Triangle Strategy starts slowly. Pressing “New Game” leads to a series of unappealing events. You’re introduced to your character, Serenoa Wolffort, and his extremely boring retainers and fiancee. You’re given a bunch of narration about the recent history of a fantasy land whose most interesting characteristic is that there isn’t much naturally occurring salt. There’s cutscene after cutscene, introducing character after character with almost no context. You barely have to actually do anything, with the exception of a simple intro battle – and that battle system lacks an obvious hook. It’s awkward and frustrating with very little other than the marvelous pixel art to keep it motivating. But despite an unappealing start, over the course of its 40-plus hours that slowness becomes a virtue, growing into one of the most effective and entertaining examples of the tactical RPG form.Don’t worry – this is not one of those “it gets amazing after the first two dozen terrible hours” kinds of JRPGs. Almost every part of that frustrating start fades away, some problems almost immediately, revealing a game whose slow confidence is a virtue. The mundanity of the setting turns into a tense, extremely human political drama. The overwhelming number of characters provides fertile ground for intrigue, as seemingly major characters can be dispatched once the story gets violent, while minor characters step up. It slowly reveals a system where expressing beliefs, gathering information, and understanding character relationships all become important. Combat never becomes overly complex, yet somehow always feels perfectly tuned. And the main character….well, the main character just always makes Jon Snow look exciting by comparison. Sorry about that.The initial impressive standout for Triangle Strategy is its two-dimensional character pixel art that exists in a flexible three-dimensional world. It’s the hallmark of Tomoya Asano, who also worked as a producer on the similarly impressive Octopath Traveler. Being able to zoom in and out and swirl the camera around or tilt from an isometric to a top-down view, all while looking consistent and clear, is a tremendous achievement. It looks good on both TV mode and handheld on the Switch, although I ended up preferring the latter slightly because the characters really popped on the small screen. Likewise, (and also extremely importantly for a word- and number-heavy RPG) I was able to easily read all the text fairly easily both on the Switch itself and on a relatively small television.Game of TrianglesIt’s important to start with the plot and setting, because this is a story-heavy game. Magic exists on the continent of Norzelia, but here it’s a tool and weapon more than a world-defining power. Instead, the characters do battle over resources and political authority. The three competing states have vied for control of salt and iron, but a new joint mining project serves as a symbol of peace. Needless to say, things go badly, and everyone starts fighting once again.It’s refreshing to play a game focused on human political machinations.“The grounded human story of resources and ambition may not sound exciting, but in a genre that’s usually filled with mad mages or ancient gods threatening to destroy their respective worlds, it’s refreshing to play a game focused on human political machinations. One of my favorite characters was introduced as powerful but sympathetic, then was ordered to war in which they killed off some major good guys, but then they slowly started their path down a redemption arc as they realized just how far they’d gone into the brutality. It would be easy, but not unfair, to compare Triangle Strategy to Game of Thrones in many ways.One the other hand, the four main characters of Triangle Strategy suffer because they are too similarly boring. The young Lord Serenoa, his betrothed Frederica, his advisor Benedict, and his best friend Prince Roland and most other party members are kind, responsible, and excruciatingly, painfully, polite at all times. They don’t seem to have any baser instincts and they never swear, lose their temper, express desire, or anything that might seem fun. There are even flashbacks for some of the older characters showing their rowdy youth, and the extent of them is that they sometimes raced in order to see who could follow orders the most efficiently. How rebellious! In a genre filled with flamboyant and memorable characters in games like Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy, or Persona, it’s almost shocking to have a set of main characters be so aggressively dull.It’s almost shocking to have a set of main characters be so aggressively dull.“Yet even this character weakness is mitigated by some of Triangle Strategy’s other strengths. First, the plot they participate in ends up stressing them out enough that a personality starts to show through, even if it is still universally positive and responsible – like Frederica’s intense need for justice or Roland’s love for his family. Bigger than that is the Scales of Conviction system, where whenever House Wolffort faces a major choice, instead of asking us to simply make it through Serenoa, the seven main party members all discuss and vote on it. The votes are binding and can go against your wishes, and as time goes on, they take on more and more importance to both the future of the characters and Norzelia. The higher stakes make the differences in character motivations stand out more, even if they remain – again – excruciatingly polite and rational throughout.Triangle Strategy GalleryThere are a few ways to affect the votes. Some small exploration phases allow you to gather information that might prove useful; the knowledge that the Wolffort village is riddled with traps could make inviting an invasion seem more palatable, for instance. Second, dialogue options that match a character’s impulses can help: knowing that Benedict is pragmatic means those options are most likely to sway him, while Roland is more focused on loyalty. Finally, based on other choices in dialogue, Sereoa has “Convictions” in Utility, Morality, and Liberty stats that can help strengthen his arguments. In one campaign I had generally focused on being kind and honest, which led to difficulties when I wanted to make a choice of whether to play along with a corrupt offer while my retainers all voted to be honest and expose the corruption immediately.In one campaign I had focused on being kind and honest, which led to difficulties.