Imagine that some people made a game and a bunch of insane people escaped from an asylum to do the translation for it, subsequently transforming the original vision of that game into something bordering on self-parody. That’s pretty much Vanguard Bandits in a nutshell. What would otherwise be a boring, formulaic story is transformed into a springboard for pervy humor and colorful dialogue, and all of this is held together by a turn-based system that’s far more creative and clever than it first appears.
It’s about the characters, not the story
I can’t stress this enough; if you go in expecting anything but a story that’s more vanilla than a white supremacist rally, you’ll probably end up being let down. That being said, the character dialogue is so endearingly weird that you can’t help but love the game for it. That’s not to say that nothing is taken seriously in the game, but the seriousness-to-weirdness ratio is just about perfect and helps the characters to stand out. For example, Reyna is an insane person who’s absolutely obsessed with main character Bastion. Actually, almost every woman in the entire game is obsessed with Bastion, and their obsession is only matched by his proclivity for getting them alone and flattering them into submission. Andrew, on the other hand, is a creepy old pervert with an enormous ego who is constantly striking out. The characters in Vanguard Bandits may not be well-written in terms of having actual depth, but they’re definitely likable in spite of their shallowness.
That being said…
This game is old, from when things were a little less politically correct. Because of that, a number of insults are thrown around that use the word “retarded,” and despite me personally having no problems with politically incorrect stuff like that, I couldn’t help but find it well over the line of good taste. This is especially true because of how completely unnecessary it is. Also, there’s a villain who exists as the most offensive stereotypical French guy imaginable. While I didn’t have a problem with this like I did the constant usage of “retarded,” I suppose it could offend certain people. Outside of these two potentially objectionable points, however, most of the humor is pretty tame and likable.
It’s simple, but elegant
Vanguard Bandits plays out a lot like Fire Emblem games: lots of dialogue happens, a screen where you can buy items and equip your characters pops up (as well as being able to “interview” them), and then you jump into the next mission. It’s all feels very linear, though the game actually has three separate paths that you can end up on, and several different endings.
Endings often depend on morale
Each of your characters have their own feelings about Bastion, and these change depending on what happens in combat. It seems like certain characters have their morale lowered or raised just by being present, though it’s difficult to tell what’s happening behind the scenes. Either way, the ending you get on the most-common “Kingdom” game path is determined by whether your average morale is high or low. You can raise morale by talking to characters between chapters, which is called “interviewing” for some strange reason. Basically, talking to them makes them like you more. Remember—Bastion is smooth. You can only talk to three people per chapter (and it’s never a real conversation so much as them just making a weird statement or giving you a hint on how to best level them up), but this is usually enough to keep their morale up. However, they’re less likely to like you if they’re constantly getting beaten in combat under your leadership, so you have to be sure to take care of them.
Combat is also pretty simple
Everything you’d expect from an sRPG is here: leveling, special skills, a chance to hit reflected by a percentage, and a focus on positioning. However, despite its elegant simplicity, Vanguard Bandits ends up being much deeper than it first appears. The first maps are fairly straightforward and you only have a few attacks for them, making things seem a bit laborious and unfulfilling. That’s not really an unfair characterization of the first few maps in the game, either—this game definitely doesn’t put its best foot forward. However, what you end up seeing later on is that the beginning is set up to teach you the fundamentals of combat, with the most important part of that being positioning.
The most important combat elements
Attacking from the back, for example, is almost always better than attacking from the front because it’s not possible to block (this also applies to you and forces you to be aware of your own positioning). However, sometimes you want enemies to block thanks to FP. In Vanguard Bandits, all characters have two meters: Action points (AP) and Fatigue points (FP). AP are consumed by moving and attacking and are fully replenished at the end of each turn, with stronger attacks requiring more than weaker attacks. FP, on the other hand, raise rather than decrease, going up when you attack or defend, and characters become incapacitated and unable to act for a round once their FP reaches 100.
I didn’t like the idea of FP at first. In fact, I hated it. However, I eventually realized that it was a brilliant way to keep you from building up a single character to ungodly levels and sending them in alone against a wave of enemies. While this is possible in most games, you have to be careful to spread out your attacks between characters in Vanguard Bandits not only to ensure that everyone levels up at the same pace, but also to avoid having your characters become vulnerable.
While attacking raises FP, I also began to notice that defending and counter-attacking raises FP by even more. The mechanic suddenly became a strength; enemy characters tend to all act alike, trying to dodge certain attacks and defending against others. If they defend, however, their FP goes up quite a bit. If you level up your characters to all have at least one skill that enemies defend against, then, you can quickly overwhelm even powerful enemies by raising their FP to the point where they’re defenseless before finishing them off with 2-3 characters. In the end, the idea of FP is a brilliant way of forcing you to focus on the strategy side of things rather than leaning on the RPG side of things.
The RPG elements are there, too
I’ve talked about the strategy side of things, but there’s also a very strong RPG element in Vanguard Bandits. Every time you level up, you’re given three points to allocate to your stats, with those stats then influencing the attacks you learn. I focused on agility and power for most of my characters, for example, and most of them ended up learning wind attacks. Had they focused on other stats, they would have learned fire attacks or earth attacks. While balance is usually important, I found that agility was the most helpful stat of all; not only does it allow you to attack more often (the game has character turns determined by speed rather than having distinct player/enemy phases), but it also aids you in dodging attacks. That being said, you can learn helpful skills—like one that allows you to attack twice—by increasing even those stats that don’t appear to be helpful at first. It’s possible to approach the game and its leveling in a number of different ways, and being able to mold your characters in such a way that they complement your preferred approach to strategy makes combat feel incredibly rewarding in later chapters.
I actually like the graphics
This game has taken way too much flak for its graphics. The kind of insane graphical fidelity that developers are capable of achieving now means that it’s difficult to really tell whether one outdated game was more advanced than another outdated game, so judging the graphics of older games like this one with modern eyes comes down to one thing: does it have charm? While the sprites and backgrounds that make up much of the game aren’t really anything too special, they definitely have a certain charm to them. The combat cutscenes, on the other hand, are really something special. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of the “big robot OMG” thing that seems to occasionally grip Japan and the Japan-obsessed, but there’s something about the combat animations that I really like. Even if you hate them, however, it’s possible to turn them off (which makes combat move faster).
Turn the music off when playing
There are a few songs in the game that are pretty good. For the most part, however, the music in Vanguard Bandits is ear-piercingly awful. The soundtrack is comprised mainly of happy songs that simply don’t fit much of the game, and while you eventually become used to them, there are some moments where they just don’t work. For example, after a significant death you move to the overworld map and are greeted with chirpy, happy music. The few okay tracks in the soundtrack are pretty much hidden away, so don’t feel bad about playing this game muted.
Here’s what you should do: