Vanguard Bandits, known as Epica Stella in Japan, is one of those obscure quintessential Japanese games that would have never been released West if not for companies such as Working Designs which thrived on porting them. It's a Tactical RPG (already a niche genre) featuring Mechs in a medieval setting (a niche within a niche) with plenty of story and character.
As a game, this is probably one of Working Designs better porting choices, but that's not the case for the localization itself which is hindered by the company's usual liberty with translation. While this doesn't irreparably ruin the game, it does hinder what otherwise could have been a solid very good game.
#A65: Vanguard Bandits:
Year: 1998, 2000.
Publisher: Human Entertainment.
Developer: Working Designs.
First things first, I am changing my rating system to a simpler 10 point system. Games that get above a 7 I fully recommend, and those that get below that are mostly a waste of time. That leaves the score of 7 to depend on your taste.
"I just want to end the war and stop the senseless suffering and death years of war has brought to us"
The story begins with an old man, Kamorge, and his son, Bastion, running away from imperial soldiers, not for the first time. This time, however, looks to be a concluding chapter for all the running that they did, and the fate of the continent will irreversibly start to change.
In what is immediately obvious, Bastion is revealed not to be a regular boy, and the conflict between the Empire and the Kingdom comes to a head. Yet, it is not all black and white, as there are several neutral actors throughout the continent as well as independent actors within each political faction.
The world in which this political landscape is revealed is, at first glance, a medieval world with knights and castles. However, all of the fighting is done with Mechs who look like giant armored warriors duking it out with swords and spears. These Mechs are more than window dressing though, as their power is intrinsically linked to the power struggles in the continent.
Even though there are greyscales to the story, the dialogue doesn't appropriately consider that moral quandary at times
From the third chapter, where Bastion's world comes crashing down, the story can branch into two distinct paths, with a third available after clearing the game once.
Overall, the story in either branch is quite good. There is some interesting political intrigue and machinations, several plot twists, and a colorful cast of varied characters with distinct motivations.
However, the dialogue, whether it is due to the original script or purely due to Working Designs' usual liberty, is extremely distracting. Attempts at humor fail miserably, female characters are inexplicable horny towards Bastion, adult humor is awkwardly spliced in, overdramatic sentence structure, run-off sentences, and dozens of other such infractions. This may be the best worst localization job I have ever seen.
The dialogue, in my opinion, does a lot to cheapen what otherwise could have been genuinely compelling heroes and villains. This is made the most obvious in the third path, which I actively recommend that you do not pursue, as I found it a complete disservice to all of the characters in the game.
"Excellent. We can strike against the Empire on their own wretched turf"
Being a TRPG, the gameplay loop of Vanguard Bandits is quite predictable. Chapters are divided into briefing, battle, and story sequences, and so on. During the briefing stage, you can check through the map of the coming battle, change the equipment of your characters, and interview some of them to raise morale (which drops if any character is defeated during battle).
The battles themselves are where the majority of the gameplay is. Set in a typical square grid map, you control up to seven or eight characters, each riding their own Mech into battle. Turns are given based on the agility stat, and that means that enemy and allied turns can directly follow each other.
Each character has to gauges to worry about. First is the Movement Points, which are exhausted as you move and attack. For instance, some attacks will use 50 points while weaker attacks will only use 20. The second gauge is for Fatigue Points, which increase when you attack or defend. If your FP reaches 100, your character faints and becomes vulnerable to enemy attacks as they cool down. You can recover FP by not using MP.
When attacked, you can choose to respond but with higher FP values, but it also means the enemy is not defending the attack
This dual gauge system introduces a welcome level of strategy, as it means you are forced to actually strategize your moves instead of wailing at the enemy with your strongest attacks.
The second strategic aspect of combat is the high importance of positioning. Attacking an enemy from behind limits their defensive options and increases your damage. The same is the case for you, as ensuring the enemy can only hit you from the front means you can use a cheap counter move.
Outside of attacking the enemy, you can use skills to boos your characters for a turn, heal, or do some debuffs on the enemy.
My main problem with the combat is that percentages are deceiving, which means I always gravitated towards the safer and slower combat strategies in order to conserve my troops. Still, the gameplay is mostly fun even if a little bit slow.
"Butchers are butchers, regardless of the crest under which they shed innocent blood"
Unfortunately, while the core battle system in Vanguard Bandits is pretty good, there is a serious lack of customization and agency involved.
First, every path has a fixed and limited number of characters, many of which end up leaving early on or joining quite late. This means that you end up with no strategic choices regarding character development or deployment.
