Unicorn Overlord


Review by · March 8, 2024

To say that the announcement of Unicorn Overlord left me in complete disbelief would be an understatement.

Vanillaware announcing any new game is exciting. The first moments of the Unicorn Overlord reveal trailer made me wonder what type of game they were announcing. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim was a success; it would make sense to make another story-driven game with branching paths. Vanillaware is also well-known for action RPGs, and it’s been a while since they developed a new one—surely it was time.

The moment passed, and all my expectations lay in ruin as the trailer revealed a strategy game in which you command squadrons of characters on a real-time battlefield, engaging in turn-based battles with enemy squadrons. I could not believe what I was seeing. Vanillaware defied all logic and did something no one had ever done—they built the spiritual successor to one of my favorite games of all time, Ogre Battle.

I discovered Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber as an RPG fan playing exclusively on a console famous for not having RPGs. I spent hundreds of hours experimenting with different armies and exploring how the story changes according to my actions; I always have an Ogre Battle 64 file ready to play. After all, there has never been another game like it—until now.

Unicorn Overlord begins with the Kingdom of Cornia under attack. Queen Ilenia entrusts the safety of her son, Alain, to her trusted knight, Josef, as she makes a doomed last stand against her former general turned traitor. Josef secretly raises Alain to be a knight, and ten years later Alain leads the Liberation Army into Cornia to reclaim his homeland and all other nations from the clutches of the evil emperor subjugating the entire world of Fevrith. You play as Prince Alain and lead the Liberation Army as you reclaim lost territories one region at a time.

This story probably sounds familiar. Lost royalty, evil empires, and rebel armies are standard in fantasy worlds and tactical RPGs such as Fire Emblem. Thankfully, the story leaves the homage behind after the initial setup and begins charting its own path, but it is slow to start. Some of the early story beats had me rolling my eyes at how dull (or even lazy) the story direction seemed. As I continued liberating additional regions, the story slowly unfolded to reveal more going on than I initially thought, assuaging many of my concerns.

Even so, I enjoyed the smaller local stories more than the main plot. The numerous optional side missions explore local events like famine and plagues, and you learn how the peoples in each region of Fevrith cope with imperial rule. Many side stories introduce the friends and family members of characters fighting in your army, and helping them further adds to the feeling of reclaiming lost territory. The narrative decisions within these guests do not feel as complex as some other tactics games, but they encourage repeat playthroughs to see the different outcomes.

Josef, a Paladin on horseback, attacks a soldier defending a church.
Watching the battle animations never gets old, but skipping the animations for simple or unimportant fights saves a lot of time.

As expected from any Vanillaware game, the story and battles are presented in their signature hand-drawn character art, displayed against beautifully painted backgrounds. Dialogue scenes display simple animations as characters speak and react to the moment, but I noticed the camera would often cut away before big moments requiring unique animations. Presumably, that is because their animating talent was instead put to good use perfecting the battle animations.

The battle scenes are some of the most gorgeously animated I have ever seen. The opening moments demonstrate what to expect from the late game. Watching a full squadron take down enemy counterparts while lightning flashes around you is incredible to watch, and it was exciting to see my fully developed characters in similar scenarios later in the game. The visual designs for characters and classes are distinct and memorable. I was almost more excited to see what a new class looked like than to see what abilities the class would bring to the battlefield.

The game’s opening moments become more memorable through excellent music. The song played at the beginning of the game might also be the best track, which unfortunately sets an expectation that most of the soundtrack cannot match. There are some other standout tracks throughout the game, but the music is mostly inoffensive and serves to make the best tracks stand out more.

Alain decides weather to recruit or execute his opponent at the end of a battle in Unicorn Overlord.
Story scenes can present tough decisions that alter the story’s outcome and potentially offer you new recruits.

Story scenes outside of battle are fully voiced with solid performances across the board. Poor voice direction can weaken stories of war and liberation more easily than other narratives with less weight, and I was pleased that the cast was up to the challenge. Dialogue during battles and on the overworld is not voice-acted. This is a smart decision for most battle situations, but omitting voice acting for the overworld character-to-character “rapport” conversations (this game’s version of Fire Emblem support conversations) makes them feel less important even though they contain much of the individual character development.

Unicorn Overlord excels the most in stage and systems design. Vanillaware has given strategy fans of all skill levels an incredible tool kit that encourages diving deep to find your perfect style, with an abundance of unique opportunities to try out your new strategies in different scenarios. If you are not interested in deep experimentation and just want to see the game, the system designs respect your time by allowing you to ignore the details and automatically optimize your army or adjust the difficulty settings at any time if you choose.

I am certain the team took extra care designing these systems because Unicorn Overlord reintroduces a style of tactics gameplay that is likely brand new to most players. Fans of the Fire Emblem series and other recent tactics games like Triangle Strategy and Tactics Ogre: Reborn will find a lot of shared DNA here, but the character customization options and moment-to-moment gameplay of Unicorn Overlord are very different from familiar grid-based tactics games.

The removal of the grid is the first big difference; characters move freely in any direction. Characters also move in real time instead of instantly moving between positions on the battlefield in a turn-based fashion. Adding real-time strategy elements to mission design makes battles feel very different from grid-based games, but Unicorn Overlord is not a traditional real-time strategy game.

Alain prepares to fight an enemy squadron of Gryphon Knights during a castle seige.
Squadrons follow your commands in real time, but turn-based combat begins when you meet an enemy squadron.

What most sets Unicorn Overlord apart from Fire Emblem and its contemporaries is that you command squadrons of characters, not individual characters, and those squadrons battle enemy squadrons in a traditional turn-based manner—not in real time. This blend of real-time with pause and turn-based strategy is a unique approach that simulates large-scale battles in a way other tactics games cannot. Because you can pause the action, commanding units is never stressful or hectic the way a traditional real-time strategy game can be when battles become difficult.

Most of Unicorn Overlord‘s playtime involves completing quests, which are large battles against enemy squadrons. Exploring a traditional RPG overworld allows you to discover quests. This is a surprising innovation because every strategy RPG I have ever played has some variation of a large map where you select the next mission, consider optional missions, or revisit old areas to complete side quests and buy items. Unicorn Overlord throws out that system entirely and replaces it with a seamless world you can traverse with few limitations. Main quests block some exploration, but you can discover and then run past many side quests to return to them later or complete them in any order.

That said, the overworld is more than a glorified battle-selector. It is full of towns for purchasing items, forts for upgrading your army or hiring new recruits, and hidden secrets and resources to gather. Exploring the areas around each mission is helpful because battles take place on the overworld map exactly where you discover them. Fighting in close quarters around a single town requires a different strategy than a large battlefield where your troops may be marching a long distance. Even quests that did not introduce new mechanics surprised me with combinations of familiar tactics.

Alain rides past a fort while on horseback.
The inclusion of a traditional overworld feels like a genuine innovation that I hope becomes a new standard for strategy games.

The terrain is usually viewable before you begin, but the battles vary further with siege weapons, weather effects, and other stage-specific elements that you won’t be able to prepare for ahead of time. The enemy might have set the area on fire or installed siege weapons in a field of thorns, or the area could be prone to sandstorms or full of geysers. I was regularly surprised by what each stage had to offer, and I enjoyed adjusting my unit formations and general strategies accordingly.

I was initially not thrilled by the inclusion of time limits during each quest. Its inclusion makes sense after learning how all the gameplay systems work together, but I was still concerned until I completed several quests. I was worried that the only viable strategy would be to rush toward the boss as quickly as possible to beat the timer, but thankfully, that was not the case. Unicorn Overlord is real-time with a pause button, so the timer stops while you make a plan, issue commands, or watch a battle. Even so, the existence of a timer at all can cause stress for some players, and I wish they had included an option to remove it on the easiest difficulty.

When your squadron and an enemy squadron meet on the battlefield, a battle begins. Before the fight, you can change your formation, adjust your equipment and skills, and use items. Taking your time to plan ahead is expected because once the battle begins, your input in the outcome is already decided. Battle animations play automatically following the instructions you provided beforehand. Characters take turns using their abilities and a winner is determined based on the remaining HP of each squadron; the loser is knocked back and temporarily stunned on the battlefield.

I find great satisfaction in making a plan, winding it up, and then watching it go. Many of my favorite RPGs use these types of systems that are smart enough to work independently with minimal input. However, this can be a dealbreaker for some players who prefer a more hands-on, in-the-moment approach. Despite this, the game is not an “auto-battler.” You are always in control of what happens. You have simply made those decisions at a different point in the process than you would in a game like Fire Emblem. Vanillaware’s combination of class design, formations, equipment, and skill priorities creates a system with nearly infinite possibilities.

The status screen for Alain's squadron that contains Alain, a knight on horseback, and an armored hoplite with a large shield.
Even early in the game, the variety of formations, skills, and equipment encourage experimentation.

Unicorn Overlord has more than 70 different classes that all feel unique and useful. Even classes I was not especially fond of ended up in my squadrons for unexpected situations where they were the best solution to the problem. The freedom to change your strategies at any moment encourages experimentation and enables unexpected strategies. Changing equipment to activate different skills or changing your formation to adjust attack patterns can turn the tide of a difficult battle.

I cannot overstate how much I enjoy Unicorn Overlord, but it is not a game that everyone will enjoy. Even with accessible difficulty options, there are still several systems to manage. If you enjoy Fire Emblem, make sure you give Unicorn Overlord a chance—try the demo. Personally, I believe this is one of the best strategy games released in a generation. You can play Fire Emblem, Triangle Strategy, and Tactics Ogre, and each one will give you a great strategic experience, but no modern games play like Unicorn Overlord. The experience is unique for everyone who plays it, every time they play it. The replay value of Unicorn Overlord cannot be overstated; there are multiple difficulties, multiple story paths, and more items, characters, and classes than you could ever properly appreciate in a single playthrough. In short, Vanillaware has created the spiritual successor to Ogre Battle and surpassed its inspiration in almost every way.


Masterclass in systems design, varied stage design that is never predictable, amazing battle animations, nearly infinite possibilities for customizing your army, excellent replay value.


Complex systems and menus to learn could discourage some players, story is something you've heard before, voice acting is missing from some character development scenes.

Bottom Line

Unicorn Overlord is the most unique strategy game you will play this year, and fans of "easy to learn, hard to master" systems may be replaying it every year from now on.

Overall Score 92
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Joshua Lindquist

Joshua Lindquist

Joshua is a video game enthusiast with a passion for niche RPGs...plus The Legend of Zelda. When he's not writing articles, he's probably writing code, hunting down more games to add to his collection (backlog?), or pestering someone to play Ogre Battle 64 (you totally should).