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Unicorn Overlord review: deep strategy RPG is a rousing victory

unicorn overlord review ps5 cover
Unicorn Overlord
MSRP $59.99
“Unicorn Overlord is the strategy RPG fans of the genre have been waiting for.”
  • Standout presentation
  • Fun characters
  • Deep battle system
  • Lots of customization potential
  • Generic story
  • Minor technical hiccups

When I embarked on the world of Fevrith in Unicorn Overlord, I felt a wave of nostalgia like I was playing an RPG from the 90s. That was partially thanks to its tactical gameplay that looks and feels like a throwback to some of the genre’s best, but it’s the art that really took me back. As I traveled the overworld map as Alain, the story’s hero, I marveled at his tiny sprite. It was as charming as his full character model in Unicorn Overlord’s gorgeous art style and cutscenes.

Unicorn Overlord is a strategy game developed by Vanillaware, a studio most recognizable through its distinct 2D art style and hand-painted joint animations for its characters. That artwork really helps bring the game’s high fantasy setting to life. And while that transported me to a whole new world, it also brought me back to a familiar era of genre classics that I love.

Despite its generic story, Unicorn Overlord boasts an incredibly fun real-time strategy combat system tweaked with an auto battle system and plenty of customization options for its characters. For those who yearn for a return to the great strategy RPGs of the ’90s, it’s a nostalgic winner elevated by its unforgettable art.

Liberating the world

Unicorn Overlord starts off on a strong note when the kingdom of Cornia is overthrown by Galerius, a power hungry conqueror. Under his new rule, Galerius unites all five nations of Fevrith under his own Zenorian empire. A young man named Alain safely flees with the help of his bodyguard, Josef, and the game time skips 10 years. After obtaining the Ring of the Unicorn, he gathers his allies to form the Liberation Army to free Fevrith from Galerius’s tyrannical rule.

A cutscene takes place in Unicorn Overlord.

This premise gets straight to the point with a clear goal. However, the story starts to drag a bit after we learn the ring’s abilities. Galerius places many of Alain’s previous childhood friends and Josef’s comrades under a mind-controlling spell, and the ring can free them from it. For a good portion of the game’s main missions and quests, that’s the primary story justification for Alain facing off against them.

It’s a weak motivator and feels like a cop-out given that Vanillaware has told strong stories before. 2020’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was an excellent mind-bending sci-fi visual novel adventure that kept me occupied to the very end. 2007’s Odin Sphere was an emotional roller coaster told from the viewpoints of six playable characters whose paths eventually coalesced into a powerful ending.

Without going into spoilers, Unicorn Overlord’s rather predictable story, plot twists, and ending don’t hit nearly as hard as Vanillaware’s best titles. Thankfully, the developer can pick up that slack with strong interpersonal relationships between its wide cast of heroes.

It’s a party in the Liberation Army

While the main story scenarios in Unicorn Overlord focus on a few select main characters, there are 60 allies that Alain can recruit. There’s a lot of welcome diversity in that roster, which includes humans, beasts, elves, and even angels. The fact that so many walks of life join the Liberation Army really lends the feeling that all five of the nations are united to take down the Zenoirian Empire.

It feels like playing an old school Final Fantasy game …

As players continue to fight alongside them, they earn points toward their Rapport Level and can unlock Rapport Conversations. These are simply cutscenes at specific points on the map where two characters talk with each other. These conversations are as entertaining as they are useful. For example, the knight, Miriam, talks to her horse like it’s her baby, but the shaman Selvie’s more socially awkward nature thinks that she literally knows how to speak to animals.

These often joyful interactions give more depth to each individual character in the massive cast. There’s a tangible reward for viewing these, too. They reward Honors, which are needed to promote units to stronger classes and expand units. It’s a smart motivator, giving players a reason to invest in each character’s story.

The overworld of Unicorn Overlord.

What I love about Unicorn Overlord‘s presentation is that there’s no central hub for the Liberation Army to return to like in Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Garreg Mach Monastery school or The Diofield Chronicles Elm Cap. Instead, Alain’s small sprite wanders around the more open Fevrith, finding new areas, cities, and quests along the way.

It feels like playing an old-school Final Fantasy game where I’d step into the overworld to go to my next destination. This allows Fevrith’s map to unfold organically in a much more immersive way than just simply returning to a central hub and selecting the next story mission from a menu.

Crunching the numbers

While its story can be uneven, Unicorn Overlord’s gameplay shines. During each battle, I have a home command post and various other bases occupied by enemies that I can take over. Units from both sides are deployed, and the battles play out like a real-time strategy game. What makes the gameplay unique compared to its modern contemporaries is that up to five characters can be put into one unit, taking into consideration each character’s strengths and weaknesses.

Unicorn Overlord’s battle system has so many different, complex mechanics that all interact with each other cohesively.

It’s heavily inspired by Square Enix’s Ogre Battle from 1993, and that design idea alone adds so much complexity to the overall combat. Typically in the genre, archer infantry are strong against aerial characters. In Unicorn Overlord, however, it’s not so straightforward. An enemy unit could consist of aerial characters but could also be surrounded by cavalry characters, which are effective against infantry, in the same unit.

As a result, you can create well-balanced units that cover a variety of weaknesses or a super-specialized one that can take down a specific type of unit. It’s absolutely wild how much even switching out one character for another can drastically change the outcome of a single combat encounter.

Unicorn Overlord Battlefield

And that’s even before we get into specific character classes.

Swordmasters have a high accuracy stat that can hit even the most evasive Rogues. A time shifting system alters how some classes play; beast characters become stronger at night while elven ones do best during daytime. I can even place characters in my units’ front or back rows, where heavily armored ones can take hits in the front while healers can help support from the back. There’s so much nuance that goes into crafting units; the possibilities feel endless.

The actual combat encounters play out in an auto battle fashion. Players don’t directly control the characters, as they act on some predetermined rules. Depending on certain conditions and stats, characters will either use Active skills to attack or Passive skills to buff, debuff, or heal. It’s incredibly satisfying to sit back and see all of the characters duke it out — and Vanillaware’s signature art style only heightens the visual experience even more.

The battlefield can sometimes be littered with traps, such as steel traps and barricades to slow down movement. There are sometimes giant crossbows and slingshots that both sides can use for extra firepower. The Liberation Army can bring along items such as potions to heal, as well as temporary stat boosting items to affect the outcome of a combat encounter too. Unicorn Overlord’s battle system has so many different, complex mechanics that all interact with each other cohesively to provide deep tactics gameplay.

Unicorn Overlord Combat

I encountered some odd technical issues during battle, especially when there were too many units on screen or a million different activities going on at once. It’s a bit strange, considering the game isn’t graphically intensive. I could maybe see this happening on the Switch version, but I was playing on PlayStation 5.

Even with the occasional hiccup, Unicorn Overlord is one of the best strategy RPGs I’ve played in some time. With deep combat and customization, there’s a lot to tinker with here that’s sure to keep genre fans happy. It’s great to see Vanillaware tackle another real-time strategy game after GrimGrimoire; it’s even better to see it create something entirely different with Unicorn Overlord. While its lackluster story may not spark the flames of revolution as intensely, that does very little to stop its commanding march.

Unicorn Overlord was tested on PlayStation 5.

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George Yang
George Yang is a freelance games writer for Digital Trends. He has written for places such as IGN, GameSpot, The Washington…
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