Unicorn Overlord: Vanillaware’s Compellingly Unique Xbox Debut

For all of Vanillaware Ltd’s storied, 22-year history, the Japanese developer of Odin Sphere and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim has never shipped a game for Xbox consoles. That is, until today. Unicorn Overlord, a new fantasy RPG title published by ATLUS, is out now for Xbox Series X|S, and it may well be the studio’s best game yet.

Unicorn Overlord is not your typical strategy RPG. Players will find gameplay elements reminiscent of beloved classics; the real-time movement of character groups from Ogre Battle 64, the close-up battle vignettes of Fire Emblem, the relationship building conversations of Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, and the fine-tuning combat gambits of Final Fantasy XII, all combined in a way that feels entirely new, wrapped in Vanillaware’s stunning, trademark 2D art style.

You play as Alain, a young leader of a resistance movement that aims to overthrow the tyrannical Zenoiran empire that has enslaved the world. Along the way, you will recruit so many allies from different races and classes, each with different strengths, aversions, and their own reasons for fighting. You’re literally reclaiming the whole world, hearts and minds included, one patch of ground at a time – coloring in a map using your weapons instead of paints.

The real fun is in how these systems mesh together; as your army swells, so do your options to wage war with the empire. Things start simple and approachably, with players commanding a few teams of two around small maps. As you build your renown through victory, you’ll be able to field as many as 10 teams of 5 characters at once, all playing different roles on the battlefield. Hulking Hoplites hold down chokepoints with massive shields in hand. Flying units, such as Gryphon Knights, soar over obstacles to press an advantage, while ranged Hunters and Witches can take over towers to help those on the ground gain an advantage with combat assists.

You will have to use your wits and skills to manage your troops, plan your battles, and make decisions that will shape the fate of the world. Yet – and this is the magic of Unicorn Overlord – the complexity scales so smoothly, it keeps everything manageable.

After each battle, there’s a fun “tidying up” that takes place – with roving enemies removed, you navigate Alain across the map, harvesting resources, visiting and improving towns, and speaking with townsfolks and soldiers. There are also key decisions to make, as you’re often given the option to recruit an enemy you’ve just defeated, or put them to the sword for their crimes. Some of these decisions are agonizing to make, with no clear right answer. For example, I decided to spare a rather unlikeable mage as I knew I’d need his (literal) firepower for an upcoming siege. Another level boss I turned over to the town guard for judgement, only for him to quickly escape the brig. Still waiting to see how that comes back to bite me.

For all there is to say about the game, nothing beats playing it yourself. Fortunately, you can try the game for free by downloading a meaty, free demo from the Xbox Store. The demo allows you to experience several hours of the campaign, where you’ll develop a feel for the core gameplay mechanics and features. Best of all: you can also transfer your save data from the demo to the full game, should you choose to continue your quest… and you will want to.

Getting Started

Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up which may help you through the demo, and beyond:

  • Travel in groups – it might be tempting to fan your troops out all over the map during encounters, but there’s a lot of value in having a group of 2 (or more) units travel together. Once combat is initiated, you can use the controller’s bumpers to cycle through those nearby units to see which is likely to have the best results in a battle.
  • Don’t just deploy everyone at the starting base – sometimes it’s best to have a swift unit like a gryphon rider or knight take over a forward operating base so you can deploy slower units closer to the level boss or another key objective.
  • Spend every point – the game reminds you multiple times, but it can be easy to forget your special moves. You’ll start each battle with a few scant ‘ Valor Points’, which can be spent on deploying your units. But, building them up by capturing objectives or defeating enemy units, you can begin to spend them on special moves (one for every fighter in your army) or on deploying more troops.   Spending points wisely can change the tide of battle, and later in a level, an Archer’s ranged attacks or a Knight’s charge can be used to soften up bosses before going in for the killing blow. At minimum, use Alain’s double XP bonus on teams before they’re about to finish off a group, especially if one of the members of said team is a bit under leveled.
  • Don’t stick to the story – In the early part of the game, you’re given one, very clear objective – and I’d recommend avoiding it for a few hours. Exploring the world map reveals huge optional sections that contain side quest battles that can help you level, gain new allies with abilities you won’t have, and unlock new locations with new items to buy. It’s astonishing how far you can travel without completing the main storyline – and how many other storylines you’ll find by doing so.
  • Search high and low – there is much to be found in the exploratory phases after a battle; glowing sparks indicating an item or resource are easy to find, but some are hiding out in forests or in areas seemingly out of reach. You may need to take Alain the long way around a coastline that initially seems impenetrable to get to some caches, but there is always a way!

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