I loved watching Vision of Escaflowne on FOX Kids before it was canned. Sure, the translation and dubbing were questionable, but badly translated and dubbed anime on network TV is better than no anime on network TV. The whole dichotomy of mecha in a medieval fantasy world with kingdoms was quite appealing. Vanguard Bandits is as close to Escaflowne as you can get in a domestically released video game, as it has the mecha in medieval time vibe. So does it measure up? Let's see.
Vanguard Bandits certainly does not measure up to Escaflowne in the story department. It's a clichéd story of a teenage boy (named Bastion) who undergoes tragedy, makes some friends, finds the ultimate weapon (in this case, the legendary mech Ultragunner), and saves the world from a psychotic general out for domination. The plot is as predictable as a Scooby Doo episode, but that never stopped Scooby Doo from being cool. In the same way, the same retreaded plotline never kept RPGs from not being cool. Vanguard Bandits does have three branching paths and five distinct endings based on Bastion's decisions and how he treats his allies, so the story can be seen from different standpoints.
Of all the Working Designs translated games I've played, Vanguard Bandits had the best translation. There were no silly pop culture references in the game proper, thus keeping the reality of the game's world in tact. Yes there were a few pop culture references during battles, but these dialogue boxes were tiny and only appeared for a split second, thus not detracting from the game. And, as usual, the translation was free of spelling and grammatical errors. Sure there are a couple of minor niggles here and there, but unless you're employed as a professional proofreader, you won't notice them.
The characters in Vanguard Bandits are all likeable and often amusing. Thanks to Working Designs' excellent writers, all are given plenty of personality from the always- hungry Barlow, to the womanizing Andrew, to the hot-for-Bastion Reyna (my favorite character); all of them are quite good. And the villain, General Faulkner, is quite well developed. While not as over-the-top clowny as Kefka (FF6) or as Hitler-esque as Luca Blight (Suikoden 2), Faulkner is a deluded villain who's more believable than a lot of RPG villains out there.
So how does everything look? Not super great, actually. The graphics consist of simplistic polygon backdrops with small sprites characters. All battles are done in ATACs (All Terrain Armored Combatants), and they look more like suits of armor than the giant mecha they really are. However, when two ATACs collide, the scene quickly loads into something out of a fighting game, showing the two mechs exchanging blows. These load quickly, execute quickly, and are the graphical highlight of the game. Sure the polygonal models aren't very complex, but they have a very clean look, and showcase the ATACs in nice detail. I like how the ATACs have a more organic, human design than a robotic look (the centaur ATAC was my favorite). During dialogue scenes, there are anime portraits of the characters that pop up, and I quite like the character designs. Zakov, in particular, had some very interesting takes. He was a very expressive enemy colonel.
Escaflowne has always been known for its killer soundtrack. Again, Vanguard Bandits doesn't measure up, but I quite liked the soundtrack. The music that plays during the first battle is one of my favorite battle themes. Other themes I liked were the introduction songs, and the music that played during the between-battle menu screens. A lot of the music sounds very MIDI-ish, but it's well composed and catchy. A lot of people think the soundtrack is garbage, but I'd take this over Final Fantasy 7's soundtrack any day.
What truly makes Vanguard Bandits a worthy game is that it's fun to play. The engine is nothing you haven't seen before in Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, so it plays similarly. Due to a small cast of characters, the battlefields tend to be small, and the battles are more like skirmishes than all out wars. This keeps the storyline and big picture in a more realistic scope than is often portrayed in RPGs. The only thing that may be a turn-off to many gamers is that battles are fairly easy and the enemy AI has been rendered as predictable as, well…Scooby Doo. For people like me who are awful at chess and SRPGs in general (I found Kartia difficult; please don't laugh), Vanguard Bandits is a blessing. Most battles only took me 2 or 3 tries at the most to win, and that motivated me to keep going and to progress the story. Strategy RPG veterans, however, will find this game too easy.
Vanguard Bandits has excellent replay value. There are 56 missions total, but each branching pathway will more or less consist of 20-25 missions. I was able to complete one branch in about 15 hours. To play another 15 or so hours to traverse another branch is more doable than playing another 50 hours to obtain a different ending, as some RPGs have you do. The short length of each branch and save anywhere feature is an absolute godsend to RPG fans with busy schedules who want a nice meaty quest, but can only 'read a few chapters at a time.'
Anything else I should add? Like all Working Designs games, Vanguard Bandits has a beautiful full color manual (how I love a quality manual- really shows the company cares), and it had an 8-hour Lunar 2 demo. I personally don't like the Lunar series, and the demo didn't change my mind at all, but it was certainly nice of them to include it. The story of how the game's name went from Epica Stella to Detonator Gauntlet to Vanguard Bandits was also a nice addition to the manual. The going joke is that this story is more interesting than the in-game plot. I don't know about that…
So in the end, while Vanguard Bandits has the feel and vibe of Escaflowne, it has more in common with Scooby Doo for its predicable plot line and predictable enemy tactics. But if that doesn't bother you (hey, I never get tired of Scooby Doo or RPGs), give Vanguard Bandits a spin. If you thought Strategy RPGs were too difficult or too slow, Vanguard Bandits could change your mind. If you have a busy schedule, Vanguard Bandits fits into it better than a lot of other games. If you dislike Working Designs constantly putting pop culture stuff in their translation, this game doesn't have them. Vanguard Bandits is a solid title, and I'm glad I gave it a chance.