In a year full of karting games, we didn’t expect the last one over the line to feature unicorns. In all honesty, we didn’t expect Wildshade: Unicorn Champions to be a karting game at all. We very much judged a book by its cover, and assumed this was going to be some kind of lifestyle sim where we spent most of the game brushing manes. We did a whole lot of assuming, and none of it was correct.
Wildshade: Unicorn Champions is not only a karting game in unicorn-clothing, it’s a brutal one. It has no qualms with beating you repeatedly when you’re down. Find yourself in the middle of the pack, surrounded by other unicorns, and you can be sure that you will be battered with crystals, whirlwinds and lightning bolts, a mess of a unicorn at the back of the race.
But while it’s savage, it’s also accessible. Wildshade: Unicorn Champions is the first karting-style game (i.e. a racing game with drifts and weapons) that we’ve played that has auto-drive and auto-steer activated as default. These are features that were first introduced in Mario Kart 8, and have been an option in most karting games since. It’s a lovely feature that allows younger players to compete, since they don’t have to press accelerate through the whole race, and they don’t have to worry about falling off of tracks either. It gently nudges them in the right direction, leading to no sudden wrong turns.
Wildshade: Unicorn Champions has the feature on permanently, probably because we’re riding a live animal that will always move forward and would rather you didn’t jump them off a cliff, thank you very much. On the one hoof, it’s wonderful for younger players, but on the other hoof, it feels completely alien to an adult on first play. There’s no braking, no pumping the accelerator round corners. You are always on, always accelerating. It takes some getting used to. We found ourselves holding A when we didn’t need to.
Once you do get used to it, however, there’s a lot that’s familiar about Wildshade: Unicorn Champions. Much unlike actual horses (we’re not sure about unicorns; we’ve never ridden one), you can power-slide round corners. Holding RB gives you a slide in a single, uncorrectable direction, and letting go of RB gives you a boost. It took us a while to get used to this too, mainly because there’s no visual feedback on the slide. We weren’t convinced we were getting anything like a boost after completing one. But be reassured, you definitely are.
With that in our locker, we moved onto mastering the weapons. Because, as it turns out, unicorns are masters of magic, too. There’s a neat dual system: you can pick them up through your traditional Mario Kart crate pick-ups, or you can slowly generate them by picking up small star-like drops, jumping over fences, or power-sliding. A meter ratchets up until it hits 100% and becomes an item. That’s a neat system: if a unicorn in front of you is snaffling all the weapons, you can still earn your own through some slick power-slides and jumps.
It’s got a quirk, which is something we’re going to say a lot in this review. When you grab a weapon pick-up, it overrides any percentage score that you accumulated through the secondary means. It never made sense to us: we’ve gone out of our way to perform jumps and pick up stars, yet it means nothing if you then grab an item box. Why they weren’t two separate methods of garnering items, we don’t know.
The weapons themselves are all a bit low-to-middle tier. They’re skins on weapons you will probably know: there’s a Bullet Bill-style weapon that shifts you into a pegasus. A whirlwind is a green shell, a fireball is a red shell. There’s a blue shell and a lightning bolt too, just in case you get too far ahead. But these all come with the added frustration that they can’t be fired forwards and backwards. That gets more debilitating than you might expect. When you’re in front, the game loads you up with the green-shell whirlwinds, but since you can’t fire them backwards, you’re left firing them forwards where they will – more likely than not – thump YOU on the noggin. But since you want more weapons, for the chance of getting the game’s two mine items (did it really need two?) or a mushroom-like wind blast, then you’re forced into using it.
As mentioned, there’s something in the bake that makes Wildshade: Unicorn Champions an absolute bastard when it comes to the melee of combat. Our guess is that it’s a combination of insane rubber-banding (hit an enemy and they will come shooting back at speed to compete with you again), and weapons that can deal widespread damage. As soon as you get close to the peloton on Wildshade: Unicorn Champions, you will become the target for continuous damage, and it’s entirely possible to go from first to eighth in one barrage. For our kids, it was often too frustrating. The Career mode in particular, where the difficulty wasn’t adjustable, was simply too challenging for them.
It’s one of those games where I’d love to sit the lead designer down for an interview, because there is a good game, with real care put behind it, but there are so many design decisions that make me go ‘but why?’. Get hit, and you not only decelerate as you would expect, but you also can’t use your powerslide to regain speed. It’s a threefer: you’re hit, you’re slow, and you have no means of getting back up to speed, fast. The Fun Police turn up whenever you get leathered by an item.
There’s the power-sliding, too, which only works in certain situations. Slide into a jump and the game does not compute. It glitches and jiggles, creating a horrible graphical effect, and then decides that you have been hit by a weapon. We’re not sure if it’s intended or a bug (we can understand that horses would have trouble sliding into a sudden leap), but, whichever it is, it doesn’t look good and is as infuriating as they come.
We’re focusing on the negatives because they kept bucking us off the unicorn when we least wanted them to. But mostly Wildshade: Unicorn Champions is a ride that will pass the time. The auto-correction on the steering means that you’re never worrying about the right direction or getting snagged on walls, so you can concentrate on jostling with the enemy. There are plenty of tracks to work through, with a fine line in mirrored stages and night-time versions. And, best of all, each track has at least two secret routes for you to find and thread-the-needle through. Honestly, some of them are the most discrete and thin secret routes that we’ve seen since Koopa Beach on the N64.
Mode-wise, there’s a Campaign that works a bit like a persistent Battlepass (if you’ve played Disney Speedstorm, you will know what it feels like), a series of cups to race through across multiple difficulties, and free races with up to four players locally. As you’d expect, the enjoyment is taken up a notch when you play with three other unicorn lovers.
There’s also a stable and breeding option, but – for the life of us – we can’t figure it out. We chuck horses into the breeding pen, and sometimes it lets us breed them, sometimes it doesn’t. We assume that we’re accidentally shacking two male horses up together and the game is shrugging at us, but we can’t see a mention of horse sex at all. Once we do get a breeding pair, they produce a horse that… doesn’t seem to appear in our stable at all. It’s a conundrum, an enigma, and no doubt someone will appear in the comments to tell us how it works, but it seems to have barely any impact on the racing or horse abilities out of cosmetics, so we backed away slowly and left it alone.
Wildshade: Unicorn Champions isn’t anywhere near the best karting games of the year. It’s too quirky to get close. But if you have younger unicorn fans in the house, then you can be reassured. There are some fantastic accessibility features, and – as long as you keep to Easy difficulty – Wildshade: Unicorn Champions will satisfy your little ones’ fantasies of being elite unicorn riders.