I have this bad habit where I purchase any game with a passing resemblance to Final Fantasy: Tactics or Tactics Ogre. Sprites arranged on a grid? Bought. Isometric 3D Architecture? Bought. Houses, Lords, political intrigue? Bought, bought, bought.

The drawback to this approach, as you might expect, is few games tend to live up to those lofty lineages. They either lack some of the nuance and grit, or they apply their own spin on the formula and become something else entirely. For the record, the first result is just disappointing; the second is much preferable. They are often fun surprises, even if not quite what I anticipated.

While Triangle Strategy doesn’t quite live up to my unreasonable expectations narrative-wise, it does manage to preserve a level of difficulty and problem solving I feel is often absent from Tactics style clones. While I certainly have some gripes, especially where the narrative is concerned, I’ll be clear up front—Triangle Strategy is great and I highly recommend it.

Let’s start with a few reasons why.

Challenge And Player Expression

Triangle Strategy retains an appropriate amount of grit on its normal difficulty, where one or two careless moves results in disaster. With many similar games, it’s possible to power up one of your units so much they wipe a whole army out on their own. All the other units on the board are merely spectators to their glory.

Here, no amount of grinding gets your units to such a state. Number values stay low, meaning while you reap some benefits from level ups, your characters remain too fragile to take on a whole army. Even the tankier characters don’t have it in them to tackle multiple foes at once without risking death.

Positioning is essential. Any surrounded unit will eat follow up attacks from adjacent allies, which can happen multiple times in one turn. In addition to rewarding the player for purposeful placement, it also punishes poor positioning, as these rules hold true for your foes.

Likewise, spells have some very specific synergies too. Ice magic leaves spaces frozen, which slows down units passing through. Fire magic ignites oil or tall grass, and melts ice, leaving puddles behind which will make lightning spells strike the whole area.

With all these different moving pieces, team composition becomes essential. The cast of characters in Triangle Strategy all have a distinct identity informed by their history and place in the world, and the order you meet them in will vary based on the choices you make along the way. The more characters you meet, the more options at your disposal. Of special note is the blacksmith Jens who’s skills allow you to plant traps and build ladders, changing the way you traverse the landscape entirely.

While there’s certainly right and wrong answers in every encounter, this variation in character design provides plenty of options on how to assemble a team. Characters like Jens or the circus performer Picoletta allow you to forgo tanks, relying instead on trickery and traps to distract units. A combination of archers, the blacksmith, and mages might allow you to get to higher-than-normal spaces and attack from safety. Or, you could march into the enemy with multiple frontline units in an attempt to blitz down your foes.

Now, let’s say you don’t want any of this. Let’s say you want a tale of political intrigue and all this battle stuff is whatever. You’ve scrolled past all this fast as you could, and now your eyes have stopped here, startled I have called you out.

I have good news for you in particular. First off, when you lose a fight in Triangle Strategy, your units still retain any experience gained for the next attempt. If that’s not enough, don’t worry; there's also an easy mode. You will not be locked out of any story content for choosing easy, so go right ahead and plow through these events. Disrespect all the content I was here to enjoy while you watch the drama unfold between Hyzante, Glenbrook, and Aesfrost.

Speaking of which.

The Hard Decisions

In typical RPG fashion, Triangle Strategy has a number of binary decisions to make, ranging from innocuous to impactful. No matter what choice is on the table, Serenoa will bust out the “SCALES OF CONVICTION” and it's time for democracy.

We’ll get to the choices themselves in a moment, but I want to say a few words about the structure of these choices first. It’s quite common for games to offer up massive diversions in the narrative, but few force you to convince your allies which choice to make, and even less give them a vote. See, Serenoa himself does not get to make any decision unilaterally; instead, each of your allies casts a vote at the scales in favor of one path or another. It’s up to you to run around and whip the votes for your desired path.

While it’s possible to pull this off outright with straight dialogue (depending on Serenoa’s invisible conviction values, which you won’t be able to see until New Game+), you can also improve your chances with careful exploration. The right piece of information found in the world could sway your allies to your desired side.

