February 2021 marked the first full-length Nintendo Direct in 530 days, a stat which I know because I watched a potentially unhealthy number of Direct speculation videos and they all started with this little trivia fact. The Direct contained a number of announcements which inevitably disappointed a swath of people who expected a different set of announcements, but I personally came away pretty satisfied with what was shown off. One game in particular that caught my attention was the latest project in the HD-2D series made Square Enix’s Team Asano. Dubbed Project Triangle Strategy, this game promised a tactical RPG experience with a choices and consequences system that dramatically impacted the story. Now we can spend all day clowning on how ridiculous of a name Project Triangle Strategy is, but funnier people than me have already tackled that task with gusto. Instead, this article will focus on my impressions of the demo’s mechanics.
Upon booting up the demo the game informs you that you’ll be jumping into “the middle” of the action with chapter VI, and that because of this you may not recognize all of the story elements that come up. I appreciate the thought behind the warning, but it’s clear that chapter VI is simply the back end up a lengthy introduction because this section still feels very much like beginning of the game territory. If you’ve ever started a fantasy RPG before you’ll be familiar with the way in which unfamiliar proper nouns are dropped with little context; eventually you just pick up on who is who and it really doesn’t feel like you’re missing any important details (which is admittedly a little worrying for how interesting those first five chapters are going to be). One feature that helps make sense of what happening is that pressing the X button while a named NPC is talking pulls up their profile, a fully-drawn image of the character along with their name, affiliation, and title. The character art is gorgeous, evocative of early Final Fantasy designs but most immediately resembling Octopath Traveler, the previous entry in the HD-2D series.
Speaking of art, let’s take a moment to address how the game looks generally. Team Asano’s “HD-2D” is a distinct visual style meant to evoke retro RPGs while punching them up in ways that make the aesthetic feel modern. Now I’m no technical expert so I can’t really dive into the specifics of how this happens, but I can say that the effect works. The character sprites look like they are yanked straight out of my memories of playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance but the environments and special effects are on a whole ‘nother level. Brilliant flashes of light as characters make powerful attacks, eerie translucent fog spawning enemies, the rippling of water beneath the battlefield, dynamic lighting with proper shadows cast by nearby torches – the game evokes the idea of an SNES RPG while being far beyond what was possible technologically in that era. The look is A ChoiceTM, and not everybody is going to love what it is going for. But for me the HD-2D look is an evocative one, and I found it enjoyable for the duration of the demo.
So what’s the basic premise of Project Triangle Strategy? Three kingdoms are situated such that each one controls a valuable, necessary resource that the other kingdoms need. In the past this led to a bloody conflict called the Saltiron War. After the war peace was maintained for some time, but as the demo begins violence once again breaks out as Gustadolph, the leader of the army of the kingdom of Aesfrost, leads his forces into the throne room at castle Glenbrook. Glenbrook are clearly The Good Guys and Aesfrost are clearly The Bad Guys and this is communicated to you quickly through things like color palette, facial expressions on character art, and the performance of the characters by the voice actors. That’s right, the major cutscenes of the game are fully voiced. The demo features only English voice options for those playing the US version of the demo, but I wouldn’t be surprised if at least Japanese VA is available in the full version of the game. Because of the circumstances in which I played I did not get to hear much of the voice acting beyond the very early parts of the demo, so I don’t really feel equipped to comment on its quality. But what I did hear sounded fine, and no one jumped out at me as being obviously terrible.
Anyway, Aesfrost shows up to murder the king of Glenbrook and it becomes clear that they are doing so for political gain, drumming up false charges against the king. You play in this scenario as a young man named Serenoa, lord of one of the three high houses of Glenbrook and friend to the king’s son Roland. When the king is captured by Aesfrost, you help Roland escape the palace with the help of a small band of capable allies. This is the setup from which the demo jumps off, and you’ll spend two chapters of the game seeing first the escape and then the aftermath of that escape as the heroes try to figure out how deal with the Aesfrosti takeover. Each chapter involves one combat scenario as well as multiple cutscenes, some of which progress the plot while others simply expand your information about the world. When the first cutscene ends, you are taken to the world map view which serves as the hub from which you select how you want to proceed.
