One of the great things about video games is that death is but a mere stoplight: You sit through a brief death animation (in the case of Celeste, very brief), you reappear at the last checkpoint, and you try, try again until you succeed. However, in some games (both unofficially and officially), death is leveraged as an extra challenge mechanism: You’ve only got a certain number of characters at your disposal, and when one dies, they’re gone for good, forcing you to find ways to win without them. The concept of “permadeath” (which is a weird term when you think about it; death is usually permanent, after all) is something often found in what I’ll call “mass-character” role-playing games (mostly tactical RPGs, but things such as Nuzlocke runs in Pokémon games count too), where you’re given a deeper-but-limited bench of characters that you need to protect from the Grim Reaper’s scythe if you want to keep using them.
Permadeath is often the default option in games such as Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which is why I was surprised to find that Square Enix’s recent release Triangle Strategy did not feature the option in any form. The developers stated that the decision was made to weave a deeper story with their characters—after all, what good is a deep, compelling character arc if said character dies in the game’s second or third fight? That said, Fire Emblem seemed to work around the issue by labeling important characters as “too injured to participate in future battles” when they got smacked down, so why couldn’t Triangle Strategy do something similar?
I would argue that eschewing permadeath actually makes Triangle Strategy a better game, because it forced the developers to think more deeply and get more creative with their characters, finding ways to make each one stand out on the battlefield.
Note those words “on the battlefield”: I wont argue that the character personalities and backstories in Triangle Strategy are any better than those in, say, FE: Three Houses. (If anything, characters like Claude, Raphael, Hilda, and Marianne are much more memorable than the incredibly-serious, rarely-expressive TS protagonists.) What I mean is that generally, characters you access are always available (with some exceptions; for example, Roland won’t be in your party if you’ve turned him over to the Aesfrosti forces), which means that each character needs to find a unique niche that’s useful enough to at least make players consider using them in battle. This challenge led the developers to bring out some fascinating and exploratory ideas, and Triangle Strategy is richer for it.
Consider the basic “healer” role. In FE:3H, you start out with one dedicated cleric (Marianne, Mercedes, or Linhardt) who shoulders the bulk of the healing duties for your team. While there are minor differences in their capabilities, all three characters default to the same role, as do several other characters floating around the monastery (Flayn, Manuela). All of these characters are eligible to be recruited to your team, so if you need a healer, you’ve got plenty of options. In fact, if you really need a healer, you can build up the Faith stat of someone else entirely (imagine Raphael as a cleric!) to do the job.
If this seems like overkill (how many healers does a team really need?), it’s because it has to be. At any moment, your current healer or mage or front-line warrior could end up on the wrong end of a critical hit, and suddenly you’re scouring LinkedIn for a new party member. There’s no telling when or how often this will happen, so FE:3H has to include overlapping characters and roles to ensure that no matter how badly your team gets decimated, you’ve got your bases covered going into every fight.
In Triangle Strategy, you’ve got Geela, and…you’ve got Geela. Yes, there are eventually characters that you eventually might get a chance to recruit to heal your forces, but for the most part…you’ve got Geela. The difference, however, is that you’ve always got Geela, so you’re never forced to enter a match without a primary healer. Geela is also pretty darn good at what she does, so while you might prefer a double-healer comp like the Mercedes-Marianne juggernaut I ran in FE:3H, there’s certainly no replacing her like you could a Fire Emblem character.
So what does that mean for other supportive characters in TS? If Geela is irreplaceable and always available, how do you get players to mess around with other characters in their lane? If you’re the developers, you start toying with other mechanics: Medina, for example, has no healing magic, but she grants extra healing power to items that she uses, and she can use them on characters that are not on adjacent squares. This means that her healing power is not tied to her TP count (although having enough TP can let her use two items in a turn), which can potentially allow her to provide relief to an ally when Geela cannot. Narve, on the other hand, has access to the same multi-person healing ability that Geela does, but it makes him far less efficient as a healer…especially when he’s using the offensive spells that neither Geela nor Medina can use. Each character has enough unique strengths and weaknesses that players can do some scheming and find a reason to bring them along depending on the conditions.
Terrain traversal is another area where characters can distinguish themselves. Most characters have a limited ‘Jump’ ability that keeps them from scaling large obstacles, but Hughette’s hawk allows her to fly around like FE:3H’s Claude and drop arrows on foes from whatever high ground she pleases. (If you ask me, combining her flight with her Blinding Arrow attack makes her slightly OP…) That said, bow users can’t go toe-to-toe with anyone (they have to be at least a square away to attack them), so what can you do if you have to get in someone’s face? Well, Anna has Surmount, poison, and two attacks per turn, so that’s an option. Jens can build ladders that allow anyone to climb a wall so you can use them to pave the way and then let Serenoa or Roland to the dirty work at the top. Even Benedict has some jump buffs in his arsenal that might do the trick if the obstacle isn’t too tall. There are multiple ways to accomplish a task, and each characters stands out enough in their own way to make them worth considering (for example, for all his offensive liabilities, it was Jens and his ladder that let me run a power sweep around an enemy trap in one memorable battle!).
As we move past some of the basic roles, the character abilities get more and more specialized and intriguing. Piccoletta applies Medina’s item prowess to offensive consumables, and she can summon an exact clone to fight in battle. Benedict can alter the turn order in battle and bring allies to the front of the line to act immediately. Julio’s TP manipulation let him combo with TP-hungry characters to make them even more powerful (seriously, if Julio gives her TP and Jens gets her onto high ground, Frederica can darn near wipe out the entire enemy force by herself). Corentin may seem like Frederica’s icy clone, but his Ice Wall helps you redirect enemies to increase your territorial advantage, while Narve’s jack-of-all-trades magic gives you more options than one-trick elemental mages like Frederica or Corentin. By rejecting permadeath, the Triangle Stategy team had to find ways to make everyone on their roster stand out on the battlefield in some way, and while the punches don’t always land (money and items are tightly controlled in the game, which can limit characters like Medina or Piccoletta that rely on them), the developer’s forced exploration of the combat system ultimately produces more hits than misses.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a more personality-driven game, and in that aspect the characters are magnificent (let’s be honest, Triangle Strategy has no answer for Bernadetta). However, the permadeath mechanic forces the combat mechanics to be so flexible and generalizable that anyone can fill any role, which leads some characters (usually those with less-distinct personalities) to be forgotten and neglected. In contrast, Triangle Strategy’s decision not to use permadeath led the team to explore every possible corner of the battle system to develop characters that experiment with unique and useful traits that might entice players to try them out, and the game is better for it. Throw in the game’s many combat mechanics, and you’re sure to have a fun time messing around with different strategies.
A cast of characters with distinct skillsets that provide something for everyone to enjoy? It’s something that Nashville and its faceless young male assembly line could learn from.