"Gorgeous art, fun scenario design, and an arsenal of quality of life features are among Banner of the Maid's boons."
Banner of the Maid takes place during one of the most tumultuous and influential periods in human history: the French Revolution. The game opens in 1791 with the infamous Flight to Varennes: a historical event in which the king and queen unsuccessfully tried to flee the country in the dead of night. You're given a brief introduction to combat, setting, and tone through a series of cutscenes and short battles that would feel right at home in Final Fantasy Tactics. Shortly after the royal family is taken into custody, the queen displays an odd power that causes ripples throughout history. After skipping ahead to 1796, you can see just where the game starts to split off from the historical accounts we know so well.
While the anger of France's citizens burns brightly, the king and queen have somehow managed to keep their heads long past their historical execution dates. With an extended lease on life and a desire to save France from turmoil, Queen Marie Antoinette begins working to find the fabled Maids of France: women of great power with mysterious abilities who fight to defend the motherland. She puts her plan into motion by changing the military structure to encourage young women to enlist, progress through their military careers in service of the crown, and eventually expose their powers to the queen.
This is where we meet our heroine. The younger sister of the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte, Pauline Bonaparte is a bright-eyed young woman with a strong sense of justice. She's a commander who has shown exceptional military prowess on the battlefield, though she often questions her own actions. While her brother is off fighting on distant fronts, she wields a musket and blade to defend her homeland against foreign invaders. Pauline has a unique power to inspire others, making her known as the Maid of Toulon. Her power is said to have been used by the Maid of Orleans, Jeanne d'Arc, who waved the same banner as Pauline centuries prior — hence the title Banner of the Maid.
At Pauline's side is a grand cast of characters, some of whom are noted historical figures such as Jean Lannes, Joachim Murat, Louis Desaix, and Chevalier d'Éon. There are also many original characters, though they'd be difficult to pick out given how well they're integrated into the story. Everytime I met a new ally, I found myself searching online to find if they were part of a historical event, a simple reference to a character in a play, or perhaps merely influenced by a name found in a letter. Outside of combat, famous historical figures who were pivotal in the revolution such as Lafayette, Robespierre, Mirabeau, and Jacques Hubert act as supporting characters, allies, and even enemies.
As a tactical RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, and Tactics Ogre, Banner of the Maid's battles unfold in phases along a grid spread across large maps. You control one unit at a time, moving them as far as their stats allow, and you engage enemies at the distance your weapon and class dictates. Set in the late 1700s, war is fought with a mixture of swords, muskets, rifles, and artillery cannons. While each character falls into a general class, there are notable personal abilities and traits that can make two units in the same class play quite differently.
Character abilities and classes tie remarkably well into the characters' own personalities. One of my favorite moments early on was hearing about an artillery unit that was supposed to join an upcoming battle, and yet they were nowhere to be found. A few turns in the next battle, however, the aforementioned artillery unit came stumbling in. Thus, I met Paulette: a drunkard who seeks fortune, craves fame, and hates to do any real work, hence why she's an artillery commander. She showed up to battle already boozed up, equipped with only a wine bottle. She neglected to bring her cannonballs, so she instead followed behind the enemy and grabbed whatever she could find. This allowed her to rain fiery hell on our enemies from behind, hiccuping all the way. I couldn't help but laugh after it was over, and she quickly became a favorite character of mine who brought some much-needed levity to the game.
The characters have a lot of personality on the field and in event scenes. Their personas are also expressed in the art direction. The portraits for each character are gorgeously detailed and expressive. The designs themselves are evocative of French military garb mixed with French fashion of the time, albeit certainly exaggerated. Character designs translate quite well into pixel art sprites and animations. Paulette tosses coins as she walks along, d'Éon rubs his chin in thought, and Pauline keeps her hand upon her saber's hilt as she strides forward on guard.
The sprites are vivid and well animated, and this shows throughout every instance of combat. When you engage a unit on the battlefield, you're transitioned to a battle screen in which two sides face off against one another. While characters themselves don't clash with their opponents, troops under their command do. This style is more reminiscent of Advance Wars than, say, Fire Emblem. In battle, smoke pours from rifles, soldiers deftly dodge, and hoofprints litter mud and snow following cavalry charges. These small animation touches help add a lot of character to these sprites.
