Unicorn Overlord Review: Deserving of a Crown

Written by Allen

March 22, 2024

So, if anyone saw my video reviewing 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. You would all know that I’m quite a fan of Vanillaware’s work. Odin’s Sphere, Grim-well, not that. Though Muramasa, Dragon’s Crown, and of course 13 Sentinels have a special place in my heart. That and the years of playing through live service offerings have left me yearning. I mean yes I do enjoy games like Apex and of course Helldivers 2. But it doesn’t take long to feel like everybody is just out there to put you on their gaming hamster wheel like Mihoyo does and that just kind of kills the fun. I wish to go on a journey of exploration and discovery. To be able to take my time, and play a game at a pace I want and enjoy. So, here we are where I’m about to happily talk to you about Vanillaware’s latest title, Unicorn Overlord.

 

 

The Strategic RPG (SRPG) is a genre that this studio isn’t new to. They had a run with it back with GrimGrimoire (2007), and more recently with 13 Sentinels (2019). And from what I’ve played, I’d have to say Unicorn Overlord plays somewhere between the two predecessors. All of them play as real-time strategies, but instead of generating small armies like in Grimgrimoire, or micro-manage an invincible sentinel unit like in 13 Sentinels, you instead customize characters with Unicorn Overlord. This is probably closer to a session of tabletop combat but with units instead.

It deceptively packages itself as a retro-style RPG, with a pretty traditional story. A prodigal prince returns from hiding to finally take on a great evil that has wrought destruction and oppression across the continent. This will present you with a long-term goal of saving the lands and resolving the shorter stories of the knights, mages, rogues, clerics, and kings along the way. However, it also takes advantage of the modern designs that make games more convenient to play you like. Yet, at the same time, offers a great amount of depth with how far you can push the dynamics of a 5-man party. Presently, this has led me to this loop of accidentally playing the game for too long every time I wanted to go back and check on something. Originally I was ready to write after 16 hours of play, but here we are at 50. Yes, I haven’t finished the story, but I think I have more than enough battlefield experience here to show you what Unicorn Overlord’s all about. Let’s break it down.

 

Production (4.5 / 5)

 

 

The visuals you witness upon touching on Unicorn Overlord are nothing really surprising, that is if you’re already familiar with the studio. Beautiful 2D art has been and will likely always be their game, though this time around it’s a bit different. You see, I’ve known Vanillaware to have a more unique, painter-esque style. Seeing them animate these is actually what I find truly impressive about their works. Their new SRPG here looks much closer to the conventional anime look that we would quickly recognize. Don’t get me wrong, it still looks amazing, especially when you see them move in battle. This is probably the reason that the characters look more generic and simplified, as having battles with ten of them on the screen might be difficult to follow if we have too much flourish on the stylization. Also, there are a lot of character types, which is sort of the Pokemon problem. Putting too much work into the designs will either burn your budget much sooner than you’d like, or everyone will notice a difference in quality between characters. Thankfully, the quality feels consistent across the game, even though there are so many unique characters to animate. Backgrounds and settings aren’t a slouch, either. Having five areas that you can consider as biomes presents enough variety as you play through the game. Though, to be honest, I have a hard time pointing out any of them being particularly memorable.

Unicorn Overlord also has their music nicely scored, as the melodies that play during various heights of calmer or more intense moments in the game blend very well with each other. That little flute tune, While You’re out on the world map, is now my newest earworm. Not that I’m upset about it.

 

 

Then there’s the voices, if you’ve been sticking around Twitter (or X, I’ll never actually call it that), you’ll know there’s a point of contention for the localization. For 2D games voice acting does quite a bit of heavy lifting for the story, and both dubs do it well here. Even though the lines are quite different, the intention of delivering a convincing performance does well on both dubs. I think the localization is doing its best to represent the original author’s intention. I know that Vanillaware plays out their scenes as if you’re watching some sort of stage play or TV show. You see this in how characters talk and interact with each other as if they’re on stage. So I’m perfectly fine with the more theatrical, almost everyone’s got to be some sort of poet, kind of script. There are caveats though. For one, it makes it harder to play with Japanese voices, the blatant mismatch of speech and text makes auto-playing through scenes a terrible choice. But at the same time, I’m not going to expect a Japanese script to effectively express idioms or other figures of speech that work for the scene. 