“The voting and Conviction systems end up being very clever ways to manifest your choices. All the little dialogue decisions you make (and even some actions taken in combat) end up combining to both subtly lead Serenoa down particular paths, and unlock side characters and flashbacks for them. That scrupulous honesty, for example, helped me acquire the honest anti-corruption support character Julio, who proved invaluable in the late game as someone who could keep my mages casting spells with no breaks. On the downside, the Conviction system is masked for the entire first playthrough, which did lead me to some confusion over whether I was supposed to know what was happening or not. (Relaxing and letting the campaign happen as it happens proved to be one of the better ways to play.) The choice system is also deployed well in some crucial ways. For example, one of the seemingly minor setting traits of Triangle Strategy is that it includes an oppressed people called the Roselle, whose historical and religious oppression seemed directly inspired by the history of the Jewish people in a way that was so direct as to feel awkward (real history of real oppressed people being given a slight fantastical mask can lead down some strange and unpleasant paths). But Triangle Strategy consistently gave me the opportunity to take action to make life better for the Roselle when they became relevant. That oppression wasn’t mere window dressing to make the world seem darker and more realistic, but instead some created a storytelling opportunity. I still think the Roselle are a little weird, especially the physical trait of pink hair, but they were definitely handled a lot better than I’d feared. The Top 25 Switch Games (Winter 2021 Update)The quiet confidence of Triangle Strategy is even more apparent in the combat system, which initially felt like a perfectly generic tactical RPG. But as the campaign went on it increasingly impressed me with some of the best level design and difficulty tuning I’ve ever seen in a tactics game.It increasingly impressed me with some of the best level design and difficulty tuning I’ve ever seen in a tactics game.“The combat form is similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem: you have a party of eight to 12 characters that you move around a tile-based map in turn. Each character has different skills and stats: Benedict is a supporting class who can use skills that make your characters stronger, tougher, or faster, but does little damage on his own; Roland is a fast-moving cavalryman who can do a lot of damage but doesn’t last long if he gets isolated. It’s a very traditional form, and one that’s stood the test of time because it’s an effective way to provide strategic challenges for players while combined with character distinctions and personality shown through actions.There are small tactical considerations built into the Triangle Strategy system: some enemies take more damage against certain spell types, while taking advantage of the terrain and attacking from higher ground or hitting enemies from behind can do more damage. But these are small features and don’t add up to, for example, a combo system like that in Disgaea, where the goal is to create the biggest exploits you possibly can. In Triangle Strategy, the progression system doesn’t allow for creating superpowered characters like those in Final Fantasy Tactics. Nor is there anything like Fire Emblem’s friendship system to encourage combat choices beyond simply “do the most damage.”Instead, Triangle Strategy has simpler, quieter progression. Characters get slightly but noticeably stronger in ways that allow some temporary advantages, but then tougher enemies also pick up their own strengths. And while you can’t completely reshape your characters, there are enough items and progression choices via weapon upgrades that can tweak them in important ways. As I noticed that Erador, the main heavy infantry character, was starting to take massive magic damage, I upgraded his magic defense and so that he was able to stand my ground more. Meanwhile, every time I thought I found a major advantage – like picking up the powerful archer Archibald – I watched as the enemy forces got strong enough that what I had previously thought was being overpowered became simply another useful strategy.The tactics genre is one where balancing difficulty is essential, and that’s proven demonstrably tough to do. As much as I love both XCOM 2 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, figuring out what difficulty level I actually want for a consistent challenge was a major frustration for me in both cases. So it’s extremely high praise when I say that Triangle Strategy, on the default Normal setting, provided me with exactly the level of difficulty I wanted at almost every turn. When I got stuck on those harder fights, there were interesting and worthwhile optional battles I could engage in to level up a bit, or else I could just experiment with changing my characters’ formation and roster. “Ah, so if I used the ice mage here, and set my party up on the left instead of meeting the enemy head on, I can survive longer” are the exact sorts of tactical decisions that I hope to make in games like this.What’s more, the combat system manages to apply that consistent difficulty across multiple level types due to varied and clever level design. In one late-game battle, I was faced with a powerful enemy force headed directly at me – an all-against-all scrum of the sort that tactics games rarely actually try to pull off. I succeeded by loading up on archers and getting them in flanking positions in order to burn down as many enemies as possible, keeping the numbers my melee characters had to deal with manageable. This came right after a battle in a mine, where several mine carts allowed fast movement around the map. That was the complete opposite structure: a series of small group battles where I worked to quickly shuffle support characters around in order to get small advantages that added up to a win.Pixelated GreatnessTriangle Strategy also rises to the occasion whenever a major plot battle occurs, both in combat design and also aesthetically. The music – which is so important in this genre – is generally perfectly fine, but in some of the big battle themes it goes above and beyond, particularly with one tune that gives off a spaghetti western vibe. There’s also some unique character dialogue that happens during these fights, which is especially useful because the villains tend to carry the campaign in terms of personality.