I make a point to stay off social media during announcements. All the disjointed posts and discussions irritate me, and I much prefer reading up on things I’m intrigued by in my own time. But then I received several messages — almost simultaneously — about a new tactical RPG, a genre I’m a very big fan of.
I went into this demo with the aim of not comparing it too much to its closest relatives, namely Octopath Traveler, its elder sibling, but also to Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, the game’s clear predecessors in its genre. Yet it proved far too tied up in its inspirations to ever detach it so, to both its credit and its detriment.
PROS: Appealing character designs, engaging combat, intriguing plot points
There are a lot of good things about this demo, and overall I’d say I enjoyed myself (albeit only with the Switch linked to my television, as the small text on the console screen itself murdered my eyes), and I gladly replayed Chapter VII to see the different consequences of the demo’s central decision: whether or not to surrender Prince Roland (both friend and heir) to the approaching antagonistic forces.
The game uses a triangular morality system, a decision-based meter that cannot be viewed by the player at any given time. I appreciate that unseen quality, as it makes an entirely blind playthrough all the more interesting. I hope the game follows up on its potential to be truly distinctive in this regard and doesn’t fall into the trap of advertising far more freedom than it actually offers, with all ‘routes’ leading towards the same kind of ending. The demo alone avoids that fate, offering two unique maps that demand different strategies, as well as units that seem mutually exclusive to a certain choice or alignment. Choosing to protect Prince Roland from the Aesfrost forces appears to net the weather shaman Ezana and the advisor Julio (functionally a TP support unit) for your party, while choosing to surrender him gives the item-centric ‘pharmaceutist’ Medina. All these characters have their own introductory cutscenes and their own reasons for joining you, as well as filling their own niches in the group.
(Edit: I’ve been reliably informed that certain small dialogue choices also influences who joins you, as evidenced by the scales that appear after you’ve made your selection)
At this point it was very difficult for me to avoid comparing the demo to Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, which has its own, largely unseen, alignment system that results in a variety of different characters joining you. Whether Triangle Strategy succeeds in putting its own spin on this remains to be seen, but this small insight is distinct enough for me to be optimistic. Its voting system is actually quite novel for a medieval setting, and I look forward to seeing just how much the decisions and their repercussions vary.
The map in the ‘Protect Prince Roland’ route is the less challenging of the two in Chapter VII, but still features an entertaining gimmick in the form of setting (empty) houses on fire in order to trap and burn the enemy alive. Naturally, I took this option, seeing as the townspeople were safely in the castle, which made victory all the easier. This addition isn’t especially groundbreaking in itself but bodes well for the full game, potentially allowing for definition within its genre by facilitating a variety of paths to victory, and tactical decisions that actually affect the plot.
While I feel that the moral outrage regarding these wildfire traps is vastly overblown in-game, the effect it has on dialogue is welcome, and I’m interested to see what other strategies would cause discomfort amongst the party, perhaps even to the extent that they leave you permanently. It would be interesting indeed if Frederica, who seems the most opposed to raw pragmatism, left the party headed by her own fiancé due to her strongly held moral convictions.
Agreeing to hand over Prince Roland to the duchy results in what I would call a far more interesting scenario; instead of a satisfying yet somewhat typical pledge of defence, you’re skillfully manipulated into attacking one of your own allies and forced into an unavoidable battle. Cue me trying not to dwell on where I’d seen this before, since I can never say no to a bit of intrigue.
Elevation is the key aspect of this last map, and you are very much at the disadvantage, what with increased-range archers bearing down upon you from every angle. I’ve always enjoyed such battles, an appreciation that was only increased by the effective inclusion of the specific weather. It was dry and windy, meaning that fire spread quickly across the wheat fields, something that was thoroughly exploited by the enemy forces. It was a challenge to make proper use of it myself, having access to only one unit capable of casting fire spells, but it made for good tactical variety nonetheless, even though I was annoyed at the fact that I didn’t have two dedicated healers to properly facilitate my ideal split-team strategy.
CONS: Unfriendly UI, overuse of visual filters, oft-lacklustre voice acting
The first of my complaints can be traced back to the game’s ‘HD-2D’ predecessor, Octopath Traveler. I absolutely adored the 2018 release, it being the very reason I got a Switch in the first place. That being said, I always had an issue with its too-small text, and that issue persists in Triangle Strategy. It’s arguably an issue that riddles most games on the console, but it’s evident in some more than others. I had to take more breaks than usual due to the strain it was inflicting upon my eyes, made even worse by the unforgiving UI and overuse of visual filters, which brings me to what I consider to be the demo’s biggest failing.
The ‘HD-2D’ style had its vocal detractors when Octopath came out, but I never truly sympathised with their grievances until now. The filters here are overwhelming where Octopath’s were usually tasteful, eye-searing where it used to be refreshing. It’s ‘HD-2D’ with too strong an emphasis on the former, to such an extent that it almost completely drowns out the otherwise pleasing pixel art. An ugly black glow also surrounds the characters like they’re accumulating some kind of dark matter, something that was barely present in Octopath, if at all. I thought the point of the style was to find a unique balance between old and new, but in this case, it’s the new intimidating the old into a corner and attempting to cow it into submission, the result of which being a bit of a mess that wastes no time in giving me a headache.
Tactical games have often erred on the side of simplicity when it comes to their style, and for good reason. The amount of content presented during battles can be overwhelming if not balanced correctly, especially if maps contain significant degrees of elevation. As it stands, the game completely misses this balance. The presentation is such that when you suddenly change elevation it gives a nasty jolt to your eyes with the snap adjustments in filter and focus. That isn’t to say the ‘HD-2D’ style should be completely done away with, but it certainly needs to be stripped back a little to suit such busy maps.
Voice acting has never been a necessity in tactical RPGs, but games such as the immensely successful Fire Emblem: Three Houses indicate a trend in this direction, for better or worse. Since one of the draws of Octopath Traveler was that its main cutscenes were fully voiced, I was unsurprised to see that continue in Triangle Strategy. With mixed results.
Most of the voice acting is perfectly serviceable, some even very good, but the worst belongs to none other than our protagonist, Serenoa of House Wolffort.
When Lord Wolffort, Serenoa’s father, is practically on his deathbed, the young heir’s reaction is so jarringly muted and dispassionate, not to mention in complete contrast with the actual words being said. Suffice it to say I had a much better time once I’d muted the voices. Hearing the main character react to such events with less passion than Winnie the Pooh when confronted with his last jar of honey was not something I was going to tolerate for long.
In essence, the demo has a great deal of potential, but it has some very glaring problems that I do hope others also point out, thus giving the game a strong chance to improve during its remaining time in development, which is half the point of demos, after all. A year is certainly enough time to implement the adjustments required to make this game truly great, to make it more than just a particularly flashy shadow of those that have gone before.