Originally titled Epica Stella and then Detonator Gauntlet, Vanguard Bandits is the perfect example of a new release that is actually a little treasure from the past. This battlefield strategy RPG, which is set on a continent of warring countries, isn't for everyone, but if you're a strategy RPG fan that isn't too fussy about graphics, you'll be pleased. According to the game's thick, full-color instruction booklet, which has become a Working Designs staple, the company stumbled across the game "during [its] licensing of Vasteel way back in the days of the TurboGrafx-CD system." The game often shows its age, especially graphically, but never feels antique; what it lacks in visual style it makes up with charm.
Working Designs has unfortunately become as famous for its countless delays of games as it has for its sharp dialogue. Vanguard Bandits predictably fell victim to the former but benefits greatly from the latter. The characters are, for the most part, formulaic: The boy unaware of his lineage that emerges as a true leader of men, the traitorous army general, and the conscientious princess all make appearances and act predictably. Where the Working Designs touch enhances the game, however, is in how those characters interact with each other and with the other, less predictable characters. Characters such as the sassy princess of a rogue nation and the hormone-driven ninja add a nice dynamic to the stock lineup. Working Designs managed to insert enough witty dialogue to merit not only consistent chuckles but also an all-out laugh or two.
The game tells the tale of the nomadic Bastion who, unsurprisingly, is actually the young heir to the throne of Pharastia kingdom. He grows from reckless boy to calm leader of men while battling against an evil and power-hungry army general of the Junaris kingdom. Wars are fought with giant mechanized fighting machines called ATACs. Eight countries inhabit the continent, and Bastion attempts to unite them in the noble pursuit of peace. The names of the leaders of the eight countries tend to get confusing; it's often helpful to keep a roster of characters, their country, and who they've betrayed handy. While the story seems to follow fairly predictable lines, the surprises come during replays of the game. There are three possible paths, each showing a different perspective on the same story and giving compelling incentive to replay the game.
The biggest problem with replaying the game is that it requires going through more battles, which are generally tedious. Next to the outdated graphics, the game's biggest weak point is, unfortunately, the gameplay. The battle system is a stripped-down version of the ones used in Vandal Hearts and Final Fantasy Tactics. Simplicity in a strategy RPG inevitably removes layers of tactical maneuvers, and the result is Vanguard Bandits is riddled with long, tedious, and boring battles. To make matters worse, many battles don't have much storyline reason behind them, which is frustrating. As in most tactical RPGs, characters scuttle around the battlefield vying for positional advantage. The mechs tend to have the same attacks, however, with some variety provided by equipped items. But as each mech can only have one stone equipped at a time, variety comes in small doses.
From start to finish, the game follows a formula: exposition, battle preparation, battle, exposition, etc. Travel in the overworld map is done automatically; there's no exploration or wandering through cities. All gameplay is in the form of battle preparation - where you can buy new items, save, and hear one-liners from your teammates - and fighting. The plot is told through entirely noninteractive sequences.
The graphics and music are forgettable. Outside of the obligatory introductory music and FMV, the game relies on its story and characters to impress the audience. Vanguard Bandits is not an example of a game that comes out at the end of a system's life cycle and pushes that system to its limits. The battlefield graphics are drab and undetailed, and the zoomed-in hand-to-hand mech combat is so unimpressive that you'll likely dive into the options menu to turn it off before the end of your first battle.
But despite the flaws and age, Vanguard Bandits emerges as a solid game thanks to its entertaining characters. The embossed foil instruction manual cover, which is another Working Designs tradition, doesn't make up for the game's glaring flaws, but fans of the strategy RPG genre should find enough in the game to keep themselves entertained.