Second, it is usually expected that there are a lot of customization options in a Mech strategy game. However, the Mechs (called ATACs here) are limited in number, and you basically can influence the choice of two or three characters at most.
One you get the most powerful Mechs there is no longer any customization options
In fact, the only strategic choice you make is the choice of elemental gems for each pilot, as that influences their support skills in battle. Also, you need to make sure that the points you add as they level up end up unlocking their secret moves (which are not available for every character).
On the face of it, the lack of customization options means that replaying the game for three paths can become a chore. That is certainly the case if you are going for all third paths, as both the gameplay and map designs do not deviate much at all.
However, despite the repetition, the combat is still engaging and the story is fun enough to plow through levels unless you are on the "Ruin" path, which just plain sucks.
"It is my wife's blood that stains your hand, and it is your blue blood that shall adorn my sword"
Graphically, the game is a mixture of your typical TRPG Isometric sprites and some admittedly cool 3D polygonal battle scenes in fights.
The character and Mech sprites are well-detailed but not mind-blowing, with equally adequate character portraits with varied expressions. These expressions actually betray the fact that Working Designs may not have actually deviated from the spirit of the text too much, as there are multiple cases where the characters are clearly making fun of each other as they would in 80's Shonen anime.
Zakov is obviously the comic relief character, but that loses potency when 90% of the cast act like jokers
However, during the battle, whenever an engagement happens, the camera quickly transitions into a 3D fighting scene between the two mechs. These are honestly impressive, mirroring the graphics of a fighting game like Tekken 3 of Virtua Fighter 2. Both in design and animations, these Mech fights look really cool, and the loading is quick enough that they don't drag the battle down (you can also choose to skip all animations).
Also having the spirit of the 80s is the soundtrack, which is filled with light techno beats and electronic guitar riffs. It is a decent soundtrack that repeats itself too often, and the number of ridiculous tracks (as well as the number of times you hear them) is a tad too much. I can't understand how a reviewer from RPGFan.com thought this soundtrack is better than Final Fantasy VII's.
As for the sound effects, luckily, the Japanese effects are conserved, so we don't get any weird English yelps on a different frequency to the clashes of steel and metal during a fight.
Overall, I think that Vanguard Bandits is indeed a hidden PS1 gem. It has a core of solid gameplay and story ideas in an interesting world. Also, it has some replayability factor due to its multiple routes.
However, due to the colorful localization of Working Designs, the dialogue is childish and juvenile on many occasions. In fact, it is downright cringy in many character interactions and interview moments.
If you can ignore that part of the game and maybe imagine a better dialogue that fits the story, then maybe you can see Vanguard Bandits as the truly very good game it was meant to be.
Faulkner would have worked much better as a villain if not for some of Working Designs poor choices in translation
1-Whenever a shop screen is available, buy everything you need right away.
2-Position is key in battles.
3-Concentrate on a single enemy to make them faint.
4-Some attacks cause a "Knockdown" effect which means the enemy will not attempt to counter.
5-Focus on the Fatigue Gauge, which can cause you to faint and become defenseless.
6-If your Fatigue Points are about to reach a 100, simply counter with your strongest move (unless the enemy uses a Knockdown or Collision move).
7-To get the "Ruin" path, you must complete the game once.
8-To get the "Empire" path, you must be at least Level 8 by the end of Chapter 3 and choose the second option.
9-During the "Empire Path", if you want a certain ending with one of the two possible love interests, then DON'T TALK TO THE OTHER ONE AT ALL. Also, it might pay to let the other one die in one or two battles.
Sometimes, even good dialogue is so over the top that it becomes trite and contrived
For those reading one of my PS1 review blogs for the first time, here is the basic concept:
I already reviewed both major Generation 4 consoles, and am now to review Generation 5 consoles. I already finished reviewing the Sega Saturn, so I am now reviewing the PS1. In these reviews, I take a top 100 games list and review the games that interest me in that list.
This time, my review series is based on this list from Retro Sanctuary along with other sources, since the PS1 can handle a list bigger than a top 100.
Also, note the following:
-If you have any suggestions for a game that is not in the Retro Sanctuary list that I should review, please suggest it.
-Make a bet on each game to check whether Chris Charter played it or not.
It is usually better for the scene to speak for itself without everyone chiming in with their opinions as they are about to do here
Usually, I am more tolerant towards Working Designs localization, but they really dropped the ball here in what should have been a very solid story. Still, Vanguard Bandits managed to rise beyond that serious flaw.
The next game in the additional list is another RPG, Thousand Arms, which also has some dating sim elements. Since it is developed by Atlus, I have some good expectations for the game, but not too much given the genre.
For Previous PS1 Game Reviews: