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[Review] Unicorn Overlord

Posted on March 22, 2024 by in Reviews, Switch

Unicorn Overlord review

System: Switch
Release date: March 8, 2024
Developer: Vanillaware
Publisher: Atlus

It’s not very often you find a developer that is so truly passionate about their game that they will fund it out of their own pocket when the budget runs out, so determined are they to realize their creative vision that money ceases to be a factor. But this is par for the course for Vanillaware, who have delivered consistently excellent titles for over twenty years now. With Unicorn Overlord, a game ten years in the making, the company has crafted one of the most intricate, engaging, and mechanically dense tactical RPGs I’ve played in years.

Admittedly, Unicorn Overlord doesn’t get off to the strongest start, and initially paints a very by-the-numbers scenario with the Kingdom of Cornia under attack by the forces of Galerius. The Queen entrusts her son Alain to Josef, who spirits the boy away to safety as she makes a futile last attempt to resist her nation’s subjugation. Fast-forward ten years and Alain, now a capable warrior and leader in his own right, returns at the head of the aptly-named Liberation Army, intent on freeing the lands from Galerius’ rule. As Alain you’ll journey across the land of Fevrith doing just that, recruiting like-minded individuals to your cause, passing judgment on those who have taken advantage of the general chaos, and returning the land to a state of peace.

When measured against its contemporaries Unicorn Overlord’s overarching narrative does little to impress. As you progress through the main campaign it will take some twists and turns, but these are quite formulaic and fairly easy to predict if you’re even passingly familiar with fantasy tropes, and I was a little disappointed that it never seemed to step outside of its comfort zone to present something a little more exciting. This is not necessarily a point against it as dialogue is suitably dramatic (helped along by fairly good voice acting in the majority of instances) and the archive entries that are frequently added help to keep things moving at a comfortable pace, whilst providing some additional lore and context for those who are interested in immersing themselves more deeply in the various relationships and politics. Unicorn Overlord is also notably light on specific fantasy jargon, making it easier to digest than many titles that like to throw terminology at you and leave it to you to puzzle out the context as best you can.

Unicorn Overlord review

But I still found that this slightly underwhelming central plot did little to lessen my enjoyment of the game. You can focus entirely on the story if you so choose, rushing across the land to tackle the next story quest, but the game actively discourages this by largely leaving you entirely to your own devices once you’ve finished the opening tutorial. Several vast territories spread out before you, and how you interact with them is almost entirely up to you – and there is a lot to interact with. Liberation is the main focus of Unicorn Overlord, and everything you do ties into this wider goal, superseding the limited narrative to make this a game more about the journey than the destination. Where the main story failed to interest or surprise me, I found myself captivated by the various side stories that the game threw at me with almost every new location I visited: as you travel the land you’ll encounter various characters, many of whom you can recruit to your cause. Assuming, of course, that you make the right choices.

Although your choices will never impact the main story of Unicorn Overlord, they can have a profound impact on your journey. Near the beginning of the game I was given the option of freeing a character or handing them over to the local constabulary after I’d bested them in combat. After listening to their barely-believable sob story about their circumstances I decided to hand them over and received a nice hefty cash reward for my troubles… and also earned the enmity of that character, which wasn’t without repercussions down the line. I wasn’t quite so quick to dismiss or execute the next few troublemakers who came my way after that, and the opportunity arose more than once, with my own sanity being questioned by my party in some instances when I decided, yet again, to show mercy to those who didn’t necessarily deserve it on the off-chance I might either recruit a valuable ally or at least avoid making yet another enemy. Although many of the side stories aren’t quite this dramatic, it gives a real weight to your choices, and makes your slowly burgeoning army feel more personalized when these characters elect to join your cause. You can deepen your bond with these characters later in the story by using them in battle or giving them gifts, prompting small events that further expand on their stories, despite the minimal impact this will typically have on the overarching narrative.

Unicorn Overlord review

Of course, the real reason to seek out allies is to bolster and diversify your forces for the game’s many battles. Combat in Unicorn Overlord walks a thin line between real-time strategy and turn-based combat, blending the two for an experience that feels quite different from either. Units on the map will move in real-time to the points that you direct, and the battles themselves are technically turn-based, but through clever manipulation you can end the battle before the enemy has a chance to land a single blow at times. To prevent you from storming through battles with a single unit, each has a set number of action points – once these are used up, you’ll need to rest that unit, and there is a timer as well. Fortunately this is quite generous, and feels more designed to stop you from simply resting in a safer place on the map to recover action points than it does to hurry you along. Movement can be sped up and battles can be sped up or skipped outright if you’d prefer not to watch them unfold, and previews of battles will be shown on-screen before they play out.

There are a huge variety of classes to choose from in Unicorn Overlord, which are introduced to you at a comfortable pace as you progress. There’s a lot to digest here, and although the game only gives you brief tutorial introductions on each one it does provide some suggestions about possible party composition to make best use of them; this is more than enough to get by on the lowest difficulty setting for those less interested in the minutiae of combat. For those who want to go all-in, Unicorn Overlord offers a staggering range of opportunities to do so. For example, when considering Units, you’ll need to consider the number, classes, and formation of characters. This is just the tip of the iceberg: a larger number of units might seem more beneficial, but could mean that multiple characters could be hit at once by enemies who can strike both the front and back row at the same time. The leader of the party can determine their movement capabilities: putting a mounted character as party leader will make them travel faster, but will make them vulnerable to different classes.

