Review – Unicorn Overlord

A Pièce de Résistance

Overview

Developer Vanillaware
Publisher Atlus
Genre Tactical RPG
Platforms Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox Series X|S (reviewed on the Switch)
Release Date March 8, 2024

In September 2023, a surprise reveal at a Nintendo Direct announced that Atlus was teaming up with Vanillaware to publish a new IP, Unicorn Overlord. A collaboration between two of the best eastern RPG makers, Unicorn Overlord, promised striking visuals and tactical gameplay, the likes of which haven’t been seen in years. This reveal had been a long time coming: it was later learned that Vanillaware had worked on this project for an entire decade. Now that the game is here let’s find out if everything Unicorn Overlord promises is true.

Content Guide

Unicorn Overlord is a wholesome experience, with a few exceptions. It is a game of idealism, of moralism, of good that is white and evil that is black. It’s a story of friendship, inspiration, redemption, and hope. 

Violent Content

When hit in combat, units simply flash red; when defeated, a unit falls to the ground. Some of the hit/death animations can be pretty realistic, but there is never any blood or gore. The violent visual aspects of Unicorn Overlord are kept to a minimum, and most are left to the imagination.

Sexual Content

Oh boy, this is probably the worst content area in the game. In terms of story and dialogue, the player can take romantic stories and options, but the game is clean of anything sexual. However, the visuals can be a problem. Many female character designs are questionable at best and objectionable at worst—lots of bare legs and lots of cleavage. The cleavage is more of a problem for certain well-endowed characters because of Vanillaware’s love for suggestive physics. When talking about the ridiculous nature of the game’s character physics, one of our female staff writers, Shelley Waltar, joked, “I laugh every time I see them boobily breast all over the battlefield.” 

Oh, and there is some definite furry bait in the game. There is an entire nation of beast-people with questionable designs.

Crude Language

There is slight crude language use, including damn, hell, and bastard. It is infrequent and light but still present.

Story

Unicorn Overlord opens with a dramatic, tragic tale of Ilenia, the widowed queen of the mighty Kingdom of Cornia. On the verge of an enemy invasion, she knows her armies cannot stop; the queen tasks her most trusted knight by spiriting her only son, Alain, into hiding. Alain and his protector just barely escape the enemy’s clutches, and the queen falls in combat. The Kingdom of Cornia quickly succumbs to the invaders, led by the traitor Valmore. Valmore takes the throne and claims to be Emperor Galerius, a scion of the long-fallen Zenoiran Empire. From this stronghold, Galerius and his armies quickly conquered the rest of the known world and secured an iron grip on its peoples and cultures.

Years later, Alain, now a young man and an accomplished knight, must take back what is his and bring liberation and justice to the oppressed peoples of the Zenoiran Empire. This is where our story and the game begin.

Unicorn Overlord’s story is an interesting situation where the parts are more than the sum. The game’s main story is a pretty standard tale of our Hero losing everything as a child at the hands of the Big, Bad, Evil Guy, growing up and training, and taking back what is his with a merry band of miscreants. It’s formulaic, straightforward, and relatively unimaginative. 

But it works.

While the main story isn’t anything impressive, what makes Unicorn Overlord shine is the many smaller stories within the more extensive campaign. On his journey of liberation and vengeance, Alain makes many friends and many enemies. The struggles, victories, and losses along the path provide ample room for the Vanillaware writing team to craft amazing stories, moments, and relationships. Alain’s comrades and their own personal struggles against the Zenoiran Empire weave a deep, complex narrative to support the larger story of Alain’s, and they turn a seemingly simple story premise into something that draws the player in and makes them care about this world and the people that inhabit it.

Vanillaware’s handling of the story in Unicorn Overlord is a master class in JRPG storytelling for two main reasons.

First, it avoids the pitfall of putting the main protagonist through all of these trials and emotions himself, which often makes the protagonist feel inhuman and supernatural. Alain’s character remains rooted in the realm of the possible, which gives a much stronger connection with the player. He’s heroic and inspiring, but he’s not an alien.

