Content considerations: Depiction of a political coup, violence, and death.
What’s it about? After a violent uprising ends in the death of the king, Princess Mariel flees the capital with the knight Maurice. Disguised as the commoner boy “Marius,” she goes to live with Maurice’s nephew Alfred, the young Lord of Albert whose father died to ensure Mariel could escape. As the two work through their grief, they vow to grow stronger together and protect Albert from the encroaching Camellian forces.
We try not to date our reviews too much, but I don’t have the energy to pretend I’m writing this in a vacuum. I watched (and mostly enjoyed) Hortensia Saga during my lunch break today, and as soon as I was done I learned that pro-Trump seditionists had stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to forcibly overthrow the election results.
Now it’s a few hours later and I’m trying to write a review about a cartoon as if it matters. But, what the hell, I could use a break from doomscrolling, and maybe this will actually do a little good by giving readers an escape from the news for a few minutes.
That said… Boy, Hortensia’s opening coup sure does hit a lot differently this evening than it did this afternoon, don’t it?
Anyway, this is a solid (if not jaw-dropping) premiere, mostly serving as a prologue to the war drama and political intrigue that’s likely to occur in the coming weeks. Based on a fantasy RPG developed by f4Samurai and Sega, Hortensia isn’t doing anything especially new, but it’s doing familiar things with enough panache to help it stand out from the pack.
The setting is pretty standard European-inspired fantasy, although the lovely backgrounds help it feel less generic. The production starts rough with a pitched-battle sequence that struggles due to sluggish CG and some stilted monsters, but the one-on-one fights in the second half pop with energy and the character animation improves significantly after the four-year time skip.
My only real complaint is that they spend a few minutes after the opening theme narrating the events you literally just finished watching as if the audience is full of babies lacking object permanence who need to have their hands held as they cross the street, creative writing major RAGE! …But, honestly, even that is part of the fantasy epic tradition, so I can’t say I was surprised. And, hey, at least it didn’t last too long.
The premise is a hodge-podge of common fantasy tropes: fallen royalty, noble sacrifices, crossdressing heroines, pure-hearted heroes struggling to live up to their father’s legacies, demonic attacks, antagonists monologuing about ideals, and so on. Since all of this has been done a hundred times before, Hortensia Saga needs to distinguish itself with its characters and execution—and while long years have trained me to be wary of getting too psyched for game adaptations, it’s off to a hopeful start.
Alfred and Mariel/Marius (henceforth just “Marius” since that’s the name that’s used for most of the episode) get shuffled through plot beats fairly quickly this episode, but the series still manages to nail a few key scenes that establish them as good kids with shared trauma and a desire to help others. They’re not especially complex, but they’re likable and have room to grow.
Most importantly, they have a nice dynamic, with Alfred acting as the cautious knight and Marius the impetuous squire. There’s also a strong focus on mutual support and growth, as both characters vow to protect the other and “get stronger” together. There’s always a chance the series will damsel or sideline Marius, but this first episode treats the two enough like co-protagonists that I’m cautiously optimistic. And while their relationship is more familial than romantic at this point, if the series did decide to go that route, this is a real good foundation to build from.
Now. About that “crossdressing heroine” thing. I confess to having a weakness for crossdressing heroine stories, though I fully acknowledge they often have issues with perpetuating a “not like other girls” mentality and enforcing both heteronormativity and the gender binary instead of challenging them. It’s a complicated subgenre riddled with pitfalls.
Fortunately, Hortensia immediately sidesteps at least a few of these issues by introducing the spear-wielding Adelhaide and establishing that women warriors exist. Marius does shift from “passive princess” to “active warrior,” but Adelhaide’s existence makes it clear that this shift is not inherently tied to gender presentation—it’s simply a personal choice Marius makes as a response to the helplessness they felt when their father died.
And yes, I’m using “they” pronouns on Marius for now because I have no idea how they see themselves because it never comes up. They are Mariel before the opening credits, and then they are Marius after them, and there are no scenes about how Marius feels about all this.
The ending theme features Marius as femme-presenting (and all sad and wistful over Alfred, hmm), so I imagine the series will address it at some point, but all I can say right now is “it was a practical choice to hide Marius’ identity as the missing princess, and Marius seems totally cool with it.” So put a pin in that for now and we’ll see where it takes us in the coming weeks.
I guess that “in the coming weeks” spoils the review ending—yes, I’ll be giving this one a three-episode try. I have my future concerns, but right now it’s doing enough things well (or at least “doing enough things that I enjoy in fiction”) that I’m willing to see where it goes.
Hortensia Saga isn’t breaking the mold enough for me to recommend it to anyone who isn’t already an epic fantasy fan, but if you are, this is an engaging premiere with potential. We’ll see if it makes good on it.