Project Triangle Strategy: Early Impressions

I expected to be a sword-swinging superstar in this game, but I didn’t think I’d have to be Joe Biden too!

Project Triangle Strategy was announced during Nintendo’s recent Direct presentation, and as someone who enjoyed the game’s HD-2D predecessor Octopath Traveler (despite its lack of a unifying storyline), I was more than ready to dive into Square Enix’s initial demo. The game promised an intriguing storytelling experience shaped by the decisions you made along the way, and while the demo didn’t provide a ton of insight into how different paths might diverge, in its place it offered some solid gameplay, a great storyline, and a surprising amount of deep thought but make me very interested in seeing where this game goes in the future.The game, however, feels highly tuned to a niche audience, and while the combat was accessible and easy to grasp, anyone who isn’t looking to be a master strategist or Biden-esque dealmaker may find the game a bit too slow and repetitive for their tastes. I enjoyed the demo and I think existing tactical RPG will as well, but I’m not sure that folks who aren’t familiar with the genre would get the same joy out of it.

Image from Jason Schreier

Unlike Bravely Default II, Project Triangle Strategy is a tactical RPG experience more along the lines of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, with engagements taking place on a grid and characters moving around to find a strategic advantage on the field. While FE: 3H had player, enemy, and ally phases to each “turn,” things are a bit more chaotic here, with both good and bad characters interwoven into a continuous chain of actions based on their speed stat. (The game provides an optional-but-helpful numbering system during battle that shows everyone’s position in line, so you can quickly tell who’s about to act and who will be waiting a while.) Terrain can one again make or break your strategy: While cover doesn’t seem to exist, elevation modifiers are more common (being on higher ground grants you attack bonuses), and using elemental attacks like fire, ice, and electricity can affect both enemies and the surrounding terrain (for example, fire will keep burning a square for some time). The actual combat, however, feels a bit more straightforward: The rock-paper-scissors weapon triad of FE:3H is not present, and while certain characters may be weak to certain attacks, most attack/defense combinations appear to be neutral, allowing you to focus on your approach rather your specific attack. (The type of attack you use matters less than your positioning when you use it: In addition to terrain bonuses, attacking an opponent from behind will deal more damage, and attacking an opponent when they’re stuck between you and another character will cause the second character to toss in an attack too.)

Instead of standard magic points, special attacks use a “TP” system: Every turn you gain one tactical point, and each of your special attacks will require spending 1-3 of your points to use. It was an interesting system because it allowed you to store up points for when you needed them instead of always waiting for a cooldown, but it also created a strange incentive system in battle: You don’t get experience points unless you do something more than move in a turn, so you were also tempted to use a character’s passive abilities in non-battle situations to help them grow, even if you might need those TP later. (It was super annoying to set up the enemy for a devastating magic attack, then miss the moment because Frederica needed another turn to charge up her spell, which happened to me a few times.) Overall, however, I found the battle system to be both intuitive and thought-provoking, and I had a blast laying a smackdown on my foes.

I hope the description of combat above sounded fun, because at least in the demo, that’s pretty much all you can do, and you spend a lot of time doing it. (Seriously, these battles take a looooong time: I completed just two in over five hours.) While FE: 3H at least gave you a monastery to explore and a few small minigames to try out, Triangle Strategy gives you three things: Battles, small exploration areas, and congressional debates (more on that later). The game is even more cutscene-dependent than BD2, and while it’s understandable that tactical RPGs will be slower than standard turn-based ones, the game spends forever fleshing out the story and impressing the stakes of the game onto the player. Worse still, there weren’t any real side quests in the demo: You can click around and see how your actions play in different locales, but aside from occasionally picking up an extra character or two (I got to meet Medina from that Trent Willmon song), it was just more cutscenes to sit through. While I found them enlightening, it felt like a clumsy way to deliver the message (although I suppose it allowed people to easily skip them if they wanted).

Thankfully, the story is more than worth diving into, even despite uncreative names like the ‘Saltiron War.’ A trio of kingdoms rules the land of Norzelia, and after the Aesfrosti forces overthrow the king on neighboring Glenbrook, it’s up to you to figure out what to do about it. The intrigue of the land runs deep (for example, the main villian was about to become your brother-in-law), and the castle escape sequence and subsequent defense preparations for your homeland made for a gripping tale. (Unfortunately, for a sprite-based art style, the game has a habit of showing off some overly-convincing pools of blood when someone dies, a touch of gore that felt jarring and unnecessary.) The character designs are solid and well-developed and their interactions can be engaging, but there’s no one here that’s quite as memorable as the students of Garreg Mach (there’s no equivalent of folks like Bernadetta or Claude, at least not yet).

Image from GamesRadar

The game has been particularly keen about hyping up its “conviction” mechanic: The decisions you make during the game will influence the direction of the story, as well as who may or may not seek to join your side. While the demo doesn’t give us a ton of insight into this metric (I guess Medina may have only joined me because of it, but it’s hard to say), you do get a glimpse of an unusual aspect of the game: Voting on important decisions, and influencing your fellow team members to do what you want (you can finally embrace your inner politician!). In the demo, you’re presented with a major decision: Defend the prince who fled the city with you, or turn them over to the bad guys. It seems like an easy decision, but the game tries its hardest to make you think about it, with a lot of talk about how your forces will be outclassed and outmanned, and about how many innocent people may lose their lives and/or homes. (It also puts many of your comrades on the ‘give the prince up’ side initially, including the prince himself, and you’re bound by the majority decision even if you vote against it.) It’s something that I’ve never seen a game do to this extent, and it makes a laudable effort to make you think about both sides of the argument…but in the end, you’re the protagonist and battling is what the game is all about, and so you can channel your inner negotiator by gathering information from the surrounding town and using it to convince your comrades to join you in the fight. (In the end, nearly everyone ended up voting with me, with Benedict playing the role of Rand Paul and casting the lone dissenting vote. Who says bipartisanship is dead?) While the mechanic is an intriguing idea, I’ll need to see more of it in action before I can really judge it.

On the whole, I found Project Triangle Strategy to be a fun and engaging battle/RPG experience with the potential to be much more, and while I wouldn’t recommend that it be your first foray into the genre (Fire Emblem: Three Houses seems a bit more user-friendly, at least with permadeath turned off), if you enjoyed FE: 3H, I’d recommend giving this demo a try as well. It’ll be a while before we get the full version of the game (it shares a 2022 release date with Splatoon 3), so I’m looking forward to seeing more from the game and discovering how Square Enix uses these ideas to put a fresh spin on an old formula.