Unicorn Overlord, the latest title from Atlus and Vanillaware, was what you would call a surprise in every sense of the word. The general public wasn’t really expecting an announcement, and for the game to be an all-new tactical RPG at that, it was indeed a very pleasant surprise.
During Tokyo Game Show 2023, I was invited to an exclusive 1-hour session with Akiyasu Yamamoto (ATLUS), producer for Unicorn Overlord, as he walked me through the various features of the game along with discussions about combat details, game length, and much more. Needless to say, if you’re a fan of the genre or just a fan of Vanillaware titles in general, this is a game you’ll want to keep an eye out for.
*Some parts of Yamamoto-san’s quotes for this Unicorn Overlord feature have been slightly edited for brevity and readability. Some minor spoilers might be included.
The session starts with a prologue of events around 10 years before the main storyline takes place. Queen Ilenia, the ruler of the Kingdom of Cornia, is set to make a gallant stand at the hands of the Rebellion forces led by Valmore. Josef, a Holy Knight and trusted aide of Ilenia, was entrusted with the care of Alain, the crown prince. As they make their escape, Ilenia then faces Valmore in a battle to the bitter end.
Fast forward to the present, and Alain has grown up and is now accompanied by his childhood friends, Scarlett and Lex. Despite living peacefully in Palevia, Alain is attacked and deprived of his peaceful daily life. He decides to stand against the great evil and is determined to raise the flag of rebellion.
The story of Unicorn Overlord unfolds as the main character, Alain, is guided by the power of a mysterious ring and meets characters from various walks of life. According to Mr. Yamamoto, in this game, you will be exposed to the conflicts and dramas of many characters from Alain’s perspective and watch Alain grow and develop.
Up until now, Vanillaware has been typically known to make side-scrolling titles, but Unicorn Overlord stands out not just as a game from an unexpected genre but also as a general approach that freshens things up and even incorporates not-so-standard tactical RPG features.
“This is a new perspective that we’ve taken with Unicorn Overlord, where the field map can be viewed from a top-down angle, and other in-game systems such as combat and exploration have the new top-down viewing angle,” says Yamamoto.
Apart from the unique take on combat, which we’ll get to in a bit, what stands out is the sublime art style that Vanillaware is known for. Combining a very distinct paintbrush/watercolor style for the backgrounds paired with intricately animated character models, the world comes alive in vibrant detail that makes even the darkest and most dramatic scenes a sight to behold.
Seeing the game move in real-time was very impressive and silky smooth, and while the already-released trailers are curated viewing experiences, the actual gameplay and events are not too far off. It does look superb, and Vanillaware’s attention to detail and animation is just amazing.
At this point in the session, I was then treated to details about how the combat plays out in Unicorn Overlord, and while the previously released trailer shows glimpses of it, I got the chance to clarify and ask a LOT of questions that Yamamoto graciously answered.
Yamamoto also jokes that Unicorn Overlord has a lot of combat aspects that could take us the whole day to talk about, so I was only able to ask about combat specifics up to a certain point in our session.
While there are too many to mention, I’ll be summarizing the combat flow from what I learned below in bullets:
- On the map, there are two flags – Blue (Player) and Red (Enemy). The base objective is to move your units towards and capture the red flag. Player and enemy units move in a simultaneous fashion, and players are free to recalculate their approach per unit based on their knowledge of how the enemy units are moving in real time.
- “Units,” as described, are the forces with which you can move around the map and consist of individual characters. While the prologue showed high-level combat that featured multiple characters forming one troop, you will start the game with two characters and build your way up to gaining and recruiting more to join your cause.
- There are different unit types in Unicorn Overlord. Thieves are more dexterous and quick, so some of these units will have a skill that will let them completely evade attacks. On the other hand, Archers have a skill that grants them perfect accuracy when targeting.
- Combat takes place, and these units will face off against other units, whittling down the opposing numbers until they are exhausted. That said, it is possible that a troop will not completely be defeated after a single clash should they still have individual characters remaining, and they can live to fight for another turn.
- Combat automatically plays out, and both sides will be assigned passive and active skill points that will play out without any input from the player. Once these skill points are exhausted, the “turn” is resolved. As mentioned, it is possible to resolve a turn without completely killing off a troop.