The world map hub shows all three kingdoms from a very broad scope, with topographical details mostly visible but little to indicate the political boundaries of the setting. While on the map you’ll have icons popping up which you can select to initiate a scene. Red icons are story content which you must complete to proceed; green icons indicate optional content that as far as I was able to tell is time-limited – if you don’t engage it when it is first available then moving the story along may make it irrelevant, causing it to disappear. If the indicators are just plain circles with an exclamation mark then they lead to a simple cutscene, but additional icons may show that a scene will involve exploration (in which you move around a small location talking to characters and examining glowing points in the environment), a decision on the Scales of Conviction (a game mechanic we’ll discuss in more detail shortly), a new character joining the party, or a combat scenario. Cut scenes are generally somewhat short but there are a lot of them, and you can have multiple story related cutscenes in a row without combat or exploration to break up the pacing. It can feel awkward to finish a scene and return to the world map only to load up another scene – I think a simple improvement for the game would be to make these scenes flow naturally into each other when you don’t actually have any other activity that you could be doing. When there’s not actually another choice to make on the world map, it feels silly to include extra loading time to essentially continue a conversation between the same group of characters. If the concern is giving players an opportunity to save, perhaps a good solution would be offering save points between scenes instead, or allowing the player to save mid-cutscene if they so choose.
Exploration is the first time in the demo where you’ll get meaningful control of your character and can do something other than progressing dialogue or looking at character profiles. During exploration scenes, you move your character around a small environment to speak to characters and examine or “search” areas of interest. While exploring you have full 360 degree camera control, and zooming out a bit while rotating the camera reveals that your characters are actually on a small diorama sitting on the world map – neat! Any areas in the environment that you can interact with, whether that means a contraption you need to examine or the location of a “hidden” item, is marked with a steady golden sparkle. This makes it relatively easy not to miss anything. Exploration scenes are pitched by the game as opportunities to familiarize yourself with a battlefield before a fight, and the examples in the demo do help you to learn the locations of interactive points that you can make use of during the fight. This implies that most if not all battlefields will have some kind of special element for getting the upper hand on your foes if you can figure out how to maximize its use. Examples from the demo are a gate that must be opened to progress through the map, traps that can be activated to defeat enemy units in the area of effect, and ziplines that allow you to move to different parts of the map without crossing the space between. Exploration also gives you time to speak with characters in your party or NPCs on the map. When an exploration scene precedes a battle the information will generally be related to strategic advantages and disadvantages of the battlefield. When the scene precedes a vote on the Scales of Conviction, conversations may give you talking points to bring up with your allies to sway their decisions.
Yes, dear reader, what is it?
“You’ve been talking about this game for kind of a long time without actually getting to any of the good stuff, it seems like. How are the battles? What the hell is a Scale of Conviction? I feel like we’re not really getting to the meat and potatoes.”
Welcome to how it feels to play Project Triangle Strategy! I played the demo for somewhere between 5 and 6 hours and spent maybe two of those hours in proper gameplay. That’s not unprecedented in the strategy RPG genre but for a demo it feels really awkward, particularly when a lot of the side scenes you can unlock flat out deal with story elements that are never going to impact the demo itself. The cutscenes aren’t necessarily boring but because the game’s story is so far nothing to write home about it can feel overwrought when you just want to jab some guys with your spear. If you’ve ever played a Fire Emblem game you know all the story beats – inherently evil kingdom invades inherently good kingdom and kills the king, leaving the heir to escape with a thin sliver of hope that someday they can reclaim their throne. Spending so much of the demo on familiar RPG tropes and so little on the elements that make the game truly unique can make it feel like a slog, and I definitely found myself wondering when in the world anything truly interesting was going to happen. Then, the time finally came – bad guys swarmed my soldiers on a narrow bridge where nobody could escape, and that familiar battle preparation screen emerged as my characters locked to their combat lineup on the map grid.
