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Unicorn Overlord (PS5) review: An astoundingly beautiful and fun tactical RPG for everyone

By Zelda Lee - 26 Mar 2024

Unicorn Overlord (PS5) review: An astoundingly beautiful and fun tactical RPG for everyone

Unicorn Overlord is one of those games where it’s immensely challenging to review and write. For one, the game is huge with a capital H. I’ve spent more than 45 hours with the game and yet I've only just scratched the surface of Fevrith's varied landscapes – from its lush grasslands and harsh deserts to the serpentine mountain trails and enchanting forests. Yet despite the lengthy game time, Unicorn Overlord is one of those rare games that makes you keep coming back for more.

Developed by Vanillaware, creators of classics such as Odin Sphere and more recently 13 Sentinals: Aegis Rim, and published by Atlus (also behind greats titles like Personal 5 and the Shin Megami Tensei series), Unicorn Overlord is a tactical role-playing game that’s often compared to classics such as Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics from the 90s, and speaks volume to the kind of expectations that gamers have of its developers. But I can say this with confidence: Unicorn Overlord is this generation’s tactical RPG flag bearer.

The world of Fevrith is a beautifully crafted open world that comprises of five distinct kingdoms. Players navigate this world from an overhead perspective, in a HD-2D visual style made popular by Square Enix, yet Unicorn Overlord distinguishes itself with its more artisanal approach to environmental visuals. For instance, battles begin on the same map and same scale. Once combat starts, sprites are deployed at strategic points such as forts and towns, with the game’s geography – forests, roads, rivers, mountains – becoming important aspects to the tactical landscape.

As with all tactical RPG games, your characters in Unicorn Overlord do not fight alone but in units. Characters are grouped into units on a 2x3 grid, ranging from story-specific heroes to mercenaries that were recruited prior. This transition from the broader map to focused tactical combat underscores the game’s strategic depth. Each character uses a combination of active and passive skills reflective of their class, contributing to the unit’s overall effectiveness in offense, defense, and support roles. What makes the game so unpredictable is its diverse roster of fantasy combat classes, and there’s never one direct strategy to complete the battle.

The inclusion of a diverse cast, recruited from the very territories that you fought to liberate, adds a rich layer of context and connection to Unicorn Overlord’s story. Unlike traditional bases such as castles or schools found in other games, Unicorn Overlord places these characters across Fevrith and grounding them with homes and families in the regions players have to reclaim.

Even missions are an eclectic experience, featuring a mix of exploratory missions, skirmishes, character-unlocking side quests, and of course, the main storyline. These create an engaging, albeit sometimes overwhelming, pace. If you’re a big fan of the tactical RPG genre, then like me, it’s easy to get absorbed in the game’s myriad activities. Whether it's engaging in one more battle, or exploring new character dialogues through the rapport system, or maybe even visiting the tavern near a castle to hear the latest gossips, there's always something to do and suck you in.

Yet despite its complexity on the surface, Unicorn Overlord finds an elegant balance between the depth of its mechanics and the accessibility of its gameplay. The game's design thoughtfully modulates the amount of information and control it offers, providing simplicity where needed without sacrificing engagement. Playing on the “normal” difficulty setting, I've encountered and overcome challenges, finding myself unexpectedly delving into the tactics menus to optimise my units' abilities. This level of accessibility and engagement makes Unicorn Overlord inviting not only to seasoned tacticians but also to players who may not seek out the intense, often punishing, gameplay from games like Fire Emblem.

At its core, Unicorn Overlord follows the classic fantasy trope: a prince's quest to free his kingdom, reclaim his throne, and unify Fevrith through acts of chivalry and kindness. Despite the cliché and overused plot, the game injects personality and emotion into its characters, and the voice acting is right up there the best that I’ve ever come across – the tone and humour are carried out with aplomb. This attention to detail extends to unvoiced dialogue through animated character portraits, showcasing Vanillaware's hallmark art style. These portraits capture subtle emotions and enrich the game's visual storytelling.

As I continue on my 50-hour (as of this writing) gametime with Unicorn Overlord, it struck me that there hasn’t been a game that has left such a profound impact like it did. Not since NieR: Automata at least. My longing for a sequel to Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics (please, remakes do not count) has never been fulfilled, and I’m not sure if it ever will be. But Vanillaware’s Unicorn Overlord, with its unique blend of artistic brilliance and deep, strategic gameplay, is the best tactical RPG to have fulfilled this legacy – a game that not only meets but exceeds the lofty expectations set by those predecessors.

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