Unicorn Overlord Developer Interview Discusses Frequent Iterations, 10-Year Development

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As previously announced, this week’s issue of Weekly Famitsu magazine #1840 includes a release special feature for Vanillaware’s strategy RPG Unicorn Overlord.

The feature includes a developer interview with director and character designer Takashi Noma, lead game planner Wataru Nakanishi, and as well as Atlus producer Akiyasu Yamamoto. The translated version can be read below.

A New Strategy RPG

Now that Unicorn Overlord has been released, how do you feel?

Noma: As the director of this title, I was also involved in a lot of illustration work, and I oversaw a wide range of programming and scripting while thinking about the game’s content. This game feels like I’m exposing everything about myself, so I was really scared about what players would think (laughs). Of course, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback as well, so I’m looking forward to seeing how players will take to it.

Nakanishi: We’ve received comments expressing anticipation for the release on social media. However, it seems like the expectations have increased, and I’m really nervous about whether we can live up to those expectations.

Please tell us about how you started this work’s development and the process.

Noma: I’ve always told Kamitani-san (George Kamitani, President of Vanillaware) that “I love strategy RPGs.” After the development of Dragon’s Crown was finished, it was time to decide what game to make next and that’s when the planning for this title began; almost simultaneously with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim.

Nakanishi: From there, we refined the plans, and it was around 2014 when it actually became a project proposal. After that, I was involved in the development of other titles, so it’s not like we were continuously working on it for about 10 years, but counting from the beginning, it took about 10 years to finally release it.

In a previous interview, I read that you first brought the project to Atlus in 2016.

Yamamoto: It was around the time after we released Odin Sphere Leifthrasir that we received the project proposal. So we proposed it as a project to develop at the same time as 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. The key aspect of the initial proposal was the online element. Since it was taking the online elements from Dragon’s Crown and this time combining it with a strategy RPG, offering something unprecedented, we had no reason to decline.

It may seem like an optional feature, but initially, the online element was the main focus of the project, wasn’t it?

Noma: Initially, we were considering an online element where players would participate in battles within large battlefields, competing to capture territory. However, after considering the scale of the actual game and each platform’s specs, it ended up being more like battles between squads in the current “arena” format. Additionally, since we already had numerous scenarios prepared set in an open world at that point in time, we felt that making online the core of the game might not be appropriate. So we prepared the online element in a different form and introduced it as a bonus element.

There are various systems in this game that differ from typical strategy RPGs. For example, the real-time combat system is rare. Was this decided from the beginning?

Noma: Yes, it was decided from the beginning. Since I personally like such systems, I had been eagerly anticipating new releases with such features. However, instead of just waiting, we decided to create something we love ourselves, which was the starting point.

Yamamoto: Hearing that, we strongly empathize with you. For example, we believe that Dragon’s Crown became a hit title because it inherited and reconstructed the “belt-scrolling action genre,” which was dying out at the time. Although the genre is different, this game’s proposal fit within the same context, and the system is structured in such a way that it is the only way to realize the concept.

You mentioned creating something you love, and this game contains numerous elements reminiscent of the beloved strategy RPGs of the 1990s. How did you go about incorporating such elements into the story and systems?

Nakanishi: Initially, we started with the design of generic classes like soldiers and hunters, as well as the systems of strategy RPGs. However, rather than proceeding with development sequentially, unique characters and the setting gradually solidified as we progressed in the process of creating the game.

Noma: Once the characters were mostly finalized, we brainstormed and expanded our ideas as we placed each character into the world. We thought about what kind of scenarios would be suitable for each character as we went through this process.

On Designing the Characters

With over 60 companions alone, the number of characters is immense. Was it planned to introduce such a large number of characters from the beginning?

Noma: No, initially we didn’t plan to introduce such a massive number of characters (laughs).

Nakanishi: Since it’s a game where you organize multiple characters and have them act as one unit, we thought a certain number of unique characters would be necessary. However, we definitely didn’t anticipate it would exceed 60… (laughs).

Noma: In every aspect, I would say we pushed ourselves further… For example, if there was a class without any unique characters, it just felt like we needed at least one. Thinking in this way, the number of companions grew massively. Also, there were characters initially not planned to be companions, but if there were requests saying “We want this character to join us,” we made them recruitable. Furthermore, we didn’t plan to include class changes initially.

When we introduced a certain advanced class and received feedback from other staff members like, “Then shouldn’t that be for all of them?” or “Wouldn’t it be better if each class had its own unique idle pose?” we decided to include more, which instantly doubled the workload for all classes (laughs). As we aimed to realize “it would be nice if we could do this,” the workload grew immensely.

Yamamoto: You’ll definitely feel it when you play. You’ll think, “Why are new classes appearing so frequently!?” (laughs). As you progress through the game, you’ll surely feel the sheer volume of content.

It’s truly remarkable! How were you able to incorporate so much “love” into the game?

Nakanishi: One of the reasons is that we had a longer development period, and as a result, we had more time available (laughs). Initially, there were no angels. Although we had discussions like “It would be great if we could make them,” we had almost given up. However, with the help of the staff who had finished development on 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, we were able to successfully implement angels into the game.

[In a launch countdown tweet, George Kamitani mentioned that Vanillaware had exhausted their development budget for the game.]

It seems like you were able to realize most of the elements, but were there any that you couldn’t implement?

Noma: Thanks to the staff’s hard work, we managed to implement almost everything. But if I had to mention something, I would say we wanted to allow customization of the faces of ordinary soldiers when hiring them. Also, we wanted to incorporate Kamitani-san’s idea of armor being damaged and falling off due to damage, but the sheer amount of graphic work would have increased exponentially, making it impractical… (laughs).

Additionally, we wanted to depict reflections and dirt on shields and armor. However, due to the sheer computational load and technical challenges, we had to abandon these ideas.

I’m sure that originally you wanted to prepare unique graphics for each character rather than using class-generic outfits for everyone, right?

Noma: Actually, there was a time when we experimented with that. Specifically, we were experimenting with the witch Jana. We tried altering decorations such as removing her hat or adding armor parts to her chest, and we even considered giving her distinct animations. However, when it came to implementation, we realized the immense task of preparing such variations for numerous characters.

Also, we were concerned that having unique outfits might obscure the class distinctions and make it difficult for players to understand those changes, “Is this character really from that class?” Consequently, we decided to unify the outfits by class.

What aspects were you paying attention to in terms of character design, Noma-san?

Noma: Personally, I like strong, bold women with heavy makeup, so I was careful in making sure that not all the characters in the game would look like that (laughs). I carefully balanced various aspects such as the distribution of classes, the gender ratio, and the prevalence of common tropes while designing the characters. I hope that players can find at least one character they really like when they play the game—that’d make us very happy.

The voice cast for the characters is very impressive. How did you decide on the casting?

Nakanishi: First, we created a casting dream list, where we assigned each character to a voice actor we envisioned for them. When we submitted it, Atlus surprisingly fulfilled most of those dreams (laughs).

Yamamoto: We also consulted with Basiscape (music and sound production studio Vanillaware has worked with in the past), and we tried to accommodate your requests as much as possible.

Noma: I thought, “There’s no way they’ll approve this,” while considering the casting, so I’m really grateful.

Nigel and Sanatio have the same voice actors as Takatoshi Hijiyama and Tsukasa Okino from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim. Was this intentional casting?

Nakanishi: Yes, it was (laughs). The idea came from the staff who worked on Taketoshi Hijiyama’s character route, and we decided to incorporate it as a form of self-homage. By the way, Kamitani-san also helped with the production of this game, and coincidentally, the lines for Nigel and Sanatio were written by Kamitani-san himself.

That’s a nice Easter egg. There are plenty of intimate conversations and contract rituals. What was the reason for incorporating these?

Noma: Initially, the contract ritual system was only available for a few characters. However, Kamitani-san suggested, “Wouldn’t you want this for all characters? Maybe even allow the shopkeeper to participate in the ceremony.” After seriously considering how to make that happen, we decided it would be best to provide rituals for at least all the allies. But then, we realized we would need intimacy conversations for everyone as well… I remember feeling overwhelmed with the additional workload (laughs).