The “strategy” part of Project Triangle Strategy comes from the tactical RPG combat. Units battle on a grid-based map of varying elevations, terrain types, and even weather conditions. Turn order is decided by unit speed with faster units having a better chance of taking their turn first in combat. You can check when each unit is going to move using a timeline at the bottom right of the screen. You can also click the left stick to have each units number in the turn order display over their sprite, a feature I found really useful when determining whether or not I wanted to move close to a group of enemies. Moving a character to attack a chunk of enemies whose turns are turns 2, 3, and 4 is a much scarier proposition than a group whose turns are on 10, 14, and 17. On your unit’s turn, you can move and take an action – not necessarily in that order. Movement generally covers four or five squares on the grid with each character having a movement range and jump height based on their class. Some classes have mounts that enable them to move farther or higher than other characters; the scout unit Hughette rides an owl that allows her to fly overtop of enemies and to safely change elevations without trouble, her high maneuverability being one of her main selling points as a unit. When you move the tiles on the grid change colors to indicate which spaces you can reach but also to indicate which ones are dangeroung – a blue square is safe while a violet square can be attacked by an enemy. Similar to Fire Emblem Three Houses, glowing lines will indicate when enemy units are likely to attack your unit, an effective visualization of how much danger you are in. Action types include using an item or swinging your weapon (neither of which cost TP, the game’s action currency), or using one of the character’s special abilities (which in the demo can cost anywhere from 1-3 TP). Once you’ve moved and acted, your turn ends and you choose a facing. Where your unit is facing is important because any attack against their back is an automatic critical hit; to the best of your ability, you will want to attack enemies from behind while avoiding getting attacked from behind yourself.
Facing isn’t the only kind of positioning that’s important to consider when moving a unit. Elevation is a key element of battle in Triangle Strategy, giving a damage and range advantage to whoever has higher ground. Some abilities benefit more from higher elevation than others. Serenoa has an ability called Hawk Dive which receives a significant damage boost from an elevation advantage, while bow-wielding characters can double their firing range by having higher ground than their opponents. In the path that I played that archer high ground advantage figured prominently into one of the battles I fought, making it challenging for my primarily melee party to get an edge against the opposition. Another important aspect of positioning is flanking, when two units on the same team stand on opposite sides of a unit on the other team. Flanking allows the second unit to make a follow up attack after the initial blow, and this is perhaps the most effective way to quickly build up damage on enemy units. Of course, they can flank you too, so it’s also the quickest way for one of your own units to get battered off the field. The demo has no permadeath, so the main penalty for losing a unit is that they can no longer contribute during that match and won’t get any more combat experience.
In the demo, each allied character has their own class with a unique set of skills to bring to the table. It is unclear at this point if characters will be able to change classes or if there will be any two characters who share the same class. That said, there are definitely classes that serve similar roles even if the specifics of how they fulfill that role varies. Each character has a unique set of active and passive abilities that helps each one to feel mechanically distinct. Active abilities cost anywhere from 1-3 TP, and because most characters only accumulate 1 TP at the beginning of a turn, it will take multiple turns of saving up to use their more powerful skills. This is fine for units who specialize in physical attacks because their basic move is still viable; magicians, however, can be really tricky to use, as every offensive spell in the demo costs 2 TP and therefore requires a turn of waiting to charge up. Your magical units won’t be able to do much with their physical attacks and casting their cheaper spells prevents you from saving up the TP you need, meaning half the time these characters are burning turns instead of contributing to the cause. You can maximize their participation by having them use items either to help keep allies healthy or to attack enemies with mild elemental damage.
Managing unit positioning and maximizing the benefits of each character’s unique skills are the biggest parts of what made combat interesting for me. One of my favorite units to use was Anna, a spy character whose passive ability allows her to take two actions each turn instead of one. She has lower attack power than other physical specialists but being able to attack twice mitigates that issue somewhat. Her higher movement range and jump height makes it easier for her to get behind enemies to get criticals, and she is also helped by a Take Cover ability which allows her to approach enemies without being attacked as long as no one stands next to her and faces her. I also enjoyed Prince Roland, whose passive gives him a free attack against an enemy whenever he moves his maximum movement range and whose spear weapon allows him to hit multiple enemies at a time as long as they are standing in a line. While the party for your first battle is locked in, you have some wiggle room in the second battle (at least on the route I cchose) which allows you to experiment with party composition in order to find what team is most effective for your style. For example, I found it helpful to drop the stat-boosting specialist Benedict in order to bring in a second healer for the party.
Combat mostly ran smooth in the demo but there were a couple of odd quirks here and there. I already mentioned how the lack of a cheaper magical attack or a basic magic attack made magician characters feel generally less useful than other units. This is also because generally magic attacks don’t feel like their potency is proportional to the amount of time spent charging up their abilities. My magicians didn’t feel “stronger” than my other characters despite needing to save up TP; their spells did equivalent damage to allied physical attacks while taking longer to set up. I think ideally magicians are supposed to be creating combos with their spells – getting opponents wet and then striking them with lightning for example – but these combinations can be tricky to set up due to certain terrain types remaining unaffected by particular elements. On the technical side of things, there were times when my characters could not attack a unit that was highlighted as a valid target. I encountered this issue the most with Hughette and I think that there is maybe a mechanic in the game where line of sight matters for archers, but if there was a UI element that was supposed to be telling me that Hughette didn’t have a clean shot, that visual was not clear enough to make it obvious that she couldn’t fire. Finally, there’s one concern I have that didn’t actually come up in the demo but I think has precedent in another Square Enix game, Bravely Default. Triangle Strategy has a special mechanic called Quietus (labeled as “secret weapon” in the combat UI which is a bit confusing) where you can take special actions out of turn in order to benefit your team. You get two Quietus per battle and they appear to refresh after battles, but I’m concerned that there’s an opportunity here for microtransactions. I say that because Bravely Default features a similar “take actions out of turn” mechanic called Bravely Second which you can purchase additional uses of with real-life money. I hope Quietus cards aren’t something that Squeenix attempts to monetize, as that feels particularly gross in a tactics game.
One final thing I want to talk about related to combat before moving on to the final mechanic I’d like to discuss – there are some features which are teased but not actually shown in the demo that I wanted to point out. These primarily relate to your encampment, the area where you prepare for battle by buying items and abilities. There are multiple features in the encampment which are hinted at but otherwise remain inaccessible during the demo. One character, for example, sells you new abilities for your Quietus in exchange for kudos, which are special points you gain for accomplishing combat tech like backstabbing, flanking, etc. There are two other kudo-spending options which are blurred out in the demo. I’m curious if all three have to do with Quietus or if some of them could relate to character abilities or class changing. Another character in the encampment, the smith, promises to upgrade your weapons in exchange for materials in the full version of the game. This weapon upgrade feature seems like the only way to improve your physical attacks other than gaining some power when leveling up, as there is no weapon shop in the game otherwise. Finally, the encampment bartender mentions that you’ll be able to complete “errands” in the full game. Now if we use Final Fantasy Tactics as a reference point given the other similarities these games share, these errands could potentially be side quests which serve as opportunities to level up your characters with extra battles while also getting additional quest rewards. I could also see these being material exchanges (bring me five HP Tonic and I’ll give you a Large TP Tonic) or an area for giving you money or items in exchange for completing challenges (defeat an enemy with a Firestone). This is primarily speculative but it will be interesting to see how these establishments function in the full game.
There’s one more major game mechanic to talk about and it’s where the “triangle” portion of Project Triangle Strategy comes from: the Scales of Conviction. This is the decision mechanic teased in the trailer, a democratic vote among your core party members on how to proceed in a difficult situation where a significant decision must be made. I was surprised to see that the demo featured one of these decision points but I’m glad they showed how it works. In the demo your party has to make a choice about whether or not to surrender Prince Roland to the Aesfrosti army. The majority of your party wants to give him up, seeing it as the most practical solution. However, should you decide to fight to protect Roland at any cost, you can influence the vote to go your way by persuading the characters with an argument. You get one opportunity to persuade each character, and if done well it will force them into the “undecided” category and therefore make them more likely to agree with your vote. It’s not a guarantee – in my playthrough Serenoa’s fiancée did not go along with his decision despite his efforts to persuade her – but it is totally possible to flip the majority and lead the decision in favor of your preferred path. To give context to the rest of my discussion of this mechanic, I actually played through the “give up Roland” scenario and then watched someone stream the “protect Roland” scenario, so I am familiar with the differences between each path.
Persuading characters requires you to have information that they don’t, and in the demo this is represented by Serenoa taking a walk around town to consult with the townsfolk before casting his own vote. Listening to your constituents? What a concept! In the Roland scenario you can learn tidbits such as the presence of a secret weapon in Serenoa’s fortress home, or the fact that the bounty out for Roland specifies that he is wanted alive, and then use those secrets as tools to persuade your allies. Each ally has different priorities and concerns and your conversation with them will involve multiple decision points, and the game does a good job of making it clear both how easy it will be to persuade a character as well as how successful you were in influencing them. I pretty well knew that Frederica wasn’t going to go along with me in my playthrough even though our conversation flipped her into “undecided;” it was clear from her dialogue that she really didn’t agree with my arguments. Some of the arguments I could make during the discussion remained locked even though I was pretty confident that I had spoken with all of the available characters in the town, which makes me think that some points may be locked to decisions you made in previous conversations.
