unicorn overlord review vanillaware atlus
Screenshot by Siliconera

Review: Unicorn Overlord Is a Feudal Endeavor

Two sibling series have seen very different paths since the SNES era, despite both being similarly acclaimed. Tactics Ogre may have only managed to live a bit longer itself, but it birthed a world of similar isometric turn-based tactics titles. Ogre Battle, on the other hand? It didn’t ever extend its squad-based real-time strategy influence very far outside its own borders. So Unicorn Overlord is a welcome, refreshing return to the beloved formula.

Recommended Videos

Vanillaware and Atlus? These are seasoned, trusted hands, thoroughly capable of recapturing that magic in the modern era. And with such a long break since we’ve seen anything like it — the nods toward some of the ideas in Symphony of War notwithstanding — there’s also a lot of room for the developers to shape systems without worrying about the minutiae of precedent.

In Unicorn Overlord, you control Alain, a rightful heir to a kingdom, and you wander around freeing the continent from an evil empire’s control. Like many Japanese games set in a world of Western fantasy, Unicorn Overlord is happy to revel in tropes and callbacks. It reminded us of Fire Emblem in a lot of those ways. The Ogre games were well-known for storytelling, and this game’s writing understands the structure and cadence of its inspiration. It doesn’t quite stick the landing on making choices and competing factions feel three-dimensional, but it tries.

If you never played Ogre Battle — and it’s been decades, so you’re forgiven if you haven’t — a primer: Unicorn Overlord is a real-time strategy game with the ability to pause. Maps are smaller than a traditional RTS, but instead of huge armies, you deploy crafted squads of up to five units each and set them with equipment and move logic to act on their own when they meet on the battlefield.

The gameplay works best on the game’s larger, more elaborate maps, with many different paths to monitor and environmental elements to consider. The world map is the tactical map, which both creates a feeling of immersion and saves Vanillaware from having to make even more art assets. There are even a few opportunities to scout out missions beforehand, approaching them from different angles. These were neat! We wish there were more.

It takes a bit to work up to that, understandably, and you’ll also find tiny skirmishes peppered about to liberate each town. These are usually too compact and simple to offer many decisions to players, and the game would probably be better off without them. (It’s fine if the towns went away with them; there are so many.) Thankfully, the repeatable maps for gaining experience have different configurations for variety, as you’ll probably need to stop at them from time to time to catch up the back half of your team.

The way that Unicorn Overlord keeps throwing units at you means you’ll generally have full squads without going out of your way to hire mercenaries. That can be nice! But it does keep you from spending your funds on someone new and interacting with what might be the most common building type.

It also means that building a clockwork squad with orders and conditions may get pushed back a bit as you’re constantly adding and changing the cogs. There’s a lot of smart conditions you can apply to these moves! And we wish we’d been able to interact with this system more often. Most of the time, though, going through all these menus and things would take longer than just grinding a replayable skirmish map, and the pure stat increase of leveling is often more effective.

The robust character appearance customization taking money you need for equipment isn’t great, and hiring and promotion slowing your progress to full five-unit squads is a shame too. Usually games have too many currencies; this may have benefited from one or two more.

Speaking of character appearance, some of these designs are particularly egregious, especially in the generic recruits of the same class that you can just hold up next to each other and compare. Guys wear protective armor and feature a whole range of body types. The women? They’re all small, they’re all cute, and often they show up for war in fetish gear. So much of this game is fun and good, and the Vanillaware art style is genuinely beautiful, but this has got to stop. It makes it tough to recommend to anyone when there’s so much of this and it’s unavoidable, no matter how compelling the strategy gameplay manages to be.

The aesthetics, character design aside, are top-notch. Vanillaware has a lot of experience building worlds in just this sort of style, and the Unicorn Overlord version looks and runs great. We reviewed the game on the Nintendo Switch, and we never encountered any performance issues or technical downgrades typical in multiplatform titles. Often games with such elaborate art treatments don’t treat the user interface with as much care, but it’s clear that Vanillaware spent a lot of effort on making things as clear and usable as possible. Which is helpful! Especially considering how many found it tough to approach classic Ogre Battle releases.

Carrying the whole package is an excellent Basiscape soundtrack, doing its best to remind you of all the games it should. It’s a little Tactics Ogre and a little Valkyria Chronicles, with a track that sounds like “Adagio for Strings” added to the mix for some reason.

Beating Unicorn Overlord on Tactical difficulty will take roughly 50 hours, and if you prefer a play style with more micromanagement, you could extend your time with it for a few dozen longer. There’s an online arena functionality here, which could be fun as a post-game way to try to optimize your clockwork squad instructions to the maximum. It doesn’t seem like a big focus for the game, though.

unicorn overlord review vanillaware atlus

Unicorn Overlord is, as a whole, a loving and well-crafted return to the Ogre Battle formula. If the character designs aren’t a dealbreaker for you — and we’d understand if they are — there’s a lot of interesting tactical decisions to make.

Unicorn Overlord, developed by Vanillaware and published by Atlus, launches March 8, 2024 on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series and Nintendo Switch.

8
Unicorn Overlord
Unicorn Overlord combines the timeless tactical RPG genre with overworld exploration and an innovative battle system for a unique epic fantasy experience in the iconic Vanillaware style. Switch version reviewed. Review copy provided by company for testing purposes. Unicorn Overlord is, as a whole, a loving and well-crafted return to the Ogre Battle formula. If the character designs aren’t a dealbreaker for you, and we’d understand if they are — seriously, can they at least figure out how shirt fabric works? — there’s a lot of interesting tactical decisions to make.
Pros
  • Try exploring areas as much as you can before entering battles. You’ll find useful items and see all your options for next steps.
  • Please at least figure out how shirt fabric works, character designers.
  • Sure, there are a lot of fun weapons, but what if you just stuck with “recruit” equipment for a while? Those weapons increase experience growth. Only drop them when you need the firepower boost.

Siliconera is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article Kaiju No 8 Retreads Overused Tropes and Ideas in Its First Episode
Read Article The Secret to Delicious in Dungeon Worldbuilding Is Attention to Detail
Delicious in Dungeon Marcille
Read Article Mysterious Disappearances Anime Builds a Fascinating Foundation
Read Article Review: Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files Is Fine
Rating: 7
Review: Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files Is Fine
Read Article Review: Rose & Camellia Collection Earnestly Approaches a Silly Premise
Rating: 7
Review- Rose & Camellia Collection Earnestly Approaches a Silly Premise 1
Related Content
Read Article Kaiju No 8 Retreads Overused Tropes and Ideas in Its First Episode
Read Article The Secret to Delicious in Dungeon Worldbuilding Is Attention to Detail
Delicious in Dungeon Marcille
Read Article Mysterious Disappearances Anime Builds a Fascinating Foundation
Read Article Review: Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files Is Fine
Rating: 7
Review: Touch Detective 3 + The Complete Case Files Is Fine
Read Article Review: Rose & Camellia Collection Earnestly Approaches a Silly Premise
Rating: 7
Review- Rose & Camellia Collection Earnestly Approaches a Silly Premise 1
Author
Graham Russell
Graham Russell, editor-at-large, has been writing about games for various sites and publications since 2007. He’s a fan of streamlined strategy games, local multiplayer and upbeat aesthetics. He joined Siliconera in February 2020, and served as its Managing Editor until July 2022. When he’s not writing about games, he’s a graphic designer, web developer, card/board game designer and editor.