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Geek Review: Unicorn Overlord

Amongst the deluge of successful Japanese role-playing games (RPGs) in the early months of 2024, Unicorn Overlord trots out a refreshing take on the genre with a tactical focus, blending familiar mechanics with innovative gameplay elements. Developed by Vanillaware, known for their graphically stunning creations, this game stands out not just for its deep systems and challenging battles, but for its ambitious fusion of real-time strategy and auto battler mechanics.

At the core of Unicorn Overlord lies its unique approach to combat, which emerges as a melting pot of gaming influences that blends elements from beloved titles. Similar to 2022’s Tactics Ogre: Reborn, the real-time squad system, reminiscent of Ogre Battle, and the Gambit AI system from Final Fantasy XII are seamlessly integrated, offering players a strategic playground where tactical prowess reigns supreme. The rapport conversation system from modern Fire Emblem games adds another layer of depth, fostering relationships between characters as they fight side by side.

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Gameplay comprises controlling singular units composed of up to six party members, and multiple units can be directed in real-time sequences across maps. With a diverse array of classes — such as knights, mages, thieves, and a plethora of fantasy-based combatants — Unicorn Overlord transcends the simplistic rock-paper-scissors dynamic, demanding players to consider factors like positioning and individual abilities.

Like Fire Emblem, players are presented with a preview before battle of the anticipated damage each side will endure. However, the specific characters slated to absorb this damage remain undisclosed, affording a final opportunity to scheme and tilt the odds in your favour before engaging in combat.

The game encourages experimentation and rewards players who delve into the intricacies of its strategic mechanics. That said, most of the satisfaction lies in setting up figurative dominoes and watching them fall precisely as intended. The emphasis on battles playing out autonomously may disappoint players seeking more hands-on engagement. Yet, for those who enjoy careful preparation and strategic foresight, there are ample opportunities to fine-tune load-outs and formations before each skirmish.

If it sounds overwhelming, fret not. Unicorn Overlord eases players into its complex systems and tactics by gradually introducing its mechanics in manageable doses. Moreover, it furnishes players with an initially overpowered character — Josef, who serves as a retainer to the protagonist, Alain — to alleviate the early challenges posed by the gameplay before the difficulty ramps up. The game also incorporates numerous quality-of-life improvements, such as battle skipping and fast-forwarding, to streamline the experience for modern audiences.

In terms of visuals, Unicorn Overlord remains faithful to Vanillaware’s distinctive painterly aesthetic, featuring lush environments and beautifully crafted character designs. Notably, the game showcases impressive lighting and blur effects that skillfully guide the player’s attention, enhancing the overall immersion. Amidst the captivating artwork, it’s clear that the developer’s inclination towards fan service and classic JRPG-styled artwork persists, evident in certain characters’ heaving bosoms and gyrating hips, as well as rippling muscles.

While the game’s characters and story offer a serviceable backdrop for the gameplay, they fall short of delivering a truly captivating narrative experience. Alain himself makes for a dull protagonist saddled with a one-dimensional personality. In addition, the shounen anime-style story — complete with plot points involving mind control and possession — feels derivative and fails to leave a lasting impression, overshadowed by the game’s focus on tactical combat. As Vanillaware’s follow-up to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, the lack of depth and emotional resonance in the storytelling is particularly disappointing.

Unicorn Overlord is a commendable attempt at revitalising the tactical RPG genre with a mix of innovative mechanics. Its deep, interconnected systems and challenging battles offer a rewarding experience for strategy fans. However, the narrative shortcomings may disappoint players seeking a more immersive storytelling experience. Despite this, Unicorn Overlord stands as a testament to Vanillaware’s creativity and ingenuity, showcasing their ability to push the boundaries of the genre while delivering engaging gameplay.

Unicorn Overlord is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

Unicorn Overlord boldly combines beloved features from various tactical RPG classics, blending innovative mechanics with challenging gameplay. Despite its narrative shortcomings and occasional frustrations, the game offers a rewarding experience for players with an appetite for strategy.

Overall
7.5/10
7.5/10
  • Gameplay - 8/10
    8/10
  • Story - 6/10
    6/10
  • Presentation - 8/10
    8/10
  • Value - 8/10
    8/10