Released earlier last year in Chinese, Azure Flame’s Banner of the Maiden is now on the receiving end of a snazzy new English localization along with a slew of other updates. The story is set in an alternative version of the French Revolution where a shadowy group plots behind the scenes and Maidens with mysterious powers take to the battlefields. Pauline Bonaparte (Sister of the famous Napoleon) is one such Maiden. The talented young Ecole Militaire graduate must find her place on the battlefield and discover the extent of her powers, all while fighting for the liberty of her homeland France and navigating the pitfalls of high society.
As a turn-based tactical RPG taking place during an epic time of war, I was hoping for a Final Fantasy Tactics-esque tale of grandiose scope. With its 2D isometric style of graphics, it certainly looks the part. Let me just ease your suspense now: the plot doesn’t even come close. Even discounting the odd grammatical errors and sometimes downright strange lines of dialogue, the plot is often lacking direction and feels all over the place. There are some great story events, but they are few and far in-between. Luckily the gameplay makes up for it, although it isn’t entirely without issue either.
When starting a new game there are three difficulty levels to choose from Story Mode, Officer Mode, and General Mode. Story Mode is the easiest of the three but doesn’t allow you to unlock the new game+ mode after completion. The biggest benefit to this mode is the special card you get to choose before each battle. These cards offer up a unique boon to give you a decent advantage over the enemy. These special effects can be anything, such as an increase in certain stats, or even extra attack range for all allied units. Officer Mode is better suited to casual players who want to enjoy challenging battles. Choosing this mode grants you a small starting bonus of funds and reputation, and allows you to save at any time in battle. General Mode grants you nothing while only allowing one save per battle, and penalizes you further whenever an ally is forced to retreat.
Banner of the Maiden can be challenging but not always fair. I found there to be some balancing issues that can provide unnecessary frustration because the game will sometimes force a new character on you that is seriously underpowered for the current battle. This is further aggravated by the way the game constantly saddles you with special loss conditions like “Game over if two allies die”, which is pretty lame considering healing is fairly limited and enemies can often take away half a unit’s HP with one attack. Aside from that, the battles can be fairly enjoyable and require strategic planning on your part. There is a Fire Emblem-like Rock Paper Scissors system in effect, where each class has a certain strength or weakness when matched against the other classes. Weapons and items have a limited number of uses attached to them during battle. Weapon durability replenishes after each battle, but items are gone forever once they are used up. There are also terrain and weather effects to also take into consideration when fighting. Rainy weather will douse the healing campfires around the battlefield while also costing twice the ammunition when firing bullet-based weapons. Allies gain morale as they attack and defeat enemies. Certain characters have a special command ability that can be activated at the cost of morale. Pauline, for example, can use Inspiration to grant allies an attack bonus for a limited time. Every character has access to a Heroic Attack that can be used once they gain enough morale to make the fleur de lys icon glow. These Heroic Attacks have better accuracy and damage while also earning you bonus experience when used.
There is a limited amount of character management and customization to be found in Banner of the Maiden. You can view and set up your roster at the Caserne in between missions. Reaching level 15 with a unit allows you to upgrade their class, assuming you have the appropriate medals required. Most of the units only have one option available, but certain characters like Pauline and her Fusillier class will have an alternative option (like the Grenadier or Grenadier Old Guard), provided you have cleared the special unit side quests needed to unlock it. You can equip each unit with an assortment of weapons, items, and accessories but the selection is also fairly limited thanks to a contrived gameplay mechanic that locks new store items behind a reputation system. You see, there are a variety of stores that you can visit when in-between missions and each store is tied to a unique faction, such as the Jacobins or the Royalists. They start off with the most basic weapons and items (The weapons that you already own) and slowly unlock better items as you raise your rep with them. The way to do this is through the Malmaison Salon. At the behest of her brother Napoleon, Pauline seeks out a woman named Josephine to help her in Paris. Josephine runs the Malmaison Salon, a place where you can take on side quests and later on, take part in free battles to help level up your troops. Problem is, it takes far too long to earn enough reputation levels to unlock decent equipment. I completed all the extra quests available and I still wasn’t able to purchase a new and better weapon until around 8 hours into the game. The pacing felt too slow to me. Personally, I enjoy it more when I have the chance to upgrade my gear regularly when playing an RPG, especially a lengthy one such as this. I found the skill system to be a bit meatier than the other customization options. Aside from their unique locked skill, each party member can equip up to five other skills. Most skills are passive in nature, granting a variety of benefits that can range from increasing stats, granting bonuses to nearby allies, or negating terrain effects. Once you unlock the Ecole Militaire later on, you’ll be able to teach your party skills from a list (mostly) unique to each character.
The real stars of the show (and a real treat to pixel connoisseurs) are the graphics and soundtrack. The musical style leans more towards string-heavy orchestral arrangements ranging from rousing battle tunes to melancholic melodies. What I really enjoyed though are the graphics. I love me some nice pixelated graphics and Banner of the Maid delivers a crisp and vivid pixel massage that would bring tears of joy to any retro gamer’s eyeballs. The isometric point of view along with the smooth and colorful pixel graphics are reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics, which in my completely biased opinion is a good thing. Be prepared to sink 35+ hours in if you want to see this bad boy through to completion. If you want a meaty, strategic RPG gameplay experience and don’t mind a less than stellar plot, then head on over to Steam and grab a copy, else wait for the upcoming Switch version!
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 7.5/10
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