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Unicorn Overlord is a must-play for tactics fans

Vanillaware's latest title is a wonderful homage to classic strategy franchises like Ogre Battle and Fire Emblem.

Atlus/Sega

Series like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem and Tactics Ogre (which got a lovely remaster in 2022) tend to dominate the conversation around SRPGs. And rightly so. However, with its latest release – Unicorn Overlord – developer Vanillaware is taking cues from older titles in a way that pays tribute to the classics while also providing something fresh and engaging for 2024. And after being completely engrossed by this beautiful mash-up of old and new, Unicorn Overlord feels like a must-play for strategy game fans.

Vanillaware isn’t shy about where it drew inspiration for Unicorn Overlord. Instead of typical grid-based battlefields, the game plays a lot like Ogre Battle 64, which has you commanding a handful of smaller squads that you maneuver around the map to intercept enemy forces and capture strongholds. Each squad has a captain who lends a passive bonus with party sizes that grow to five over the course of the game. But because you don’t have direct control over individual characters during fights, you need to be crafty about setting them up for success.

Unicorn Overlord features beautifully hand-drawn characters that reminds you of tactics games from the past.
Unicorn Overlord features beautifully hand-drawn characters that reminds you of tactics games from the past. (Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware)

Strategy is dictated not only by the position of each squad but also by which classes you choose and the actions you set (e.g. setting a command to attack the lowest health enemy or only hitting an opponent that’s already been debuffed). This results in gameplay that feels like fantasy football but for war. Look at you, you’re the general now. Except it’s better because you can see how well your art of war plays out, like when your archers take out flying enemies such as gryfons and wyverns that are naturally susceptible to their attacks.

But the strategizing doesn’t stop there, because outside of combat, there are other ways to manipulate battles. You can commandeer siege units like catapults and ballistas to rain damage down on opposing units before they get close. Alternatively, you can spend Valor points (which are earned by defeating enemies) to buff friendly combatants (haste, extra stamina, etc.) or soften up foes with targeted strikes like a cavalry charge. Then there’s all the various equipment and loot you’ll gather, which adds another layer of customization to your army.

Combat centers around skirmishes between squads of up to five characters each.
Combat centers around skirmishes between squads of up to five characters each. (Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware)

On top of straightforward spec bumps, you can give units additional turns or alter their abilities by adding poison damage to a spear or other weapon. And when you get everything set up just right, the results are devastating. One of my favorite combos was giving an archer and swordsman fire-based attacks to afflict a burn on enemies. Then I followed this up with a mage that ignites every burning opponent with additional party-wide damage at the end of a fight and I think you can see where this is going. Honestly, I’ve lost track of the amount of time I’ve spent looking at menus to tweak ascactions and equipment. But min-maxing each squad’s potential is a ton of fun all by itself.

Meanwhile, another feature Unicorn Overlord borrows from franchises like Fire Emblem is its Rapport mechanic. Characters in the same squad will grow closer over time, offering upgraded stats over time. Alternatively, you can improve rapport by sharing meals or giving gifts, and after enough bonding, you’ll get a cutscene that dives deeper into two people’s relationship. On top of that, the main character, Alain, can develop a romance allowing you to choose your best girl (or boy, in some cases, though I haven’t had the chance to try that out myself).

Usually, the goal of each encounter is to take over the enemy's stronghold without losing your own.
Usually, the goal of each encounter is to take over the enemy's stronghold without losing your own. (Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware)

Unicorn Overlord’s roster is massive too. It felt like every other battle I added a new member to my ranks, and before I even explored 50 percent of the map, I had more than 30 unique story characters. And if that’s not enough, you can also recruit mercenaries, which is arguably a more strategic decision as that lets you customize a unit’s growth (e.g. Keen types get extra crit while all-rounders receive more balanced stats and so on).

I also want to call out Unicorn Overlord’s visual design, which is flat-out gorgeous. It’s a clear homage to the 2D sprite-based graphics of old-school SRPGs, but it’s been polished up for modern HD screens. Portraits and character models are incredibly detailed and the animations are a joy to watch even after the 1000th time. Granted, Vanillaware occasionally succumbs to the trope of girl armor in games where male characters have huge sheets of metal protecting them while some female characters are much more scantily clad. Why does the witch class wear a bikini? We may never know, though this has been Vanillaware’s style for the last 20 years, so it’s not exactly a surprise. Really, my gripe with this is that there should be a few more himbos to balance things out.

A preview of battle results gives players the opportunity to adjust their squad's positioning, actions and equipment in order to achieve a more favorable outcome.
A preview of battle results gives players the opportunity to adjust their squad's positioning, actions and equipment in order to achieve a more favorable outcome. (Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware)

As for more general cons, the main one is that the game’s plot is a bit generic. It’s not bad, it’s just based on a familiar setup centered around disenfranchised Prince Alain (who probably not coincidentally looks a lot like Magnus from Ogre Battle 64, right down to the blue hair) and his quest to liberate his nation from the clutches of evil emperor Galerius. That said, there are still plenty of touching moments to keep the plot from getting too dull.

The other potential issue is that some may find the game a bit too easy. To start, there are three difficulty levels, plus an even harder setting once you beat the game. However, the amount of strategizing you can do means you can almost always have an advantage in battle, so depending on how you look at it, the game is hurting itself for having such a high level of control and customization. Though in my opinion, that’s a good problem to have.

Amalia is mommy.
Amalia is mommy. (Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware)

The most important thing about Unicorn Overlord is that it feels like a passion project from start to finish. Its visuals are wonderfully hand-crafted, and by adopting and then updating features and gameplay from Hall of Fame strategy titles, the game feels like a love letter to the genre as a whole. Heck, the CEO of Vanillaware even went so far as to pay for the game’s development out of pocket after its budget ran out. So while Unicorn Overlord might not appeal to everyone, tactics fans just got a new instant classic.