On the battlefield, terrain can affect combat to a significant degree. Tall grass adds to your dodge chance, sandbags can slow movement but increase defense, and mud can impede your progress as you trek across fields. Some units excel at certain types of terrain, while others can ignore negative effects completely and still bask in positive effects. On top of utilizing terrain to your advantage, weather effects can also be strategically used to cover an approach or counter an enemy ambush.
While the majority of the game is spent in battle, the varied scenario design in each chapter helps to keep the experience fresh. In one chapter, you're charging a commander within six turns, while in another you're navigating a dark and dreary sewer with little light. You'll find yourself searching the Louvre for spies, conversing with the queen at a banquet while your army defends the castle, or even trudging through snow across frozen lakes. Every map is expertly detailed and has an element of environmental storytelling. Something as simple as a soldier's hat upon the ground or an abandoned and ramshackle house with holes in the wall tells enough of a tale to make one curious yet faintly cognizant of your current battlefield's history.
While every chapter felt unique and well designed, some of the battles took over an hour as I gunned down two, three, or even four dozen enemies. I can't help but feel as if the developer's answer to making battles feel larger was to simply add more enemies in the later chapters. In each chapter, there's one story battle. After finishing a few, you unlock side quests, which can take just as long to complete. While I appreciate the idea of grand and epic battles, there are better ways to evoke this feeling than throwing more and more bodies in the player's path. In addition to dealing with the numerous enemies before you, you have to keep an eye on the battlefield and think about places where reinforcements might show up. If there's an oddly empty path to the west, you may want to keep a couple troops over there and see what happens. Between dozens of enemies, rampant reinforcements, and large maps, battles can take a lot longer than expected.
In these longer chapters, it's recommended to keep multiple fresh saves on hand. Unless you're playing on harder difficulties, you can save as many times as you wish, though there is a 12-slot limit overall. There's also a fairly generous autosave each turn, so you're able to roll back to a previous save should you encounter unexpected reinforcements or make an unwanted move. You'll want to get used to saving and loading, as those reinforcements arrive quite often. I found myself reloading quite a bit due to being overwhelmed by enemies, losing a key support unit, or just being woefully unaware I was going to get pincer attacked as I approached a position.
As someone with an interest in the French Revolution, I found Banner of the Maid's story appealing from the start. I cared about the fate of characters I'd read so much about, I wondered just how far off historical record the story was going to go, and I became surprised as the plot wound its way through a mixture of its own tale rife with political intrigue and royal drama. While I was drawn in by the concept, those with little or no interest in the French Revolution will find the story doesn't stand on its own without the historical source material.
With a plot buried in political intrigue, affairs of the crown, and tales from the battlefield, Banner of the Maid is tripped up by its own localization. Originally released in May of 2019, the game received an English translation nearly a year later. While the translation is generally serviceable, it's distractingly stiff. Sentences lack brevity and personality in many occasions, leading to stilted, awkward, and unnatural dialogue. There are also some noted character name errors, and it's clear that different teams translated different parts of the game. Pauline is referred to as Paulina in sidequests alongside Laure being called Luo. While they're small errors, they're certainly noticeable. The presentation is good overall, but there are a few scuffs and black marks that are most apparent in dialogue.
Banner of the Maid's soundtrack is laden with classically influenced compositions that feel thematically appropriate. Horns blare while units are promoted, strings glide along as you peruse inventories at the royal palace, and snare drum beats rattle around as you charge into battle. The battle themes are largely forgettable trumpet and drum lines, while the music in the city has an aristocratic flair to it. It's serviceable, but I can't recall much of the soundtrack. Conversely, the opening theme song that plays on the title screen stuck in my mind days after completing the game. It's a sweeping and grand affair that feels both inspired and confident.
Banner of the Maid is an ambitious tactical RPG with a lot of great ideas on the table. It's beautiful and challenging, though it stumbles a bit along the way. Battles become a chore toward the end of the game, the localization is often stiff and lacks personality, and tutorialization and onboarding could use some work, as I learned a dozen hours later I was using skirmishers completely wrong. Despite its faults, the game offers an enjoyable, unique, and intriguing take on the French Revolution mixed with some light mysticism across 35 to 40 hours. Gorgeous art, fun scenario design, and an arsenal of quality of life features are among Banner of the Maid's boons. RPG fans with an interest in one of the most influential periods of history should give Banner of the Maid a look, as it is an inspired and twisting alternate take on late 18th-century France.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.