Unicorn Overlord Review (PS5) | Push Square


Vanillaware doesn’t miss. We’ve been spouting that line for ages, but with the arrival of Unicorn Overlord, it rings truer than ever before. Following up on the superb 13 Sentinels was never going to be easy, but the Japanese studio has somehow manged to produce an equally excellent game three years later — and it’s not even in the same genre.

Unicorn Overlord is a strategy RPG that takes obvious inspiration from classic properties like Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle / Tactics Ogre. It’s got an unmistakable old school air to it — not unlike Dragon’s Crown, another Vanillaware favourite — but it’s dripping in the developer’s trademark art style, and it’s decked out in modernised design. This is very much Vanillaware’s take on an established concept — again, just like Dragon’s Crown — but the title’s lack of originality never stops it from being a deeply fulfilling adventure.

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Set in a world of medieval fantasy, complete with magical artefacts, elves, and even big furry lion people, it’s the game’s plot that doesn’t quite weigh up to the rest of the package. Princely protagonist Alain is about as flat as revenge-seeking royalty gets, and the storytelling is largely dry and serious. In that sense, it’s all very Fire Emblem — but from a time when Nintendo’s series hadn’t gone full anime. It’s not bad, but outside of some especially dramatic scenes, it rarely has you glued to the screen.

However, just like in Fire Emblem, it’s the surrounding cast that’ll pull you through. Unicorn Overlord boasts over 60 recruitable heroes across a campaign that lasts around 50 hours — and you’ll no doubt grow to adore most of them. These are characters who earn your admiration through repeated battles, when they’re snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and trying their best to make you look like a tactical genius.

Some characters are introduced through the main story and will have a specific role to play, but many are found via side quests — optional battles that, more often than not, feel just as important to the overall plot. There’s a frequent influx of fresh heroes as you progress, and welcoming new allies to your army quickly becomes one of the game’s most addictive elements.

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This is because Unicorn Overlord’s true brilliance lies in its gameplay loop. It does a frankly outstanding job of keeping the ball rolling; there’s always a new tactic to consider, or a new hero to unleash. Even when you’re approaching the title’s final act, you’re still being presented with previously unseen unit types and abilities that can completely change your strategic perspective. There aren’t many RPGs where you can say party management is actually a highlight of the experience — but tinkering with your troops in Unicorn Overlord is genuinely engrossing.

It’s the game’s relatively unique unit system that makes all of this possible. Instead of utilising singular characters, you group your heroes together in order to create squads — and the combinations are practically endless. You can form balanced parties, with damage-tanking fighters in the front row, supported by archers and healers in the back, or you can go for specialised hit squads who’ll tear specific opponents to pieces — the choice is always yours.

Don’t worry if that sounds overwhelming, as Unicorn Overlord’s learning curve is largely a thing of beauty. To start with, you can only create two or three units, each made up of two combatants. But over the course of the campaign, you’ll steadily unlock more squads, while your existing parties can reach a maximum capacity of five characters. By the time you get to that point, you’ll have picked up on so many potential strategies through the game’s hands-on approach, and everything just unfolds in an impressively organic way.

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Once you’re done faffing about with your squads, you’ll need to deploy them. Battles take place in real-time, but the game can be paused at any moment, and stops automatically whenever a command is issued, or when something of note occurs. Maps are mostly linear in terms of structure — fighting your way from garrison to garrison, capturing them as you go — but additional hurdles, like barricades and catapults, are gradually worked into the formula.

Map by map, the game teaches you to observe your surroundings and plan accordingly. It’s not that Unicorn Overlord’s battlefields are especially complex; the title’s tactical depth stems from your ability to prepare. Deploying the right units at the right time, and then making the correct moment-to-moment decisions is how you’ll earn your victories.

Indeed, once two opposing units meet, the actual turn-based combat that ensues is automatic. Characters act based on their set tactics — essentially behaviours that can be tweaked — and the class-specific abilities that they have equipped. Again, the depth on offer — and the available customisation — is mindboggling (in a good way). On the game’s easy or normal difficulties, you don’t have to sweat the details, as default tactics will often prove effective. However, those who crave a challenge on hard and very hard will be forced to consider every possibility.

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This is where a unit’s individual strengths and weaknesses enter the equation. For example, airborne griffon knights take huge damage from archers, but archers are ineffective against shield-bearing infantry. For context, it’s never as simplistic as Fire Emblem’s weapon triangle because there are just so many different classes to consider, but generally speaking, strengths and weaknesses still form the basis of Unicorn Overlord’s combat system.

Our only qualm with combat is that, especially later in the game, battles can really start to feel stretched. When you’ve got a unit made up of five characters, and they’re fighting against five other characters, and everyone has access to a wealth of action points because they’re so high level, you can be sat watching these skirmishes for minutes at a time. And while it’s hugely rewarding to see the heroes you’ve so carefully nurtured take the win, longer fights will be the bane of less patient players.

Thankfully, there is a fast-forward button for when tedium sets in — and there’s even an option to outright skip combat scenes if you know exactly how things are going to pan out. And on that note, the game does provide you with a quick overview before each encounter begins. At a glance, it’ll give you incoming and outgoing damage totals, which helps you determine whether a fight with that particular unit is actually worthwhile. A very thoughtful timesaver.

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Meanwhile, outside of battle, you traverse a massive overworld map as Alain, but it’s not completely open. While you can forge your own path to a degree, and there are loads of optional sights to see, you’re often pushed in the direction of the next story beat. But still, having a such a wide world to explore helps Unicorn Overlord ground its storytelling, and in that sense, it feels much more like a traditional RPG than its peers — like you’re on an actual adventure, and you’re not just jumping between preset stages.

We said this about 13 Sentinels, and it’s the same deal with Unicorn Overlord: Vanillaware’s patented art direction elevates the experience to a substantial extent. It’s a gorgeous release, with fantastic character designs and some sumptuous backdrops. Even the menus are amazingly well presented, giving the distinct impression that crafting this game’s visual identity was a real labour of love.

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