Unicorn Overlord’s story is an example because it manages not to drag. Unicorn Overlord is a LONG game, and it could quickly become boring if all the players were working toward was Alain’s central conflict. Instead, the game makes the smaller stories the focal point, making the game much more digestible and interesting moment-to-moment. The player is always aware of the main goal but gets drawn into the smaller stories and conflicts that arise on the path.

Vanillaware should be proud of the narrative they have crafted for Unicorn Overlord, and other developers should be taking notes.

Gameplay

Unicorn Overlord is a game that defies genre. It first appears to be a standard tactical RPG, but that notion is quickly banished when the game introduces elements of both an RTS and a cRPG. Once you get outside combat, you find overworld exploration, resource collection, VN-like social experiences with allies, and managing and upgrading your squads constantly bidding for your time. And then, if you get sucked in, you’ll be reading the in-game library/guide and creating spreadsheets to optimize your gameplay. There is a LOT to do in Unicorn Overlord, and each activity boasts incredible depth and ingenuity. It’s a game that takes elements from separate genres and blends them into an utterly unique experience that will either leave you reeling or draw you in completely. Or potentially both. The chicken-collecting minigames had me reeling.

Unicorn Overlord plays out across a large overworld map composed of five major regions, and the main story sees Alain and friends systematically liberating each area from the hands of the Zenoiran Empire in a series of story missions. As you explore the world, you can collect resource items from hundreds of points on the map. You can turn these resources into previously liberated towns to help them rebuild. Delivering these items to towns gives many benefits: you will receive items as rewards, your army will gain stats, and you will gain the ability to post an ally as a guard in the town, which will further aid you as you progress through the game. In the overworld, there are also exploration sidequests, secret paths, hidden areas to discover, people to talk to, and vendors to purchase unique items from. There is a mining minigame in each major region that rewards you with various valuable items native to that region, and there are even a few small puzzles to solve in the overworld, which also reward items.

There is a lot to do outside of combat.

Despite the plethora of activities in the overworld, the bulk of Unicorn Overlord takes part in the missions that comprise the story. While progressing through the game, the player will find story missions, side missions to liberate towns and keep them from the Zenoiran Empire, and side missions following stories of various side characters or cultures you are aiding. These missions are played out on small sections of the same overworld map the player traverses normally, and completing a mission normally opens up new areas of the overworld for exploration and resource gathering.

Within the missions lies the clockwork heart of Unicorn Overlord, the drum to which all other gameplay elements march: the combat.

The combat in Unicorn Overlord simply and utterly defies the genre. It took my expectations for the game and completely shattered them within the first hour of gameplay. Then, it shattered them all over again. And again. The combat in Unicorn Overlord is to borrow from a large green ogre, which shall remain unnamed, one gigantic onion. It at first seems highly simplistic, but as the game progresses and more options are opened up to the player, the combat quickly becomes something that you need spreadsheets to keep track of and optimize. It’s a very intimidating onion, and those with a weak constitution should consult their doctor before consuming Unicorn Overlord.

This is not a combat guide but a review, so I won’t go into great detail about how character customization, squad building, and combat work and interact; plenty of guides like that already exist. I will provide an overview just so you can get a taste of how expansive the game’s systems can be. 

Let’s start with the missions, which comprise the majority of gameplay. Each story or side mission will be played out on a small section of the overworld and have distinct Victory and Defeat conditions. When a mission starts, the player can deploy several squads to the battlefield, and the Unicorn Overlord immediately feels like an RTS or a cRPG. The player can direct squads around the battlefield to various enemy squads or encampments and pause the gameplay at any time to evaluate what to do. 

Missions can involve constant resource juggling because each squad deployed can only act a certain number of times. If a squad’s “action points” are exhausted, it has to rest before acting again, which takes a long time. The RTS elements of Unicorn Overlord can help you balance your mission objectives with your available resources and decide how to maneuver your squads to achieve victory.

Did I mention that each mission has a time limit? Because that’s also something you have to balance. Turtling an enemy out is not an option in Unicorn Overlord, which is why needing to rest squads in the middle of combat can be a dangerous decision.