But, most importantly, this is an excellent fusion of character and plot. Too often, games treat these as separate entities. Character's personal stories exist independent of the overall narrative, and one halts to advance the other. Triangle Strategy makes them one and the same, as your cast becomes the drivers of the plot itself.

If I have one gripe here, it's how your poor side characters have no role in these decisions, not even as tertiary observers or the peanut gallery. Aside from their self-contained personal stories the side recruits only have a handful of unique dialogue lines, most of which are secret interactions in very specific fights. (That said, if you’ve paid attention to their storylines, it's not too hard to figure out which battles they’ll have a personal stake in.)

It’s when we turn our attention towards the end of the narrative I have some complex feelings, and a warning.

Salt Must Flow

First, the good news—Triangle Strategy escalates at a reasonable and tense pace. The stakes are fairly low with your first decision, where Serenoa and Company decide which of the two neighboring nations to visit. As the game goes on, however, these choices have significant ramifications and consequences. The opening of Triangle Strategy advances at a slow pace, as the game opens in a time of tenuous peace. If you’re here for action, you’ll first have to spend quite a few chapters learning about the socio-economic climate first.

Once the power keg explodes, the choices Serenoa and Company make to stay alive become more and more difficult, and you feel the significance of those choices once battle breaks out. If the team suggests a particular path sounds risky, rest assured you will be retrying the battle down that route a handful of times.

There’s no way for me to discuss the bad news without some allusions to how the game concludes, but it must be said all the same. It is, perhaps, the worst part of Triangle Strategy, and it awaits you right at the end.

Except for one very specific set of choices, all of these tough decisions do not affect the conclusion. Instead, you will have to make one final vote which will drive you down one of three finales, regardless of what’s happened up to that point.

I will not mince words—in an otherwise great game, this sucks. Your choices ought to have greater impact than one of three pre-canned conclusions. It also does not help one character in particular arrives at an absolutely inane conclusion, one I would argue feels completely antithetical to the personal journey taken over the course of the game. I hate this more than anything else in Triangle Strategy. I will refrain from saying more, but if you play the game after reading this review, I am confident you will know of who I speak.

The warning is simply thus; be ready for that first ending to feel profoundly disappointing. With New Game+, you'll be able to breeze through new routes, recruit new characters, and most importantly, see a better ending.

The secret fourth route I’ve alluded to provides a more comprehensive conclusion, one that feels meaningful and earned. While I encourage at least one blind playthrough, I see no problem looking up the Golden Route once you hit game #2.

The Path Before Us is Clear

In the end, none of my qualms with Triangle Strategy tip the scales enough to deem it a poor (or even average) game. While it’s tragic the narrative couldn’t find a way to weave your choices together into more varied endings, you’re still in the company of a delightful cast of characters desperately trying to turn the wheel of fate, all trapped in a conflict set in motion long before they stepped on the world stage. It’s not quite an A+ narrative in terms of execution, but it’s compelling and tense enough for a political thriller.

The real success of Triangle Strategy lies on the battlefield. The strategic placement of your units, the choices in who to bring, and the interactions between all their abilities is addictive. Failure never felt completely demoralizing, because I always had new ideas for the next attempt. And likewise, new characters joining the party always felt impactful, because it meant a whole new tool kit to play with on the field.

Despite any negative feelings I may have about the story, I don’t want to undersell the other real success of Triangle Strategy. The narrative does an exceptional job reflecting your choices in both gameplay and character changes. In addition to all your choices determining the next fight, the cast interacts with one another on the field in meaningful bouts of banter and insults. They are all molded and altered by their experiences, responding to the gains and consequences in the wake of every choice. As the stakes climb it becomes harder and harder to stop playing, as House Wolffort bounces from one crisis to the next.

The makings are all there for Triangle Strategy to have been an incredible game, but as it stands, I have to settle for only “good”. The default endings are all disappointing in their own special ways, but even putting them aside, it’s more unfortunate a game so centered on making tough decisions only rewards one specific set of choices with a comprehensive ending, and no other. However, if what you want is a classic strategy game experience with some bite, Triangle Strategy will deliver.

And, if you decide to look up the "Golden Path" on the first go, I won't blame you. It'll be our secret.

Triangle Strategy is available on the Nintendo Switch.