Review by Matt S.
Ever since childhood, I’ve had a fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte. It started with a board game called War and Peace, which my parents owned, and I discovered while young. That game was far too complex for me at the time (it really is a hardcore war strategy game), but I nonetheless loved the aesthetics of the map, the little cardboard pieces, and the stories of battles that were shared through the instruction manual.
After that, I started reading up about Napoleon. I started to collect and paint miniatures that were used for tabletop wargames. I found the colours and designs of the uniforms of the time fascinating, and the strategic might of Napoleon to be oh-so-impressive. As I grew older I became just as fascinated in the revolutionary social and political environment that led to Napoleon taking power, and which informed many of his military actions thereafter.
And, of course, I was interested in the video games that were based on Napoleon’s campaigns. Most people reading this won’t be familiar with the likes of Fields of Glory from 1993, or Napoleon 1813 from 1999, but some of you may have played the Napoleon Total War game. It’s a good one. Unfortunately, we don’t get that many games based on this rich period of military history, and that’s part of the reason that I was so interested in Banner of the Maid, which brings anime fan service and Final Fantasy Tactics-like action to Napoleon. Sadly, the developer and publisher missed the mark with the localisation, and that really lets it down.
Banner of the Maid doesn’t star Napoleon. He shows up, but rather, the game is about the fictional antics of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline, who fights in and around the action that her famous brother gets up to. Pauline was a real person, and an important one at that, though she was not a general. Creating a fictional story that sits right up against the real history, but separate to it, is an inspired idea, as it allows the developers to use the history as the backdrop, while not being beholden to engage with the less pleasant parts of what was a pretty unpleasant time in history. You’ll get to meet all the names that you’ll recognise from the textbooks, but liberated from the need for historical accuracy, most of them have been reduced to fun caricatures of their real-life personas.
Furthermore, by shifting the narrative away from the real history, the developers were able to take liberties where it suited them in terms of character design. For example, boobs. There are so many boobs in Banner of the Maid, and most of them are huge. For those characters that aren’t lugging massive, uncovered boobs into war, they are instead gifted with incredible legs and the shortest of short skirts. Now, French fashion has always been daring, but even in comparison to Koei Tecmo’s love of fanservicing up historical figures, Banner of the Maid takes it to another level entirely. Given how beautifully everything is drawn, however, it’s surprisingly hard to begrudge the developers this aesthetic direction. I’ve played many games where the oppai is grotesque to the point of being unpleasant. In Banner of the Maid it’s – dare I say – classy.
At first I thought this game would be one of those gender swapping deals, where the male characters from history are all turned into women, and Napoleon would be simply replaced by Pauline. This isn’t the case, as it turns out, and there are plenty of male characters too (though they’re rather overdressed, if the women’s battle wear is anything to go by). It’s just that the developers went through the history books and brought in as many women as possible, giving them important roles in battle and the narrative. I really enjoyed and appreciated that.
What I didn’t enjoy was the localisation. It’s one of those quick, cheap jobs that gets things right enough that you’re able to follow along with the plot, but reads like it was translated by someone without a native grasp of English, and as a consequence it is so clunky and awkward most of the time. Here’s some classic lines from just the first couple of hours of play, at which point I’d stopped paying attention to the story and therefore stopped taking screenshots of every moment of dialogue that unintentionally drew my ire:
“Hahaha, except Mademoiselle Joséphine, you are the one he talked most. However, the “fits this military uniform” part is my own opinion.”
“Bonaparte, it’s turning into a prolonged battle. The power of our artillery will be limited If (sic) we are held off till the nighttime.”
“For France at this moment, betrayal is a delicacy in which friends inside and outside Paris are all eagerly waiting to take their bite.”
“Speaking of which, the guillotines used now were also improved according to His Majesty’s suggestions a few years ago.”
As I said, it’s easy enough to understand the intent of these lines, and therefore interpret and follow along with the overall story. The localisation isn’t as broken as some games that are truly unplayable for it. However, people don’t think, talk, or otherwise communicate like they do in Banner of the Maid. The laboured and unnatural writing ends up stripping all personality from the characters, and the overall story comes across as far more clumsy than it should have. There are sections of Banner of the Maid that are lengthy to the point of being almost visual novel-like in tone, and for a game with such a focus on narrative, set against the backdrop of such a fascinating period of history, the deeply lacking narrative experience is just not acceptable.
As a tactics RPG, Banner of the Maid really works, and anyone who loves Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, or Fire Emblem will get a real kick out of this one. It has a familiar “rock, papers, scissors” approach to melee combat, and there are also plenty of support units, from healers to artillery, to mix the strategy up more. Battlefields often include interesting quirks, like high-risk, high-reward shortcuts, and plenty of unique conditions for victory to contend with. Characters unlock new job types and special abilities as they level up, and every time units fight, you get a little cut scene as adorably chibi soldiers, in the highly decorative uniforms of the time, fire muskets or charge horses at one another.
There’s plenty to do outside of combat too, including managing the relationship you have with a wide number of factions. As mentioned, Banner of the Maid almost veers into visual novel territory at times, and you’ll frequently need to make decisions that will amuse (or disappoint) these factions, which can have far ranging impacts in the resources you can access and how the story plays out. It’s a long game, too, with thirty-odd chapters and plenty of side quests and stories within it. Banner of the Maid is the real deal, and in almost every way one of the most comprehensive and attractive tactics RPGs that we’ve seen in quite some time.
If only that localisation didn’t put a dampener on everything by making a full half of the game, and, critically, the context that gives the action purpose, so irritating to sit through. Please, developers. It’s fine to have a broken English port for a game where the narrative isn’t relevant, but when we’re talking about RPGs, make the investment and hire a premium localisation outfit. It will lift your game, significantly. There are, apparently, console versions of Banner of the Maid set to come later. I hope on feedback the team does get a new localisation done, because fixing that issue will add a couple of stars to the score, effortlessly. Everything else about it is truly wonderful.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb