be disappointed, as Triangle Strategy's mechanics are not very similar to FFT's.  In fact, its gameplay more closely resembles something like Shining Force, emphasizing individual, unique units and skillsets over a largely-homogenized class/skill system, with subsequent upgrades mostly being stronger versions of their base class.  So if you want character building with a more mix-and-match flair, well, you're still probably better off with good ol' FFT, or modern games like Horizon's Gate or Divinity Original Sin II.

That said, the game does bring some new mechanics to the table to differentiate it from its closest cousins.  Some that become evident right away are tied to even your normal attacks - hitting an enemy from above (whether with melee or ranged weapons) deals extra damage, while from behind will deal a critical hit; and yes, these two effects do stack.  They can further stack with another mechanic - if you strike an enemy with an ally on the opposite side of them, that ally will automatically follow up with a second hit, doing a bit more damage and giving both of your characters experience points rather than just one.  Taking careful measure of your movements, being careful not to get surrounded, and using the terrain to your advantage whenever possible can and will turn the tide of battle.  In addition, these actions, as well as some others (like hitting 3 or more enemies with a single spell) will earn you "Kudos" - a special currency that can be spent at a shop to gain Quietuses (special buffs that can be used once per battle) or notes detailing other advanced strategies and plot threads.  Definitely worth taking advantage of as much as possible to gain an edge in future battles, as well as the current one.

Spells and skills offer some relatively unique advantages too.  There is no traditional "magic point" system in Triangle Strategy, but special skills are present and, as mentioned above, unique to each character.  These come in the form of passive bonuses or actively-used spells/skills, with the latter being tied to TP; each character begins with three of these, gaining more to their maximum as they grow, and they regain 1 spent point each turn, so while they can use a 1-TP ability pretty much anytime, they can't spam more powerful abilities nearly as easily.  Techniques are quite varied even early on, though - sword slashes that delay an enemy's turn, moving through and striking multiple enemies in a line, arrows that blind, buffs that raise stats, being able to build ladders to reach rooftops, setting traps, and so forth.  Spells act as your area-of-effect abilities, able to strike multiple enemies at a time, as well as occasionally leaving lingering effects; for example, ice spells will leave behind frozen terrain that slows movement.  In what's probably a nod to games like Divinity Original Sin II, these can also be further affected by later spells - ice can be melted into water by a fire spell, which can then conduct electricity cast from a lightning spell, potentially dealing greater damage to everyone standing in water at the time.  While it's of course not as big a central focus to the game's strategy as it was in DOS, it is nice to see Japanese companies stepping up their game in response to western competition.  Quietus is another thing that can bail you out of a jam; basically, you spend Quietus Points to do things like stop an enemy's turn once or move a unit up to 8 squares away; you only begin with one of these, and more are occasionally made available in the Sundry shop but are quite expensive to purchase.  Still, they can help turn things around if you're in a bad spot.

During and after battle, one also lays claims to "spoils" in the form of money and consumable items, as well as basic resources like Iron, Stone, Timber and Fiber, which led me to believe the game was going to have an in-depth crafting system.  That is somewhat true, but not to the degree I originally believed - instead, these are used as an avenue to upgrade your characters under the pretense of forging their weapons.  Basically, each character's 'weapon' has three tiers of power, each with several associated upgrades, and you spend money and resources to unlock bonuses like extra attack power, HP, defense, et cetera, with later upgrades on that tier costing progressively more as you unlock more things.  Fittingly, upgrading to a new tier of weapon usually requires some rare materials itself, and you cannot take some upgrades on later tiers without taking prerequisites (can't take the Level 2 attack upgrade without buying the Level 1 first, for example).  Some upgrades are also exclusive choices - if you pick one, you can't get the other, so you do have at least some opportunity to tweak characters to your liking.

Between battles, there are occasional free roaming segments where you can venture around towns, buy equipment, search for secret items and interact with NPCs - some just give nice bits of lore or comments on story events, but others may give clues that can benefit you later, even unlocking dialog choices in future conversations that you wouldn't get otherwise.  Some actions you take, as well as key choices in dialog scenes will also bolster one of your three "convictions" - Utility, Morality or Liberty - which will ultimately affect what characters you recruit or aren't able to as the story progresses.  However, these are all hidden stats and it's not always clear which option will boost which conviction - something I actually like, as it effectively removes all the tension when games do that and feels much more organic when the consequences of your choices show themselves later on.