Missions sound relatively simple in a small area, and they can be. Still, when a mission draws out over an extended portion of the map and has multiple objectives to conquer, Unicorn Overlord becomes a challenging game. What squads do you send where? Do they have enough action points to make it all the way there? Will they even be effective against the enemy squads they’ll face? 

The mission gameplay can be challenging, but that’s not where the real depth lies in Unicorn Overlord. Where you’ll spend most of your mental effort is in character and squad customization. 

Outside of a mission, you are free to use all characters available to you to build your squads however you want. You start the game with two squads of two, and as the game progresses, you can purchase more squads and add more units to each squad. Each squad is arrayed on a 2×3 grid and can be completely customized with any combination of units. The in-game guide hints at which classes pair well with others, but it’s up to the player to find the suitable squad compositions and the sweet class combos.

That’s not all to consider when choosing squads, because Unicorn Overlord lets you completely customize each character. Each unit has Active Points (AP) and Passive Points (PP) that they can use in combat to perform actions. You can equip weapons, shields, and accessories to units, which improve various stats and sometimes provide other actions to use in combat. A unit’s class–which cannot change–will determine their strengths and weaknesses and will affect what abilities they have. The classes in Unicorn Overlord are many and varied; forty hours in, I have access to almost FORTY different classes, which doesn’t include the classes that result from promoting a unit. 

The brilliant part of Unicorn Overlord is the ability to control which abilities a unit will use in combat and in what order they will perform them. I haven’t touched on this yet, but in an individual combat encounter, the player does not get to provide any input; each unit in a squad performs its actions according to what resources it has and what priority its skills are given. In the early game, when skills and resources are limited, this doesn’t factor into mission outcomes much; in the late game, when each class has multiple active and passive abilities that can combo with other squadmates’ abilities, how the player “programs” an individual unit can be the difference between victory and defeat. I re-evaluated my lineup every 5-10 hours of gameplay due to new items and new abilities to consider. It’s a lot to keep track of, but the dopamine high when you get it right is uniquely satisfying.

When taken as a whole–squad and unit composition, mission strategy and gameplay, and overworld quests and activities–the gameplay in Unicorn Overlord is an impressively deep, engaging experience. I rarely find gameplay unique, but Vanillaware somehow found a way to stand apart from the crowd. I genuinely find myself in awe.

Music and Visuals

The game’s music is well done, and while not the best soundtrack ever, it does its job very well. The music often blends into the gameplay in a good way because it complements what is happening on-screen. The orchestral music can be adventurous, inspiring, calming, and concerning when necessary.

Unicorn Overlord’s visuals are spectacular, no matter which system you decide to play on. This is one of the areas in which the long development time is present, and it paid off. Each main character is uniquely designed, modeled, and animated, and each dialogue/combat background is a beautiful piece of hand-drawn art. When it comes to character animations, Vanillaware was so proud of their work that there’s a place in the pause menu that is entirely dedicated to playing back the dozen or so distinct animations that each class uses.

Graphically, Unicorn Overlord presented no concerns on the Switch, so I can only imagine that the other available platforms would perform equally. On the Switch, the game looked amazing, and I never saw any framerate problems or graphical errors or bugs. The graphical presentation of Unicorn Overlord is clean, smooth, and performant.

I have one gripe with Unicorn Overlord’s visuals: the overworld needs to be scaled better for the Switch’s smaller screen. It would present no issues on TV, but on the Switch’s small screen, it was sometimes hard to parse what was happening. This is a minor gripe, but it did bug me multiple times during my playthrough.

Conclusion

Unicorn Overlord is a pièce de résistance for Vanillaware. I returned from the game impressed at the creativity displayed and excited for the future. Inspired writing, combined with one of the best gameplay systems I’ve seen in years, creates an experience you can’t find anywhere else. Unicorn Overlord’s one failing might be its niche-ness; the game won’t be for everyone due to its scale and complexity. But if you’re the kind of gamer who enjoys Unicorn Overlord’s niche, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with it. I loved the game, and it got a hearty recommendation from me.

The Bottom Line

 

Inspired writing, combined with one of the best gameplay systems I’ve seen in years, creates an experience that is GotY-worthy.

 

9

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Jamie Rice

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