Each character also has Tactics, which lets you determine what skills they’ll use in battle, and when. The default settings are more than enough to get by on lower difficulties, and the AI is fairly competent at adjusting as characters gain levels to make the best use of the Active Skills they’ll learn, but properly managing this becomes essential on higher difficulties to survival. You can set characters to target enemies with more or less health with specific skills first, or prioritize healing. Characters, of course, have their own individual levels and stats, as well as Passive Skills which provide various boosts, and Valor Skills that you can activate yourself in battle as you amass Valor points. When you’re managing multiple Units and classes, it’s easy to spend hours on micro-managing your party, and this only becomes more complex and captivating as you progress through the game and more options become available to you.

At times it can be a lot to process and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the intricacies of combat. But I cannot overstate enough just how easy and natural it all is in practice, and how comfortable the pacing of the game is. This is without the JRPG staple of grinding as well. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grind in Unicorn Overlord in a traditional sense. Despite this I never found myself lacking in power on the default difficulty, nor the challenge too overwhelming on higher difficulties. Josef serves as a very reliable clutch character for much of the game, being several levels higher than everyone else to start and an extremely strong mounted unit, and the numerous options to improve combat proficiency makes failure feel more like a learning experience for these systems than a punishment. Vanillaware have crafted an exceptionally balanced game, which is all the more notable for the staggering number of options available, and the fact that, right up to the end of the game, I was constantly discovering new strategies and options, be that in a new class, new skills for my existing characters, or new ways to utilize the numerous gameplay mechanics to bring them all together.

Outside of combat, you’ll be spending your time roaming the various landmasses that make up the overworld map, which offer its own wealth of side activities for you to participate in to further the development of your characters and liberation of the land. Because of course, your job is not done once you’ve cleared out the area of enemies, and nor do you need to liberate the entire map as part of the story – but it is definitely in your best interests to do so. While combat is clearly Unicorn Overlord’s main focus and its biggest appeal, I found that the side activities were equally engaging, and could easily spend several hours outside of battle exploring the surrounding area to see what I could discover on the way – and it was very rare that this was time wasted. This is helped in no small part by an excellent fast travel system that allows you to hop between liberated settlements and mission objectives at any time.

Unicorn Overlord review

You’ll encounter a variety of quests in Unicorn Overlord as you explore. Main Quests are fairly self-explanatory, being those that will drive the story forward, with Side Quests often introducing a new character (and usually a new class attached to that character) for you to add to your arsenal. Liberation Quests are slightly less interesting, being one-off skirmish battles that will see roaming enemies disappear from the map upon victory, allowing you to travel that area unchallenged.

Once you’ve liberated an area, you’ll also open up Overworld Quests, which are non-combative and subsequently more varied: although many are fetch quests for NPCs, you might also be tasked with exploring ruins, building bridges, or even catching chickens. Liberated settlements also have their own Deliveries that require you to turn in a set number of materials that you’ll find from numerous gathering points on the map to improve their facilities. This was the only part of the game I found to be slightly frustrating, as I quickly found myself running out of resources to complete delivery quests for the many settlements I was liberating, and they weren’t respawning on the world map quickly enough.

To cap it all off, Unicorn Overlord is visually stunning. If you’re at all familiar with Vanillaware you’ll recognise the signature hand-drawn art style, which prioritizes detail over animation yet still manages to capture some dynamic scenes that make combat feel engaging and breathe life into the more static character art. Each character, even NPCs that you can recruit and customize yourself from a limited number of options, is visually distinct, with voice acting that is of an excellent standard and feels like a natural fit for the setting. The level of detail present in Unicorn Overlord translates perfectly to every scenario and gameplay style, whether you’re in a combat animation, watching your units move into place, or on the world map itself; in both docked and handheld this game shines, and there is no issue with lag, frame rate spikes, or even noticeably long loading times. It’s a visual feast for the eyes that never fails to disappoint and is the perfect fit for the Switch, which is an extremely welcome surprise when considering the sometimes chaotic nature of the combat and the general performance of many multi-platform titles.

The Verdict

Despite having played the story through to completion and explored every corner of the map, I feel as though I’ve barely scratched the surface of Unicorn Overlord. There are so many smaller gameplay mechanics and interactions that I’ve left out here for the sake of brevity, and my playthrough was made up of so many of these moments that they more than made up for any misgivings I had with the overarching narrative. The devil is in the details, and Unicorn Overlord is overflowing with them, each as brilliantly crafted and lovingly perfected as the next. The smaller character-focused stories and overwhelmingly dense gameplay mechanics make it one of the best strategy RPGs I have played in years, and a worthy jewel in Vanillaware’s already overly-decorated crown. If you play nothing else this year, make sure you play this.

Unicorn Overlord copy provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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