Banner of the Maid Review
The strategy role-playing genre had its genesis in Japan, nearly forty years ago, and it is from there that came many of its hallmarks: Final Fantasy Tactics, the Fire Emblem series, Tactics Ogre, just to name a few. We must travel nearly two thousand kilometers over the Pacific Ocean and into sprawling Shanghai to get to Banner of the Maid, a game that borrows heavily from its predecessors—but how well does it stack up against them?
Set in a period when the fires of revolution swept through France and the decadent Ancien Régime went through its final death throes, Banner of the Maid posits the following question: what if the monarchy prevailed? Early events in the game show us a tenuous, internal peace, where Jacobins and Royalists vie for influence while France batters the rest of Europe. It is a fitting setting for the SRPG genre that has been almost entirely neglected up until now, and Banner of the Maid’s slightly altered version of the period is a joy to go through.
Fending against most of the continent and navigating the inner politics of France were interesting ways to interact with famous historical figures: from Napoleon and his famed commanders, such as Joachim Murat and General Desaix, to Robespierre and the Queen of France herself, many characters of the period are brought to life in the game’s characteristic anime style. Sometimes, the presentation can be a bit heavy-handed: interesting tidbits or facts about these figures are explicitly presented or mentioned in dialogue, as if to demonstrate the developers did their research, and the game’s writing would’ve benefited from a bit more of showing instead of telling.
He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat
On the battlefield, Banner of the Maid never strays too far from its inspiration: combat takes place on a grid, with different terrain types and obstacles, and there’s a sort of rock, paper, scissors advantage system between the different units. Heavy infantry is good against light infantry, which is good against heavy cavalry, which is good against light cavalry, which is good against heavy infantry—there are also supporting unit types, such as artillery and military bands. It’s a tried and tested idea that’s worked well for strategy game for decades, and that’s true here as well. Different units also have unique perks and skills, such as the ability to move unhindered through any terrain or deal more damage from the enemy’s flanks, allowing you to tailor your army in multiple ways.
Attributes can be gained through leveling up, skills, certain consumables and equipping accessories, and they’re what define how your character does on the battlefield: speed advantages allow you to attack twice, while a greater Attack stat will raise your damage. It’s straightforward and the enemies play by the same rules you do, so the match-ups seldom felt unfair.
Unfortunately, some of the genre’s issues are also present: some characters seem fated to become useless as the game progresses (I’m looking at you, D’Eon), either because of poor balancing or due to reduced gains during leveling. Some unit types are also flat-out better than others, encouraging you to stack them in your army regardless of enemy composition, which in part defeats the purpose of the advantage system. By the middle of the game I had heavy infantry characters that could mow down as many enemies as they were attacked by in a turn, while others would struggle to live if they got attacked twice in a round.
The game manages to dance around these issues, somewhat, by giving the missions performance-based objectives, and there are many of them: completing something in X rounds; with a specific character not taking damage; by figuring out how to loot something behind a locked door; and so on. These force you to choose units that have perks and skills that go beyond their direct combat prowess, such as increased movement or attack range. As you level up and change classes, these perks get even more exclusive and really make each class feel unique. There are also plenty of secret objectives that grant you rare items and even recruits, rewarding those who poke around and explore the game’s levels.
Outside of combat, there are a few systems for you to juggle, the most important of them being reputation. There are multiple factions in the game with which you can talk and do quests for; garnering their favor improves their respective map locations (the Feuillants, for instance, give you access to new skills and combat advice). While there are choices to make that will curry the favor of one faction over the other, you can still progress all of them relatively unhindered. Something more restrictive, that forces you to pick sides (and all associated benefits and drawbacks), would’ve been more interesting, and there’s a bit of historical dissonance in being best buds with both the king and Robespierre.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
I’ll refrain from going too much into the obvious, but there’s no denying the elephant in the room. Banner of the Maid has an artstyle that features some controversial design choices, particularly concerning the game’s women and their clothing. Despite my initial reticence, this issue is mostly superficial: there aren’t any fanservicey interactions or lines, and it never bothered me too much beyond my first impression.
The rest is all quite well done. The backgrounds and environments are evocative of 18th century France, and I specially liked the pixel art displayed during battle. Each character is nicely rendered and the animations are all rich in movement and detail. In battle, whenever you engage an enemy the perspective changes to show your squadron firing or charging the other (something I ignored entirely after the first couple hours to make battles quicker, but was fun to see nonetheless). The soundtrack is nothing to write home about: the classical tunes set the mood just fine, but they suffer from being repetitive and not looping smoothly. There are themes in other SRPGS that I’ll always remember, such as Final Fantasy Tactics’ Formation Theme, but this isn’t the case for Banner of the Maid.
There are also some noticeable issues with the UI and presentation. Equipping an item or accessory is a needlessly slow task, requiring you to go to a specific location in Paris and then sift through multiple menu prompts just to reach your desired option. Minor translation mistakes are frequent and even though they didn’t harm my understanding of the game and its conversations, they did blemish the game’s overall great polish. And while it wasn’t an issue to me, people who have been spoiled by the USA-centric gaming industry might be bothered by the Chinese voice-overs for in-battle lines (even if it makes about as much sense as English voice-overs, considering the setting…).
Since this is a review of the console version (specifically the Switch), it’s worth noting that the port is flawless. The framerate is smooth and the loading times are minimal, and not once in my thirty or so hours of gameplay did I crash or encounter a bug. The game fits perfectly in the handheld mode, often feeling more at home there than docked and displaying on my TV. Because pre-release screenshots are blocked on the Switch, the pictures used in this review were taken from the PC version.
It stacks up quite well, actually
When all’s said and done, there’s a lot in Banner of the Maid to like, specially for fans of the SRPG genre. There are some faults, sure, and the story never quite reaches the heights you’d expect from something based on such a rich period, but these pale when compared to the polished battle systems and the attention to detail that went into its many other systems. I’d never realized how SRPGs make for a great vehicle to depict these historical events and settings, and I certainly hope to see more games like Banner of the Maid in the future.
You can find Banner of the Maid on Steam here.
You can also find it on the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and PS4’s digital stores.