Ah, Vanguard Bandits. Known as Epica Stella in Japan (no I don't blame you if you never heard of it), it's an epic strategy RPG similar to the Shining Force and Langrisser games but with a twist...Mecha. Medivial Mecha to be exact.
Taking place in a world unlike ours, you control the fate of a young man by the name of Bastian as he goes against the various forces at work in this world. Will you help the now broken Pharastia Kingdom rise again from the ashes? Will you fight for the Empire in the name of justice? Or will you forsake both and open up another path for peace to be acheived?
As the plot hints, Vanguard Bandits features more than one storyline which you can follow... three to be exact. You can fight for the side of Justice with the Pharastia Kingdom, the Imperial Empire path, or you can carve out your own future with the chaos path. If this sounds familiar to a certain other fantasy game by the name of Der Langrisser, well...you're right on the money! The real question is, how well does it pull it off?
The game itself uses a system frequently employed by Strategy RPG games. You buy items/armor/etc, watch a storyline scene, fight, an epilogue scene, and repeat process for a couple dozen stages. As for the battle system, it's a top down view with separate battle views for when fights begin. While these scenes aren't actually visually impressive and the battle cries are pretty drab, it DOES load quickly, which is more than I can say for a lot of games which use this system.
Instead of fighting against other people on foot, you do so on large robots called ATACs. These ATACs can attack in a variety of ways, but since this is technically the middle ages, you see mostly swords, spears, and the random spell as your main armaments. As for the mecha themselves, they're not really anything to rave about, but they do the job. For people who watch a lot of obscure anime, you'll find most of the designs to be similar to those used in the Ryu Knight series, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the bright side, we have believable designs which are simple yet serviceable. On the other hand, those expecting the detailed designs from Vision of Escaflowne will be sorely disappointed by the simplicity of the designs.
Each ATAC has a number of skills (Special Equipment) and its own set of stats, which mean that pitting a high level character in a weak ATAC will not guarantee a victory against a rookie in a more powerful ATAC. The skills mentioned can be a number of things, from being more efficient on certain types of terrain to being "menacing". To have an ATAC with a menace skill means that enemy units MUST stop next to an ATAC and fight it, instead of being able to walk past and attack whatever is behind it. While not always useful, it is possible to employ this to your advantage in certain maps by blocking your enemies in with a powerful ATAC.
Aside from the usual stats and HP/MP variations common in any RPG, Vanguard Bandits has something called Faint Points. Faint Points, or FP, refers to how panicked you get while fighting. Every attack and counter attack has an FP value, and if you reach 100 FP, you panic and become open to any incoming attack. Because the amount of FP used is much greater when you counter attack than when you just attack (as much as 3,4 times greater), you are encouraged to play a battle where you attack in your attack phase and do nothing but defend in your defensive phase. While I can see the logic in this, it only serves to make the battles longer and sometimes more of a hassle than they have to be. I mean, imagine a game where all you do is attack in your phase and defend/dodge in the enemy phase. Not too exciting, is it?
Control, actually Interface, makes a big difference in making a strategy RPG execute well, and in this area, VB falters a bit. There is no easy way to gauge strengths of each ATAC, and because you have to take the long way around when you buy equipment (Buy, exit, equip, exit, Sell, exit) as well, you may find it bothersome to take the time and make sure everyone has the best equipment money can buy and are using their optimal equipment. The interface in-battle is much better though, and the most important feature in any Strat RPG, the ability to take back movement, is there as well.
The music and sound effects are a bit of a letdown as well. Though they are both solid, there is very little variety here, and after playing a couple of hours of the game, chances are you've pretty much listened to the bulk of music of the game. The sole high point here are the opening and ending credits, which are vocalized, and the small number of lines which do have voice acting throughout the game.
Given all this, what's the final verdict on Vanguard Bandits? Well, it's a fun little game to play while taking a break from other games. You can beat the game in 5 hours or so if you try and while some storyline paths are worse off than others (I liked the game a lot more before I played a certain path...*shudder*), it's a game that'll keep you occupied for a fair amount of time. Give it a whirl if you see it cheap or if you're a big fan of these type of games.