I mean, if I were a Japanese person hearing Japanese colloquial terms being used in a medieval fantasy game, my immersion would be broken and I’d be upset. So the best choice is to just restrict the Japanese script to avoid words that simply won’t work for the setting. Then have the Japanese VAs (voice actors) carry the tone through their acting. An English localization, on the other hand, might sound too stiff if characters didn’t play with their words a little. We’ve seen this in older works like movies. It also helps flesh out each character with the choice of words they’re using.

 

 

Then there’s the difference in voice work, it just seems to be a thing where English VAs just have women with deeper voices in general. There are also subtle shifts in character as you combine their delivery with the new English lines. While I think you eventually get to where the author intends you to go, I can’t shake this feeling of the two dubs being so very different. I don’t think that either of them is bad, but it just throws me off when I swap languages to compare how each version might be different. I do this language-swapping all the time because I want to hear how every performance plays out. But for the first time, I have difficulty enjoying the Japanese voices, simply because of how different it is from the English script.

Okay, I think I’ve gone on long enough. If you guys want to hear more about how I feel and my analysis of the translation or localization of Unicorn Overlord, I might write about it in length later. Suffice it to say, that it’s easy to enjoy the title, even if you’re just watching someone else play.

 

Mechanics (5 / 5)

 

 

SRPG types tend to have these affinities set up between character types, allowing for some meta play like playing Rock-Paper-Scissors but with characters freely moving about a map at the same time. Okay, let’s go through this step by step.

First, you create units, where the leader of the unit is what determines the type of character it is. If you have a Cavalry as a leader, your character will move faster across roads, Flying types can ignore all sorts of terrain but are horrendously weak to Archers, and so on.

It starts getting interesting once you’re able to put three characters in a single unit. Where you can use the increased capacity to either cover for your leader’s weaknesses or double down and bolster their strengths. Again if you played with Rock-Paper-Scissors with other kids in your younger years, this is where you can start making up whatever you think might work. Does lava beat rock? Maybe wind can blow away paper but can’t be cut by scissors? All sorts of ways to try to break the game, and it’s pretty fun.

 

 

Let’s take, for example, my dodge tank Valkyrie, where she has evasion so high that archers have a hard time hitting her. And she has a heavy warrior at her side that gets angrier and stronger the more she sees her allies get attacked. Where I round it out with a healer. Another fine example is my archer, who is programmed to always shoot down healers first and is protected by a hoplite, which carries the strongest shields in the game.

And while I can keep coming up with these specialized units that can destroy almost anything that comes across their path, there are still hard limitations that prevent you from just having one character dominate and brute force your way through the game. Stats like affinities towards certain types of attacks or the number of times one unit can go into combat before needing to rest remain fixed. Discrepancies in level don’t play a large influence in fights unless they’re very big, like maybe 10 levels apart.

 

 

There’s also a lot of value in having different people fight within your army, as they also allow you to use different Valor Skills. These are probably better understood as map skills, which are actions outside of combat. You need them to summon characters, call for a rain of arrows, create spell effects on the field, and more. My favorite one to spam would be the Royal Order skill, which doubles the experience gained from the next fight. And yes, you can imagine that I enjoyed grinding in the game. 

You want to grind for two primary reasons, the first is you’re trying to fully customize or update one of the characters you have. The other is you’re grinding for Honors, a secondary in-game currency that allows you to expand your army or promote one of your allies. Two very valuable ways of increasing what you can do in a battle. Do you want to make one character have more action points and access to stronger skills, or make a more complete formation within your unit? You can very well grind for both if you’re willing to put in the time for it. Which is surprisingly much shorter and more convenient than I thought. More on this in a bit.

 

Content (4.5 / 5)

 

 

The main story of Unicorn Overlord is not all that complicated. You’re a prince in hiding blessed with the power to save the world as you gain more and more allies to your side, and that’s exactly what you set out to do. As you progress you encounter enemies that may become allies later, you learn about their circumstances and can choose to help them by going after their respective side-quests. And playing out these smaller stories slowly gets you closer to your long-term goal.

The game paces you through its mechanics and content one by one, usually showing you how they work and what their strengths are. And it’s these bite-sized new pieces of information that get me hooked on continuously playing. Gaining a new class makes me want to experiment to learn how to utilize them, making me go on repeatable grind quests to have them catch up on levels or test a build or formation to see how they play out. This seriously put my min-maxing lizard brain on Turbo as I wanted to figure out the best way to make use of my allies.

