Vanguard Bandits

   Fans of Working Designs' localizations have come to know the company for its many gaming signatures: humorous and natural-sounding dialogue, simple but endearing games, anime-influenced environments, and, of course, extravagant packaging. Known as Epica Stella in Japan, Vanguard Bandits fits most of these characteristics to a T. While the game box sadly does not contain any Rock'em Sock'em ATACs, Vanguard Bandits does feature a terrific translation, a strong anime feel, and charmingly simple gameplay -- if you've ever wondered what Lunar would be like if it had been a strategy RPG, Vanguard Bandits hits fairly close to the mark.

   Yet another one of those nefarious Empires is up to no good again, and, as usual, only one man with strangely-colored hair can stop them. This time it's Bastion, a young pilot-in-training of ATACs, the humanoid mechs used for combat in Bandits' world. Bastion allies himself with the Pharastia Kingdom (or does he?) and attempts to gather together the world's rulers to defeat the Empire. This tale is told through a linear sequence of Kartia-style scenarios; after completing one battle, you're given the chance to check your status, chat with your comrades, and buy items before being shuffled off to the next encounter.

 Reyna, Avalon Chef
Chatting with comrades.

   The story starts off in the middle of the action, with Bastion and his friends fleeing the Imperial forces that attacked their hometown. The story elements are nothing new; any halfway-experienced RPG player can easily pick out and identify the fate of the hero's over-protective mentor, the Emperor's twisted right-hand man, and the magic artifact that holds the key to defeating the Empire. However, they're presented in an interesting and creative enough way that players shouldn't have a hard time overlooking their predictability -- and if you can't, the story scenes move by quickly enough that you're back fighting before too long. The characters are particularly charming; every character in the game save the generic soldiers has a distinctive personality. Bastion's party trades the expected humorous banter, but only tastefully; characters don't crack jokes during key dramatic scenes. And since most of the humor centers on the characters' personalities instead of random quips, it serves to reinforce the game world and not shatter it.

The RPG Cliches Game
Bastion's dad is extremely powerful and controlled only by the computer -- guess what happens to him!

   Likable characters aren't Vanguard Bandits' only claim to fame; the game also boasts a unique battle system that puts the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat instead of the usual wide-range spell-slinging. Most attacks have a range of only one square, forcing your characters to get right in the enemy's face in order to attack. As usual, attacking an enemy from the side inflicts more damage, and attacking from the rear deals even more. The direction you attack from also affects the enemy's defensive capabilities. If attacked from the rear, an enemy can only attempt to evade; however, a rear attack also allows the target to defend, making the attack more likely to connect but reducing its damage. And if a character is foolish enough to attack head-on, the target can execute a full-fleged counter that reverses the attack completely.

   Counterattacks, however, don't come free. Every defensive move adds a substantial amount to the ATAC's FP (Fatigue Point) gauge; if the gauge fills up with 100 FPs, the ATAC's defense drops to 0 and it loses its next turn. Since overheating is almost always fatal, balancing FP costs and HP loss is a key part of the game's strategy -- especially since there are no healing spells early in the game.

Battle menu
"I don't like ATACs or fighting"

   Each character is allocated 100 AP per turn; these points can be used to either move your character (at a cost of 20 AP per space), attack one or more times, or both. As one would expect, attacks tend to offer a trade-off between attack power and AP and FP costs; a powerful attack usually consumes most of your AP and fills up your FP gauge quickly. Attacks also vary in accuracy, which adds an additional element of suspense: the brief time between your selection and the attack is nerve-wracking indeed. (Normally, this entails a switch to the 3-D battle scene, but an option to use 2-D text boxes is provided.) Strategic purists may moan the loss of complete tactical precision, but the battles are much more exciting as a result of the unpredictability.

   Later in the game, characters gain limited magic abilities; magic stones can be purchased from shops and equipped on ATACs to unlock one of four elements of spells. And as you gain more ATACs, less-important characters -- those without specialized personal ATACs -- can be swapped in out of the various vehicles, a welcome change from the usual "one-mech-per-customer" rule. In the beginning, however, the game focuses almost exclusively on tense exchanges of sword strikes. While keeping track of both your AP and FP is confusing at first, managing the flow of battle soon becomes second nature, and you're free to concentrate on the battles. And concentrate you will; Vanguard Bandits' early battles are quite challenging. Not only do the varying mission objectives keep on your toes, your small party size leaves you no room to waste characters -- especially since the game ends instantly if Bastion is defeated.

Battle taunts
Barlow never ceases to entertain.

   Unfortunately, after this exciting beginning, the game slows down all too quickly. Most of the latter half of the game is spent on generic "fight the enemies blocking your path" scenarios; neither the story nor gameplay varies much during these routine battles. Worse, your characters gain overly powerful healing abilities and long-range attack moves that erode much of the game's earlier difficulty level. Fortunately, the characters and battle system remain engaging enough that there's still reason to see the game through to its conclusion.

Character selection differs between scenarios.

   And for those that didn't get enough the first time through, Vanguard Bandits offers a total of three different paths through the game; while such a feature is hardly new, Bandits is one of the few games to do it right. Rather than offer a main path and then various lesser paths that no one chooses, Vanguard Bandits presents "alternate history" versions of the same story. Neither of the two main paths is "better" than the other; they simply feature different characters and battles. (The third path only becomes available after the game is completed once.) Playing another path is far from a repeat of what you've already seen; not only do new characters appear, old ones are portrayed in a different light. Seeing how one relatively minor decision can alter so many events is one of Vanguard Bandits' most appealing features.

   Vanguard Bandits' graphics and music are both adequate. While they're certainly not spectacular, they always get the job done in an unobtrusive way. Aside from the occasional collision problems in the 3-D battle scenes (defeated ATACs sometimes fall right through the ground), little can be said about the audio and visuals for better or for worse.

   Indeed, the same can be said about almost all of Vanguard Bandits. The game offers few stand-out moments, but it also never fails to remain adequately entertaining. If you're looking for the next genre-defining epic, Vanguard Bandits definitely isn't it. On the other hand, its relatively short length and easy of play make it a good "filler" title between longer times. Working Designs fans and strategy RPG junkies should give it a look.

Review by Fritz Fraundorf, freelance.
Vanguard Bandits
Developer Human
Publisher Working Designs
Genre Strategy RPG
Medium CD (?)
Platform PlayStation
Release Date  07.30.98
Vanguard Bandits, Lunar 2 delayed
28 E3 screenshots
Box art