Vanguard Bandits - Retroview

An Addictive Anime-Like TRPG

By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 7
   Music/Sound 4
   Originality 6
   Plot 5
   Localization 9
   Replay Value 10
   Visuals 4
   Difficulty Easy
   Time to Complete

10-15 hours


Vanguard Bandits

   Vanguard Bandits, or Epica Stella as it is called in Japan, is a very light-hearted RPG which main attraction is the ability to entertain, despite its lack of any real inspiring aspect. It's also a very anime-influenced game, what with the large variety of colorful and distinct mechs available. Despite its short-comings, as the people from Working Designs said so well, it is ADDICTIVE!

   You'll be assuming the role of Bastion, a young rebel fighting for justice against the evil Junaris Empire. Bastion will meet many other singular characters, all of whom own an ATAC, or All Terrain Armored Combatant. The original 10 ATACs, which were excavated long ago in the Pharastia Kindgom, have now spawned many different types of ATACs around the continent of Eptina, which in turn resulted in the second Eptinan War - a war for supremacy and control of the continent and the "Excavated ATACs". You'll travel across the 8 countries, making allies, disrupting treaties, and ultimately learning about your true purpose.

   Vanguard Bandits is a very linear game. You'll trek around the continent, talking to people and battling foes on yet another grid-filled and rotating war field. You won't be able to walk around town, talk to NPCs, or even shop whenever you like. After each mission, you'll see a short cut-scene, followed by a pre-battle screen which gives you the option to talk to your allies, organize your stuff, save, and on the rare occasion, purchase new parts. Battles are standard Japanese TRPG style with a few twists to it.

Okay... weapon, stone...whoa, that was quick!
Okay... weapon, stone...whoa, that was quick!  

   Each character acts in accordance to their speed stat, with the highest going first. Moving requires various amounts of AP depending on the terrain and so does attacking. You can move attack first and move-out second, if you have enough remaining AP, which resets to 100 each turn. There's also an FP bar that rises whenever you use a skill or special attack. Once your FP reaches 100, your ATAC will overheat, leaving it completely defenseless for a whole turn. While there aren't any items, many spells or terrain strategies, the bulk of the battle's wit comes from ATAC positioning and AP/FP consumption. Attacking from the back is more advantageous for 2 reasons: first, you'll deal more damage, and second, the enemy won't be able to defend.

   Whenever someone is targeted, he will have many options to choose from. You can defend to soften the blow, try to evade the attack for zero damage, counter to deflect and repost, or even choose an attack to make the enemy pay for his insolence. All those things require set amounts of AP and FP, which is why careful management can lead to quicker and easier victories. When localizing the game over, Working Designs also added a gimmick of its own: the "surround assist" mode. Basically, if you have some of your allies around the targeted opponent, you will have a greater chance of hitting him.

   When an attack is initiated, a different screen opens with the 2 ATACs to better show the battle sequence. You'll also be treated to a quirky comment by each character, which is what makes those sequences fun. You can also turn off those events, rendering the battles quite rapid, though much less entertaining. Equipping your ATACs is a simple process. You choose a weapon and a stone, which gives stat boost and some spells. Certain ATACs also have dormant abilities which use you'll have to discover on your own as there is no help option to guide you. You will be able to switch ATACs from people to people, and buy equipment at shops.

   The shop option lights-up 3 or 4 times in the game, and if you don't have enough dough for everything you'd like to buy, well, it's just too bad. There is also an in-battle save option, which isn't erased once loaded. Another fun aspect is the ability to level-up characters as you see fit. You can distribute 3 points to either one of the 6 stats, allowing you to shape people the way you like it.

If only the music was as good as the dialogues...
If only the music was as good as the dialogues...  

   The interface is intuitive but pretty much non-existent, really. You press X to scrolls down dialogues, you choose the right options in the pre-battle screen, and you move and attack in a breeze. The save file contains every pertinent info you'd like to know, like the mission number you're at, Bastion's level and the amount of funds you have. Vanguard Bandits contains 2 vocal songs that you hear at the very beginning. Both are decent according to video game standards, but the rest of the sound department is mediocre at best. The synthesizer sound dates back to the TurboGrafX-CD console, and the variety of sound isn't impressive at all.

The annoying thing is that the battle music changes to a quicker track every time the battle sequence shows up. It's not that the battle music is good - the other track is even more annoying. There's only one song I found interesting, and the rest of the soundtrack has simply vanished from my head. Sound effects are good, but the same clunking noise of every ATAC led me to think that they all go to the same garage for maintenance. Battle sequences sound alright and the special skills all have their own sound, ranging from ice shards to tornadoes. It would've been nice to have different sounds for every type of ATAC, but it seems that they get fixed at the same body shop. You can listen to all the music tracks in the option menu too, but you most probably won't.

Originality is hard to gauge here. The characters all have unique personalities, thanks to the great WD translation, and the ATAC design is very cool. Aside from those artistic impressions, neither the battle system nor the plot is very intriguing or special. The ace-in-the-hole of the game lays in its multiple storyline paths. There are 3 unique directions the story can take leading to either one of 5 endings. This concept has been tried before, but VB succeeds better than any game in this department.

The result, however, is the short time it takes to complete the game. It should take you about 10-15 hours to complete one path, and that's if you choose to view the battle sequences. Your save file keeps track of how many missions and ATACs you've seen, and once you finish certain paths and see every mission and ATAC, you'll be treated to a blooper opening movie and various nonsense. There are 56 missions and 32 unique ATACs to be discovered, but not acquired for personal use, and chances are you'll keep playing again and again just to get that "perfect" file. And therein rests VB's appeal; it's short, it's sweet, and it's definitely addictive.

Perhaps it is, but I still enjoyed it.
Perhaps it is, but I still enjoyed it.  

The plot itself is pretty weak, being mostly about the acquisition of the great "Ultragunner" to change the tide of the war. Once again, the multiple story paths save the game by leaving you the option to choose sides and meet different wacky characters. It should also be noted that the endings depend mostly on the love/hate relationship between Bastion and other characters. To improve that relationship, you have to talk to people in-between fights, level them up and most importantly keep them alive in battle.

As you most probably know, Working Designs is reputed for bringing relatively unknown games to America and give them the works in terms of localization, and VB is no different. Simply put, the script is superb. It suits the game's atmosphere perfectly and gives characters very distinct personalities. You'll want to watch the battles solely to hear (rather read) that crazy remark from your character. It's funny and it's also typo-free, something I truly appreciate. Thank you, Working Designs.

The game falls short in the eye-candy area. The sprites used for cut-scenes and overhead battle visuals are average, nothing more. The battle sequences are rendered with the help of polygons. The polygon count is rather small, but the fluidity of movement is correct. Special effects also lack any visual spark. The best things visually are the character portraits, very well drawn, which allow you to understand their emotions more easily and precisely. Considering the game was first released in Japan about 5-6 years ago, it's still a commendable effort.

The word that describes VB best is, once again, addictive. It doesn't shine on any fronts, but the fun factor is there, which gives the game great replay value. If you're looking for a complex and engrossing game, VB won't fill your cup. However, if you're simply looking for a good time, Vanguard Bandits is as good as anything else in the RPG category.

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