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May 2024

Unicorn Overlord

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Vanillaware
Release Date: March 8, 2024


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PS5 Review - 'Unicorn Overlord'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 1, 2024 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Unicorn Overlord is a timeless RPG where you fight against fate and embark on a royal adventure to regain your reign.

One of my favorite obscure strategy-RPG series was Ogre Battle. Ogre Battle 64 was a standout that blended JRPG and strategy RPG in an engrossing way. That particular franchise has all but vanished, but maybe that is why Unicorn Overlord was made. Vanillaware's latest title is clearly inspired by Ogre Battle — and to a lesser extent Fire Emblem — and it blends the two into something entirely new that works well.

The story is going to sound familiar. You take on the role of Prince Alain, who was spirited away on the night of the kingdom's fall. In the years since, an evil empire has sprung up and is slowly taking away land from the helpless people. Now that he's grown, Alain must raise an army to stop the onslaught and free the people. Thankfully, he has loyal companions and a mysterious Ring of the Unicorn, which may be the only thing that can counter the dark magic of his enemies.

Unicorn Overlord's plot is reminiscent of one of the more basic Fire Emblem games. It isn't bad, but it's basic. Your blue-haired lord engages on a quest to defeat an evil empire, and there are a few twists. There are a ton of characters, most of whom are bare-bones, but they get fleshed out via support conversations. It scratches a lot of the same itches as Fire Emblem, and there's nothing wrong with that, even if the gameplay is a whole lot more like Ogre Battle.

The game does add try to add some complexity to the story with the ability to either spare or kill captured enemy generals, most of whom have some sort of twist to their behavior. You might fight a bandit who is desperate to save his sister, or an iron-fisted ruler who keeps his people fed and clothed, or a nobleman who experiments on dead bodies and dying people to cure a plague. The game offers you to chance to either kill or spare many of these characters; sparing gives you as a recruitable party member, and killing gives you some items in response.

The problem is that there's almost no reason to ever select kill. The game goes out of its way to make the characters sympathetic to the point where Alain suddenly deciding to kill one of them feels drastically out of character for the otherwise kind young man. Likewise, the prizes you get are never particularly useful, and in several cases, you actually get better prizes for sparing someone than you would for killing them. It's a weird system that feels kind of pointless, and it would be a lot more interesting if there were a genuine choice involved.

Unicorn Overlord is a real-time-with-pause strategy game. Each fight takes place on a larger overworld map, and you can deploy units from your base to attack the enemy. Most maps are populated by a variety of different terrain and obstacles. Swamps may slow down enemies, watchtowers give archers and mages more range, barricades can block ground movement, and more. Every time a unit gets into a fight, it loses stamina, and when it is drained of stamina, you need to rest (which leaves you vulnerable) or you'll be unable to move.

The basic flow of the gameplay is that you gradually advance and capture enemy strong points. Towns and bases can become garrisons, which not only replenish stamina but also offer defensive options, passive healing, and prizes for capture. Siege weaponry like battering rams, ballista and catapults can be taken and used either defensively or offensively.

Your actual army is made up of teams that you build. Each team is comprised of several characters, starting with two and eventually moving up to five. These characters move in formation together, with one character designated as a leader who determines the unit's movement attributes and special passive skills. An archer leader can do an assist attack when another unit attacks to add damage, while a tanky unit may be able to resist the enemy assist attacks. You can swap your leader at any time in the field, but it costs valor points.

Valor points are sort of a catch-all resource. When you want to deploy a unit, it costs one valor point, and when that unit returns to the base, it replenishes the spent valor point. Defeating enemies earns more valor points, which can then be spent on various options. This includes swapping your leader and special valor skills that are unique to each class. Thieves can steal money, mages can slow enemies, healers can heal ally units, and so on. These skills are immensely powerful, but valor points are limited enough that you need to use them wisely.

The most interesting part of building a team comes from the tactics system. Rather like Final Fantasy 12's gambit system, Unicorn Overlord allows players to configure a series of if-then statements for each party member that qualifies what they will do in any given situation, with each having its own priority. For example, you can have a swordsman use a single-target attack that is assured to hit on a speedy rogue or use an area-of-effect attack on a group.

This plays out in combat automatically. Every character has AP and PP. AP allows characters to do active actions, such as attacking, healing or buffing. PP or Passive Points are special passive skills that trigger based on context, such as adding a freezing effect to an ally who's about to attack or healing an ally who was just injured. Both enemies and allies have AP and PP, and combat plays out until all of the actions are complete, but certain skills and abilities can add or remove PP from characters.

This encourages players to not just consider who is strongest in the team but how they interact. If you're going to face a powerful mage, maybe you should restructure the tactics so your ranged fighters target the mage first. If you're taking too much damage, maybe you can move your dodge tank to the back row and put a beefier fighter up front to absorb the blows. As the game progresses, you get more options and more ways to spend them. Characters unlock skills, but weapons and accessories also offer attributes and abilities that are sometimes more powerful than the "stronger" weapons. For example, a Thief's Mantle can let a unit spend PP to dodge, which makes a durable frontline tank even stronger. A staff lets your healer sacrifice their own AP to feed your heavy damage dealer and turn them into a combat battery.

In Unicorn Overlord, preparation is key. A well-built team can handle almost any situation, but you're also rewarded for figuring out team combos that can specialize in situations. Having an anti-magic team means that Shaman-type enemies, who are otherwise annoying, become easy to destroy. They're not great for every situation, but specialization and jack-of-all-trades both work well.

If I had one complaint, it is that the balance in Unicorn Overlord is off in a few places. Mobility is so immensely important than horse-mounted and flying units feel better in most situations. Flying units have a strange number of advantages, including having insane evasion against anything on the ground. The game also tends to encourage having one or two main combat units so you can focus on hyper-buffing them, which can make things feel repetitive. The higher difficulty modes help, but even then, you're heavily rewarded for hyper-focusing on a few units instead of a more diverse army.

Still, the core combat is a lot of fun. It's fast-paced, engaging, and full of customization, and that keeps the game fun. There are enough twists to the combat that it rarely gets old. Some missions require you to think about the team composition. There are a couple of missions, usually the game's "Liberation" missions, which fall a little flat, but that is because they are usually extremely short missions that can finish in a few seconds if you rush the enemy base. This particular exercise is about helping players gain levels.

Between fights, you can explore the world map. This allows you to find new fights, which usually liberate a new town. Towns have various shops, some with unique items, and can be upgraded to allow you to gradually gather materials that you can use to upgrade more. There are various side-quests, hidden items, minigames, and more to find, so there's a whole lot to do in the game. You can cover much of the game without doing all of the side content, but you'll miss out on items and characters, and it's worth your time to do everything if you can. It's a lengthy game, so be prepared to spend quite a few hours going through everything.

Unicorn Overlord continues Vanillaware's trend of having beautiful hand-drawn artwork. It's a genuinely gorgeous game, from the highly detailed character models to the lovely backgrounds and unbelievably detailed and tasty-looking food. It's a delight to look at, even if some of the animations can sometimes be a bit ridiculous. The voice acting is also solid, and the soundtrack is pleasant to listen to. The whole thing is a delightful package and shows off Vanillaware's mastery of presentation.

Unicorn Overlord wears its influences on its sleeves, but that is a good thing. It's part Ogre Battle, part Fire Emblem, and part its entirely own thing, and the end result is an absolute blast to play. Add to that the gorgeous visuals, and it's a game that hits all of the marks. The only problems are some minor balance issues, and even those don't detract from the overall fun experience. If you're a fan of strategy RPGs, you owe it to yourself to try out Unicorn Overlord.

Score: 9.0/10

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