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Several crucial party members from Triangle Strategy’s retinue Image: Square Enix/Artdink

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Triangle Strategy is almost great — but it doesn’t trust the player

There’s no room for head canon here

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

No stories are more powerful than the ones we tell ourselves. In some ways, Triangle Strategy embraces this idea. In others, it seems hopelessly oblivious.

Created as a collaboration between Square Enix and Artdink, Triangle Strategy is a turn-based tactical RPG with the scope and ambition of a Tolkien novel. Despite its visual kinship with Octopath Traveler, and the stewardship of lead producer Tomoya Asano (who helped spearhead development on that 2018 JRPG), Triangle Strategy is less of a party-based adventure and more of a sweeping political drama. Instead of exploring the camaraderie among friends, it focuses on the relationships of their nations. Put another way: If Octopath Traveler was The Fellowship of the Ring, then Triangle Strategy is The Two Towers and Return of the King, combined.

The story unfolds on the continent of Norzelia and the three countries it comprises: Aesfrost, which controls Norzelia’s’s iron mines; Hyzante, the purveyor of its salt reserves; and Glenbrook, a kingdom that acts as something of an intermediary between the two. In keeping with the tradition of Final Fantasy Tactics, Suikoden 2, and the Fire Emblem games, I build an army and command myriad characters on 3D, grid-based battlefields. Throughout my 45-hour campaign, I largely inhabit the role of Serenoa, a member of Glenbrook’s royal family and the Atlas upon whose shoulders Norzelia begins to teeter.

With arranged marriages, insidious betrayals, and red-herring death scenes, Triangle Strategy’s script deploys a litany of JRPG and fantasy tropes. It also introduces such a wide swath of characters, locations, feuds, and traditions that I began losing track of it all only a few chapters in, the predictability of it all notwithstanding.

Serenoa explores Hyzante in Triangle Strategy Image: Square Enix/Artdink via Polygon

Even so, my biggest problems with Triangle Strategy lie less in its plot, and more in its storytelling. For all of its promise as a tactical RPG — and there is a lot of promise in that regard — the game refuses to trust me. It doesn’t seem to think that I can fill in the blanks and build a story out of the pieces laid in front of me. About 50% of my time with Triangle Strategy was spent watching cutscenes; they are beautiful, yes, but also frequently extraneous. Other sequences actively undermine the momentum of the drama unfolding in the gameplay. Square Enix and Artdink so desperately want to control the narrative through exposition and dialogue that they constantly telegraph major combat twists and emergent possibilities. It quickly becomes suffocating.

Take one of my favorite characters, General Avlora. Once a soldier in the northern realm of Aesfrost, she quickly rose through the ranks to become one of Norzelia’s most prolific military minds. She is cunning, resilient, and, when necessary, ferocious. Triangle Strategy spends hours establishing these character traits in gorgeous cutscenes set in picturesque locales.

And not a single one of them was necessary.

I know Avlora is cunning because she targeted my weakest units first. I know Avlora is resilient because it took two of my best mages to keep her at bay. And I know Avlora is ferocious because she eliminated my tankiest character with a simple swipe of her bastard sword, as if brushing aside a curtain, or finding her way through fog.

A battle breaks out in Hyzante in Triangle Strategy Image: Square Enix/Artdink via Polygon

When Triangle Strategy actually takes its hands off the wheel, giving me free rein to build my encampment, recruit new characters, improve their weapons, manage their inventories, and deploy them according to their abilities during heated battles with brilliant environmental interactions, there is nothing quite like it. Not even Fire Emblem: Awakening could gather this kind of momentum. (And I consider that game to be the best in its class.)

One battle gave me the option to repel my enemy using a morally questionable weapon hidden in the city I was defending. The results were grisly, and the victory was bittersweet. I strolled through the aftermath with more than a little regret. In moments like this, when the game gives me the time I need to sort through the wreckage and take stock of my situation, it’s downright great.

Triangle Strategy’s occasional brilliance extends beyond the battlefield, as well. A handful of the interactive chapters focus less on Serenoa’s responsibilities as a general, and more on his role as a diplomat. By exploring city streets and mingling with the members of my army during their downtime, I uncover communal fears, hopes, and convictions. I can then use this information during voting sequences, in which I work to convince members of my inner circle to cast a ballot for one cause or another. (In one instance, a neighboring lord offered us an alliance, but several members of my council were less trusting than the rest.) These sequences can feel a bit artificial — I was able to sway opinions toward my desired outcome every time — but they bring out sides of the characters that combat (and cloying cutscenes) can’t.

Serenoa’s retinue chats in the group’s encampment Image: Square Enix/Artdink via Polygon

In the end, it’s the lack of confidence that gets me. Because on paper, Triangle Strategy resembles my dream game. And at certain points, it comes pretty damn close. It just can’t help exerting a heavy hand to force-feed the story as it’s “meant to be.” Like a Lego employee kicking down my door to chastise me for ignoring the instruction manual, it rarely lets me build my own structure with the bricks piled in front of me.

Still. I’ll always have those moments on the battlefield where Triangle Strategy is willing to meet me halfway — just like it did when it sent me Narve, the wandering mage, who showed up at my encampment the night before a pitched battle, plucky and sincere, to offer his services. His elemental spells were weak, but he had potential. In the morning, I put him next to Rudolph, the bandit whose skill with a bow and affinity for bear traps made him a staunch protector. Narve struggled against a few elite enemies, but Rudolph watched over him. They both emerged unscathed, and became fast friends.

At least, that’s what I told myself — right before the next cutscene began.

Triangle Strategy will be released on March 4 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on Switch using a pre-release download code provided by Square Enix and Artdink. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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