While the game doesn’t give you any visual indication of where you fall on the scale, your choices push you in the direction of three broad themes: utility, morality, and liberty. It’s not 100% clear what all of these concepts represent or how they are interpreted – for example, protecting Prince Roland is the “moral” choice despite the fact that it ends in the destruction of half your village and puts the lives of innocent civilians in danger, which I personally would not consider to be a particularly moral path forward. At any rate, there are choices between these concepts outside of just the major decisions made with the Scales of Conviction. You are pushed slightly in one direction or another by dialogues you may have with party members or NPCs during exploration scenes, and I think that generally speaking your character probably has a “rating” in each of the three alignments which may lock dialogue options based on how much you lean in a particular direction. I can’t confirm that without an additional playthrough where I make different decisions, but it makes sense given the scale symbol that pops up whenever you make one of these otherwise meaningless dialogue choices.
Making a decision on the Scales of Conviction appears to have significant implications for at least one chapter, although it is difficult to tell in the demo how much future chapters are impacted by any given decision. In the demo, giving up Roland versus fighting to protect him leads to two totally different combat scenarios and also unlocks completely different bonus characters from side stories. The distinct combat situations impressed me – the battles don’t happen on the same map, involve the same opposition, or even utilize the same unique mechanics for each battlefield. They also don’t end in such a way where both paths lead to the same conclusion – Serenoa’s standing with his countrymen and the Aesfrosti are quite different depending on the path you choose, which makes it seem as though chapter VIII couldn’t possibly play out the same way regardless of your decision. However, I can’t say that for certain. Overall, your decision in chapter VII makes the rest of that chapter very unique in terms of story and combat.
Now decisions also lead to different characters that join your party, and for me this aspect was a little more hit and miss. It’s not that there was anything wrong with the characters themselves. Each path leads to a distinct character with a unique mechanical role not already present in your party. In my playthrough, I got a sorceress with the ability to control the weather. She ended up being quite useful on the subsequent map because the enemy relied a lot on launching fire arrows into combustible terrain, so I was able to use her rain ability to prevent that strategy from affecting me. The other path featured a support character who could give additional TP to his allies, making it easier for them to activate their more powerful abilities. It’s cool that these characters are different and, in the case of my path, appropriate to assist in facing the unique challenges that come with your decision. What disappointed me is that your decision has absolutely nothing to do with how these additional characters join you. Each one joins in a side conversation that could just as easily happen in the other choice branch. This makes the different characters who join you feel less like true allies who are moved by your decisions and instead like arbitrary rewards you get for choosing path A vs path B. I hope this doesn’t turn out to be the case in the full game, that most of the characters who join really could have only joined in the path you select, but the demo certainly makes it seem like the distinct characters for each path are strictly a mechanical incentive and have no meaningful connection to the story being told.
So then we come at last to my overall thoughts. Project Triangle Strategy has jumped towards the top of my list in terms of most anticipated games coming out in the future. I found the introductory story lackluster, the villains uncompelling, and the dialogue to take up an unwelcome portion of the demo. But the elements of Project Triangle Strategy that are unique – the ones from which the project currently draws its name – are really solid. There isn’t necessarily anything new or groundbreaking about the combat – elevation bonuses are in XCOM, enemy aggro lines are in Three Houses, spell environmental effect combos are in Divinity Original Sin, flanking bonuses are present for some unit types in Wargroove, and everything else feels like Final Fantasy tactics – but all of these elements from familiar titles come together to make a complex system with lots of factors to weigh together that really get you thinking. Each character’s set of unique abilities makes every unit feel distinct and learning to best take advantage of those skills feels satisfying. And I can see some serious replay value in making different decisions on the Scales of Conviction, building up a party of totally different characters to take on a unique set of maps depending on how you choose to proceed through the game. There’s definitely room to drop the ball – particularly where the Scales are concerned – but when the demo was over I found myself way more excited for this game than I was after first viewing the trailer. At the beginning of this article and in the article title I made fun of the name “Project Triangle Strategy.” The working title of the game may seem generic, but a title inspired by the story elements would actually be putting the focus on the most uninspired part of the experience. The setting and the villains are just an excuse to challenge you to make tough decisions on and off the battlefield. In that sense the name Project Triangle Strategy actually captures the parts of the game that make it promising. I look forward to learning more about the game and hope the final version further emphasizes what makes the game stand out.