Vanguard Bandits - Reader Retroview  

What bandits?
by Robin Crew

Click here for game information
Less than 20 Hours
+ Multiple, quick stories make the game replayable.
- Potentially interesting combat system brought down by repetition and low difficulty
- Generic, uninteresting world setting.
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   Back when Working Designs was still around and pumping out games at the rate of one every second year, thus fueling rumors of their work as a cover for a drug cartel, this was one of the games they tossed their players, probably as a "quickie" between more significant projects such as the latest remake of the Lunar games. Come to think of it, it sure was released between Silver Star Story Complete and Eternal Blue Complete. Even came with a demo disc for Eternal Blue. If thinking about a giant robot SRPG with an odd cast of wise crackers who make infantile jokes warms your heart, read on. If not, it must be because your heart is already dead. Okay, I admit. That was just a joke for Lunar fans (Blue Dragon shrine, anyone?). Honestly, Vanguard Bandits is about as "whatever" as games come.

   To quote Faulkner, the game's main antagonist- "Oh, enough with the overwrought melodrama." Man has a point, but he's as guilty of it as anyone else. The story has its ups and downs. The premise is as generic as the Lunar games. The characters are interesting, but the dialogue often seems redundant and not always consistent. Duke Zeira sounds pretty high born until in a single sentence he used " 'cause" and " 'bout." Without a doubt the best part of the story is its multiple paths. The robots, known as ATACs are a secondary draw.

   The game opens with a green haired young man named bastion being clobbered over the head by an old man, his adoptive father Kamorge, who then accompanies Bastion into his first real battle against the evil Junaris empire, to help Avalon soldiers who fight for the good country- The Pharastia Kingdom. And so we see that empires are always bad, Kingdoms are always good, communism doesn't work, and winners don't do drugs. Sounds a bit like child abuse, but after the battle, Kamorge reveals that the reason the area came under attack was because he and Bastion were there. After rescuing a few random travelers from a brutal gang beating, Bastion and company, now including the rescued fodder in addition to professional soldiers who are also fodder battles the empire again in a battle thick with backstory. Kamorge sacrifices himself in battle to save our heroes and reveals with his dying breath that Bastion is the last of the royal line of the Pharastia Kingdom, whom Kamorge had been hiding and training for the day when they could take back the throne and lead the battered Pharastia kingdom to victory over the more powerful Junaris Empire. It also conveniently turns out that the Pharastia kingdom's royal line are a kind of sacred lineage and the only ones who can control a legendary ATAC named the Ultragunner. Admittedly, science and magic are blended in a neat way in Vanguard Bandits, but honestly? There's no such thing as a gun. So where did that name come from?

Barlowe is amusing, but his gross stupidity is far from PC. Barlowe is amusing, but his gross stupidity is far from PC.

   Regardless, after the dying Kamorge's predictably soap-opera confession, the game moves on and this is where it gets…well, not good exactly, but entertaining none the less. Depending on how the player has done in battle so far, they may be railroaded onto the main storyline, but they could also choose to pick an alternate route. The main route involves Bastion claiming the throne, retrieving the Ultragunner, making allies with various small kingdoms, and leading an assault starring the continent's nobility on the Empire only to find that the Empire's foremost general, Faulkner has prepared for the threat by excavating a legendary ATAC of his own known as Zulwarn- the darkness to Ultragunner's light. The alternate route actually has Bastion joining a peace keeping unit led by the idealistic Princess Sadira of the Junaris empire who has her hands full trying to reign in the insubordinate and war happy officers within the Empire. Even though the main route is straight good vs. evil, the alternate route muddies the water quite a bit. After completing those two storylines, a third one becomes available which can only be described as the chaos route, which I will leave to your imagination.

   Not only are there three main storylines, but there are slight branches within them. For instance, the main route has good and bad endings, while the alternate has two different character specific endings. There are also a couple of places where a choice in the dialogue, or the battle performance of the player effects the next several battles. Each storyline is short- with battle animations turned off, it's more than possible to play and entire path in a single day, provided you have about ten hours to spend on it.

   The game's flow is otherwise very straight forward. As with many SRPGs, there is no free wandering. Scenes are followed by a menu from which can check your status, speak to your allies for some bizarre commentary, usually about dietary habits and love lives, and on certain missions, purchase newer and shinier swords for your various machines. The rest of your time is spent in battle.