- Yamamoto explains that the “order of combat depends on the action speed of each character.” The unit that inflicts more damage during that round will be the winner and they will have priority access to attacks in the next phase.
- Each unit will have a numbered banner beside them, signifying the number of times they can attack during the stage. This adds another layer of strategy that players will have to deal with, as they will need to manage the resources for tougher opponents. This can be replenished by “resting,” but as a word of caution, players will need to rest in a safe area because the other units will continue moving in real time.
- The overall progression of story and gameplay revolves around combat->capture (in terms of the aforementioned flags)->story event, and that loop goes on throughout the game.
Unicorn Overlord was initially unveiled with the tagline of being the “rebirth of the tactical fantasy RPG” and one unique selling point is that even if it is a tactical RPG, players can freely move around the map. Battles do not play out in usual square or hex-type turn-based affairs but instead play out in real time once forces engage each other in battle.
However, this is where things get interesting. Unicorn Overlord will allow players to explore the world map freely as it switches to a bird’s-eye view, and while enemies will be visible during that time, players can choose to ignore them and continue exploring the world. Exploring will eventually lead to encountering scenarios and stories that will trigger combat.
Mr. Yamamoto provides an example of a village being attacked by thieves, and players can choose to either take on that scenario as signified by two crossed flags or just avoid it completely. That said, it is quite possible that players will end up in a high-level area, so doing battle against these units is not advisable.
Mr. Yamamoto emphasizes that you can freely traverse these five unique and vast areas. I can’t fully explain nor show how big the map is, and while Yamamoto did not give any direct comparisons, I can personally assure you that these areas are vast expanses of land littered with many points of interest and enemies.
“Simulation RPG for us is a simulation game that allows you to include growth and development elements of an RPG, but in addition to that, ‘Unicorn Overlord’ offers another way of having fun freely exploring a vast area that an RPG game has to offer by adding new features to offer a new experience,” says Mr. Yamamoto.
This amount of freedom is a very unique feature that Unicorn Overlord is pushing front and center, and as a blend that you don’t normally see together in this type of game, players are in for quite the experience.
Yamamoto also bared that the initial aim of Unicorn Overlord was to create a new simulation RPG, but as development and character design progressed, the team ended up having a lot of stories for these characters and thus having the game include more story elements than what was initially anticipated, but there’s a good mix of both combat and story elements that will keep players engaged but also interested in the characters.
Yamamoto also revealed the game length of Unicorn Overlord, which would take around 50 hours for just the main storyline alone. “If you stick to the main story, it’s about 50 hours of gameplay, however, there are a lot of side-quests and activities in addition to the main story that would increase that to roughly 100 hours.“
Various side activities abound in Unicorn Overlord, and they will depend on what region of the world players find themselves in and can be triggered by the characters they encounter. Sub-quests offer a good mix of story and combat, while Field Quests are more combative in nature, and they are tasks and random stories that can be found while exploring.
When asked about replayability or the existence of New Game Plus, Yamamoto comments that players experience the whole of the main storyline and experience the new combat features in their initial playthrough. More details about Unicorn Overlord’s features and content will be revealed in future announcements.
Towards the end of our session, Yamamoto shared a message for Filipino and Southeast Asian fans and players looking forward to playing Unicorn Overlord.
As Unicorn Overlord is expected to have a global launch, we look forward to having players in the Philippines and Southeast Asia to play alongside the rest of the world as this game will have online combat options. The game is launching in March, which is not too far away, so we hope that players will look forward to it and pre-order it, and we hope to see lots of players competing with one another to claim the title of the strongest among their friends or other players.
Unicorn Overlord is a title that we really worked hard on and we would love it if a lot of people got to see and experience it, and we’re looking forward to its release.
Whoa there, online options? I proceeded to probe more about this aspect of Unicorn Overlord, and Yamamoto described that players can choose a unit that they’ve leveled up through the story to compete online. “unit selection and strategy building in this game is very similar to deck building in a card game. In online play, it’s like pitting your deck against someone else’s to see who is stronger. In order to facilitate the competitive nature of this experience, we built an automated battle system. We think that lots of players will enjoy the deckbuilding aspect of Unicorn Overlord.”
Unicorn Overlord is scheduled to release on March 8, 2024, for PS4, PS5, Xbox Series, and Switch.