 

 

And while I may have ended up playing much longer than I expected, play sessions don’t have to be as long as mine. Going through story events or standard battles only takes a few minutes, twenty minutes is probably as long as it gets when doing the larger boss encounters. Much like 13 Sentinels, Unicorn Overlord is designed for portable, on-the-go play. But heck, that didn’t stop me from turning it into a half-day affair.

Surprisingly battles aren’t one of my larger time sinks, it’s exploring the map and finding new side-quests to do. Which can be smaller battles that let you liberate towns, gathering resources from the open world as well as treasure hunting for hidden items. And well, the not-fishing mini-game of hitting the ground and looking for treasure. Yep, the mining mini-game not only let me farm a variety of rocks that I needed to improve towns or buy unique items from Valkyries but also let me find treasure maps that again led me to explore the map. You’ll need to fight for more territory to freely explore the open world, where you’ll find other side activities, treasure, or towns that offer their unique wares, or even potentially find you new allies that are valuable to your army. A lot of rewards in the game overlap with making you want to interact with more side-content in the game, and well, as I type this I now realize why I had a hard time stopping whenever I turned on the PS5.

 

 

Grinding is pretty convenient as well, repeatable quests open up to you eventually, letting you play 2 variants of essentially the same map. Not only do you gain experience from fighting and slaying various enemies in the quest, but you’re also rewarded with consumable XP items after completion. This means you can redirect a large amount of the experience gains you get from grinding to another member you didn’t use or isn’t present in your army yet. Very convenient.

Now you might ask: “But what about the bonds? You can’t develop their relationship without making them fight together a hundred or more times!” Aside from the fact that I don’t see much value from that aside from getting rapport conversations (because some of us like to play match-maker and I completely understand that), it’s quite convenient to get people closer to each other by simply having them eat together in the taverns of larger cities.

 

 

The various content that Unicorn Overlord has to offer you is varied enough to enjoy separately and provides value unique from each other. It’s old-school material that’s supplemented with modern design conveniences that make them easy to consume and shift from one direction to the other with ease. So, it was hard for me to stop.

 

Features (4 /  5)

 

 

You can look at this as a retro game that borderline has cheat codes, because of how convenient the game is to play. You have auto-save, fast travel, and even the ability to save a currently ongoing battle at any time. You also have a library that lets you view models, and past cutscenes, or go over information that may have flown over your head the first time you heard it.

Then there’s the unique ability for Vanillaware games to easily swap between two audio languages without having to restart the game, something I seriously treasure despite my reservations about the dubbing.

Finally, the game surprisingly has an online feature, but not to play together. This feels more like it was almost a Gacha game because of what online PVP is like. Where you preset a formation you’d submit online for others to take on. Which, well, sounds a lot like Blue Archive, Epic Seven, Azur Lane, and other newer Gacha games. Even the repeatable grind quests feel like it’s picking up lessons from these titles. And well, it’s pretty well-implemented in my book. At least, I don’t have to buy rocks to get new characters.

Finally, I just have to note that during my playthrough, I’ve encountered some performance bugs that did ruin the experience for me a few times. Even to the point that the game would crash and I lose some progress. Vanillaware patched this game a day or two ago and it seems to be working perfectly now.

 

Conclusion

 

 

I’m not a big fan of SRPGs, particularly ones where characters turn into miniature versions of themselves and walk across a battlefield. But, maybe Vanillaware is slowly changing my tastes because of the quality of their games. The annoyances where I have to sit down to go through one battle for an hour or more are not present in Unicorn Overlord. And now I kinda wish I had it on the Nintendo Switch so I can play this whenever I want.

I’ve been playing this title on Tactical Difficulty and so far I have to do risky moves before any battles challenge me. Perhaps I may have ended up grinding way too much like I usually do for RPGs, as I like to fine-tune my units before progressing the story. What can I say, the min-maxing lizard brain in me likes to see the numbers go up.

I’ve ended up completing maps and collecting characters for every area I unlock, I’ve become a completionist who won’t leave any stone unturned. I’ve put in way more hours than I had originally planned, and I have zero desire to gain those hours back. Unicorn Overlord has been a refreshing experience for gaming for me as it lets me play at my own pace, shows me new and interesting things as soon as I’m ready for it, and rewards my exploration and experimentation generously. This game got me to stop playing Helldivers 2, and that’s saying a lot. I can’t wait to get back to Fevrith and see what else it has in store for me.

 

 

Unicorn Overlord deserves a crown, scoring a 4.5 / 5.

 

Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox consoles, and the Nintendo Switch.

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