   Movement in battle is standard grid based fare. The most unique part of Vanguard's system is the use of AP and FP. AP, standing for Action Points, I'd imagine, is used in large quantities to move, and in order to attack. It starts at 100 each round and depletes. FP refers to Fatigue points. It starts at 0 and climbs. Most actions require little FP, but certain powerful, long range, or special effect moves, used to drop enemy accuracy and the like will cause FP. Counterattacking enemies combines AP and FP costs, defending costs 30 points and attempting to evade enemy attacks costs 20. FP is reduced each round by half of the remaining AP a character has. If FP reaches a hundred, a character is temporarily stunned, forfeiting their next turn and spending any time between when they were stunned and their forfeited turn completely helpless. In this state, any attack has 100% chance to hit and often seems to do more damage. Naturally, ganging up on enemies to stun them is a big part of your strategy, but you have to be careful you don't wear out your own people in the process.

No! Sssssteel burnssss ussssss. No! Sssssteel burnssss ussssss.

   Apart from that, combat is very straight forward. Each time you attack, you'll be asked to select a move from a list, and most of them are generic, used by many characters and enemies. Some of the basics include the low powered by accurate slashes, or the stronger but less accurate thrusts. Kick is weak, but has low AP and FP costs, and Tackle has terrible accuracy, but if it connects, breaks through any attempt to block it, and knocks an enemy down stopping counterattacks. In addition to generic attacks, based on which weapon type a character uses, there are elemental abilities based on the magic gems that power the ATACs, and each element has its own specialty. As an example, Wind is great for hitting at a distance and, like tackling, no enemy in their right mind would dare counter you, but wind abilities are accurate. Many characters pilot one of a kind ATACs, and those all have unique gems. Most of them are variants of the four main elements and allow them a move that no one else has. A few, like the Ultragunner's gem, is 100% unique and has a host of moves available to no one else.

   Based on their stats, the ATAC a character pilots, and the accessory being used various passive abilities appear on a character. For instance, Andrew, a ninja-ish guy has the assassinate ability on his stealthy Vendocorban, which increases damage done from behind. Bastion's got the mighty Mass Menace skill which protects him from on all sides, and forces any opponent who walks adjacent to him to stop there so that you get attacked from the side, instead of behind, saving you from a certain amount of damage. If Bastion seems overpowered, he probably is. Of course, if he falls in battle it's game over. Between that and the stat boosts both PCs and enemies gain by being near their teammates, you'll find most of the time that you're simply going to line your characters up in a wall and fight the enemies, who are generally too stupid to prepare many ranged attackers and never heal themselves. Because of this, except for a few early missions when you'll be undermanned, the game is rarely challenging until towards the end and tends to get repetitive.

   The game's visuals are a mixed bag. They're colorful, but the movement is jerky and limited during any scene with human characters. In battle, the map is simple and deformed, but when an attack is initiated, an impressive looking scene complete with battle taunts, the best of which being Duke Zeira's indignant "you unscrupulous pooter pirate!" when attacked from behind pops up. The game's music and sound is somewhat fun, but has an inexplicable air of throwback. I doubt anyone has ever been terribly upset that they weren't able to find an OST for the game. There were also a few odd kinks with the sound. Occassionally, the game would just stop playing music during the battle cutscenes, sounding a bit like an old record player with the needle off the edge of the LP. The only voice work in the game at the end of the main storyline is corny and sounds like it was recorded in a bathroom. That, my friends, is what this critic calls bologna. There's another random pop culture reference for all you Working Designs fans out there. First to identify it wins some pocket lint. The controls are almost identical to other tactical games of the time, like Front Mission 3. They neither help nor hinder. They merely are, and since it's a turn based SRPG, that's all I'm asking for.

   In the final analysis, Vanguard Bandits is good for exactly one thing- filling a craving for a strategy game in a relatively short period of time. Due to its multiple story paths and how short each is, you can always pop in the game just for a few days or a week and then drop it cold turkey when something better comes along. And something better shouldn't be hard to find. There's nothing really wrong with the game, but it's more like a 1950s serialized Lone Ranger than a Clint Eastwood flick. Consume it and move on. Play it for the novelty, not the quality. If you're looking for a great SRPG, this ain't it.

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