A turn-based strategy game about the French Revolution developed by a Chinese video game studio might seem like a wild combo on paper, but then we’ve seen a game come out this year that’s steeped in authentic Japanese samurai culture developed by a studio in Bellevue, Washington. It’s obvious that the geographical location of a game company doesn’t automatically dictate the kinds of stories they can or can’t successfully tell. Indeed, it’s obvious from my time with Banner of the Maid that Azure Flame Studio has the utmost respect and for detail when it comes to the content they cover in this alternate version of the French Revolution. For as passionate as the team is about the subject matter of the game, though, many elements of the overall package still end up floundering.
Set in the 1790s, Banner of the Maid proposes an alternative version of the very real French Revolution with some very not-real elements mixed in. Your protagonist, for example, is Pauline, the real-life sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, but in this game she’s the rising star of the French army and leads its armies into battle while mingling with political powerhouses to turn the war around and grow stronger. Even though it takes plenty of liberties with the events of the actual French Revolution, Banner of the Maid still expects you to be at least vaguely familiar with the important parties and people involved in the war. A lack of knowledge of the original events will likely lead to a few story scenes flying over your head.
What’s even more likely to make you lose the plot, though, is the awkward and stiff English translation. Half of the sentences in the story contain some kind of grammar error or awkwardly unfitting turn of phrase, like King Louis XVI starting his sentences with “Anyway…uh….” The other half of the dialogue in the game simply lacks the natural flow of human conversation. Characters spout contextless replies to nonexistent questions or mix old-timey speech patterns with modern English. The narrative is already dense, but with these poorly written scenes my eyes often glazed over as I tried to follow what was going on. It’s a shame because there are some interesting characters in the game. Pauline’s character arc of a nervous yet naturally talented army general is so intriguing, but it’s ruined by the headache-inducing localisation.
As much as the writing in the game may have suffered in the localisation process, the art of Banner of the Maid helps add some much needed style to the overall package. Every character illustration in the game is jam-packed with detail and sharp rendering my favourite part being just how varied these character portraits are. You have a few sparkling anime boys in there, coming alongside some stylised yet realistic renderings of major historical figures like Napoleon. Most of the character art in the game, though, is of leading ladies with sharp, varied designs. OK, so many of them do end up having their breasts practically spilling out of their clothes, which might be a distraction or turn-off for some. Still, as much as I didn’t expect Marie Antoinette to be one inch away from a wardrobe malfunction at all times, the way she and the rest of the cast are illustrated is gorgeous.
When you aren’t scrambling through hard-to-follow story scenes, you’ll be tossed into grid-based tactical battles pitting your ragtag group against daunting enemy armies. Like other tactical RPGs, Banner of the Maid employs a rock-paper-scissors style class system that you’ll need to be aware of at all times if you want to be victorious. Heavy Infantry beats Light Infantry, Light Infantry beats Light Cavalry, Light Cavalry beats Heavy Cavalry, and Heavy Cavalry beats Heavy Infantry. There are three different difficulty options in the game, but even on the standard difficulty, you can be wiped out quickly if you aren’t staying aware of incoming attacks and potential retaliations. You can recover from or prevent nasty enemy attacks with the healing abilities of Drummers or the long-distance attacks of the Artillery, though.
The basic tactical combat is satisfying, but the experience is often hampered by the frustrating mission design of the game. So many encounters will have you ambushed by unexpected reinforcements that are a pain to overcome, while other missions present hyper-specific defeat conditions that are often more of a headache to overcome than a satisfying challenge.
The character growth and customization systems included in the game are similarly flawed. Units can upgrade or change classes once they eventually reach level 15, but only have one option for a potential class change. You can also equip new weapons, items, and accessories on your characters, but good luck finding any worth investing in. To unlock worthwhile items, you’ll need to raise your favour with the various factions in the game by doing missions for them, slowly expanding the wares available in each of the faction-specific stores in the game. It can be close to eight hours before you’re even able to replace your default starting weapons, making the grind for new equipment tedious and mind-numbing.