Another clever turn is that while Triangle Strategy features a branching storyline, the choice that will lead you down a given path is not a unilateral one - your currently-recruited allies will all take a vote on the situation, with whichever option receives the majority cementing the decision.  However, you can attempt to influence characters during these segments through well-chosen dialog options; some can be swayed rather easily, others may require you to have seen a particular piece of dialog/plot thread beforehand, and still others you may not be able to change at all.  Definitely a creative idea, and one way more interesting than the flaccid "A or B" dialog choices present in so many western RPGs.  As ever, though, every road you take has consequences, causing you to miss out on opportunities the other path may have provided, so it's never an easy choice to make.

Triangle Strategy is the second game released to feature Square Enix's heavily-touted "HD-2D" graphics, and though it does look better than their first go-around with it (Octopath Traveler), I still can't say I'm a fan of the style.  Basically, it's a very awkward mix of low-res 2D and high-res 3D graphic styles, utilizing a 3D engine with modern graphical effects like bloom, filtering, high-quality textures, distance blurring and anti-aliasing, and even surprisingly realistic water effects with light refraction; however, some elements - leaves, grass, roof tiles, nets, et cetera - are just masses of large squares and stick out like a sore thumb next to other modeled objects. Other elements are similarly inconsistent - some background elements are very clearly 3D models with crisp hi-res textures, others have textures consisting of large blocks made to simulate pixels (not even the same size as the blocky grass, leaves, etc), while others still are highly-detailed sprites with no visible seams at all.  Characters are meant to simulate old blocky 16-bit sprites, showing nice animation and detail in that regard, but whereas the environments (and 2D world map) show much in the way of saturated color to make them pop, characters often appear too dark or overly bright and washed-out, making their details indistinct.  It only gets more jarring in battle, where they're slinging around spell effects rendered in high-res CGI with particles, flame trails and smooth animation.  Even the HUD falls prey to inconsistency, with crisp linework on windows and fonts and some wonderfully detailed pencil-drawn character portraits that wouldn't be possible in an old 2D game, but would fit in perfectly in an HD one.  I get what they're going for - an attempt to fuse multiple different eras and types of graphics together - but rather than having any kind of cohesive stylized feel, all of its disparate elements clash together and it just ends up looking tacky and distracting.  Games have successfully fused 2D sprites and 3D effects/environments before - witness Skullgirls, Indivisible, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Suikoden II, Xenogears, Grandia or even the upcoming Eiyuden Chronicle - but "HD-2D" just doesn't get the mix right.  Maybe the style will be further refined by the time the Live-a-Live or Dragon Quest III remakes roll around, but for now I'm still not impressed by it.  Do spirites atop 3D renders or even voxels if you want a blend of old and new, but don't do this weird halfassed mishmash of a half-dozen different resolutions and styles. 

Other aspects of the presentation fare considerably better.  Voiceover in the game is surprisingly good for the most part, and the dialog is consistently well written - both enormously better efforts than their counterparts in Octopath, and a good thing as the game loves to throw 20+ minute marathons of cutscenes at you.  The soundtrack is quite pleasant, with some beautiful sounding orchestral tracks carrying the mood of any given situation, though I found it a touch loud on the default setting and it would occasionally drown out the dialog; turning it down to about 45% fixed that.  One also cannot close tutorial messages without scrolling all the way through them nor skip mid-battle dialog scenes, though the latter can at least be fast-forwarded through with the R button.

All told, Triangle Strategy is a pleasant surprise, especially because I was none too fond of Square Enix's other "faux-retro" RPGs like Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler.  This one succeeds where those failed, however, delivering a solid tactical RPG wirh a well-told branching storyline in a fleshed out fantasy world, strongly written dialog, good voiceover and gameplay which, in a lot of non-trivial ways, is more involved and entertaining than Fire Emblem.  It's still not the Final Fantasy Tactics successor everyone's been screaming for since the nineties, and I don't much care for the dopey title or the "HD-2D" concept, but those are minor flaws I can easily overlook.  If everything I've described about the game sounds good to you, pick it up.  And if you're on the fence, try out the demo; you get the first three chapters of the game for free (roughly 4-5 hours long, a bit more if you decide to explore both branching paths), and it even carries over your save file to the retail version so you don't have to start from scratch.

Artdink, Netchubiyori, Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Switch
Released: 2022
Recommended Version: N/A