Nakanishi: Regarding the intimacy conversations between ally characters, we created them based on relationships and combinations that would seem fun to realize.

Noma: As for the contract rituals, we thought players would want to give a ring to their favorite characters and fight alongside them. If I were a player, I’d definitely want that, so we made it happen. We also prepared specific lines for each ritual, which I think adds an element of enjoyment for players during replays or when giving rings to different characters. By the way, the initial characters available for the contract ritual were the ones featured on this magazine’s cover illustration.

Iteration as a “Unicorn Overlord 3”

I was surprised to find out that you can skip battles. The battle scenes, which required a large amount of work, are something creators would definitely want players to see. Did you prioritize the game’s playability over this aspect?

Noma: There are actually over 100 background graphics for the battle scenes. Still, we made it possible to skip them. We were aware that players might not see them all. Since it’s a strategy game, we want it to progress smoothly. Some of our staff members suggested not allowing skipping, but it’s better for players to enjoy the game without frustration. You can skip everything if you want, or just watch your favorite characters in action.

In this game, even if you only see the battle results, the reasons for winning or losing might not be clear, so there will be opportunities to analyze battle scenes eventually. That’s why introducing the skip feature was okay. There’s also a fast-forward function, so players who want to enjoy the graphics can experience it in different ways.

Nakanishi: We also have a double-speed function, and we hope players will use it in combination with fast forwarding. By the way, we wanted to offer even higher speed multipliers for the fast-forward feature, but we had to abandon the idea due to processing load concerns.

Moreover, there are many special conversation scenes that can only be viewed after battles, right?

Noma: Yes, there are voiced lines as well, but there may be lines that some players never see.

Nakanishi: If you defeat enemies with Brave Skills, the game doesn’t transition to battle scenes, so you might miss the dialogue accidentally if you defeat enemies that way.

Noma: However, this game has a lot of content. You can think of the animations and dialogue as a bonus.

While they can be considered a bonus, the animation and dialogue are too gorgeous to think of it that way (laughs). Looking only at the strategy part, it seems like it could have worked with a stage selection system. Why did you decide to implement an open world?

Nakanishi: That’s exactly right. Initially, we planned to have a stage selection system. However, when we created the world map, we thought, “I want to explore this field.” That was the starting point, and as we developed the field part and wanted to make use of, it gradually branched out. Eventually, the field became an open world as we wanted players to be able to choose their own route instead of following a fixed path.

Noma: As the conversation kept changing course, the workload ballooned once again (laughs).

Yamamoto: I remember it well. I recall when we witnessed the transition to open world after all those changes, and Kamitani-san pointed out, “This is already like ‘Unicorn Overlord 3’!” (laughs).

Even though it’s the first installment, it underwent so many improvements that it could be considered the third installment from the beginning (laughs).

Noma: Initially, when we were creating the map, it was designed for players to tackle stages in a predetermined order. While there was a certain enjoyment in completing tasks in that manner, it inherently limited the breadth of strategies. Considering the emphasis on team composition and the freedom to gather members in any order, it seemed like a great match. Hence, we decided not to set a specific order for progression.

Nakanishi: However, because of that, we had to rewrite most of the story (laughs). The story was initially written in a linear order, but now we had to adapt that to a more free-form progression, which brought about various challenges. While we maintained certain elements of the setting, the flow and content of the story changed drastically to align with the new system.

Finally, what would you like to say to those who are unsure if they want to buy this game?

Noma: This game offers high degrees of freedom and difficulty selection, allowing players to enjoy it whether they prefer challenging or easy gameplay. You can enjoy strategic gameplay and immerse yourself in the world and its characters. With a variety of ways to play, I encourage you to try the demo currently available. If you find yourself even slightly intrigued, please enjoy an adventure with Alain and his companions.

Unicorn Overlord will be released for the Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S platforms on March 8, 2024.