Unicorn Overlord Review – Tactical Superiority

Draw from enough unique inspirations, and eventually, a game begins to feel entirely novel. That’s the sensation that emerges as you play Unicorn Overlord, Vanillaware’s vast fantasy adventure of tactics, strategy, and storytelling. I was consistently reminded of other systems and mechanics from prior genre releases, but the resulting combination felt consistently original and entertaining, even after many hours of battle and exploration.

Players control a young, exiled prince in a high fantasy world as he gradually gathers an army to take down an all-powerful empire. There’s a significant focus on story and character development from beginning to end. The fact that the plentiful “thees and thous” frame an especially trope-heavy and familiar plot doesn’t diminish the enjoyment. Instead, I was delighted by the confident and well-written dialogue and its willingness to embrace the fun of countless long-lost siblings, figures in disguise, and redemptive character arcs. By the end, some interesting choices let you shape the game’s outcome, but this isn’t a game of bold narrative surprises – simply well-told comfort-food fantasy antics.

Unicorn Overlord is awash in systems that govern your army’s advancement and improvement. Whether it’s equipment, honor, renown, gold, or character level, the primary goal is growing your army, promoting your combatants, expanding the potential size of each unit, and setting up a team that can triumph in the field. Everything works together admirably, and it’s great fun to tweak each small squad unit to create unstoppable combos of damage, defense, and healing.

Battles are an intriguing mix of real-time troop movement and small unit-to-unit skirmishes. By adjusting each character’s formation placement and tactical decision-making before a melee, you set them up for success. However, once an exchange begins, your role as commander is in the back seat; you can’t affect the outcome anymore – only watch as it plays out. As such, much of the gameplay is about clever unit placement, movement, use of items, and pre-battle powers. I enjoyed overseeing a large and diverse army of knights, witches, gryphon riders, and elven archers as they strode into a righteous rebellion.

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Vanillaware’s attention to detail and high production value are on full display. The vast top-down overworld is stacked with detail and vibrant, illustrated backdrops. The score is grand and dramatic, accompanied by a tremendous bounty of memorable voice acting. Most notably, both story moments and unit battles unfold featuring the studio’s striking trademark art and animation style, which leverages exaggerated deformation of everything from weapons to character curves and musculature to accentuate the fantasy setting and tone.

While I consistently enjoyed my dozens of hours with Unicorn Overlord, the latter half of the game begins to show some cracks in the fun. Because you can preview the outcome of each battle (which is good), many players will eventually do what I did, and begin to skip the bombastic visuals of a given skirmish to get on with the larger battle. The thrill of those lavishly illustrated scenes sadly begins to lean toward tedium.

Likewise, the plentiful unit types you both recruit and face in battle are initially intriguing but eventually become extremely challenging to keep straight. Imagine a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” where you can throw any one of dozens of distinct hand signs, and you can see the dilemma. Tactical complexity is good, but I ultimately found keeping all the distinctions straight slowed down the pacing and sense of mastery rather than enhancing an already rich tactical simulation. Combine those two problems, and late-game battles can feel repetitive and muddled.

Even acknowledging those frustrations, I love the variety of encounters Unicorn Overlord presents and the seamless way so many interlocking game systems contribute to an overarching saga of magic and warfare. From beginning to end, the game feels crafted, balanced, and deep, without sacrificing approachability. Set aside preconceptions from the unusual name, and you’ll find an epic well worth exploring.

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