Review: ‘Unicorn Overlord’ Is a Beautiful but Different Tactical Role-Playing Game

Rebellion against the Zenoiran Empire in “Unicorn Overlord”
Alain, left, and Scarlett are part of a rebellion against the Zenoiran Empire in “Unicorn Overlord.” (Sega/TNS)

Despite its name, Vanillaware is anything but bland. The Japanese studio is known for developing cult classics that are unconventional but stand out for their visual flare. They look like playable anime with characters inhabiting lush and vibrant hand-drawn worlds. The artistry is so distinct that fans can instantly pick out a Vanillaware title from a screenshot.

Its previous work “13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim” was a fascinating but flawed sci-fi gem. For its latest project, the team produced a high-fantasy tactical game called “Unicorn Overlord.” It follows the exploits of Alain, a prince whose kingdom was stolen after the rogue general Valmore betrays the Cornia kingdom and usurps the throne. Claiming to be a descendant of the Zenoiran Empire, he renames himself Galerius and takes over the world of Fevrith.


Ten years later, Zenoiran forces have descended on the isle of Palevia, where Alain sought refuge. The prince defeats the enemies and discovers the secret of Galerius’ speedy takeover. He returns to the mainland with one mission: Free the world from the tyrant’s grasp. That campaign will take long hours as this tactical role-playing game has players building a rebel army from scratch.

It starts from a small squad and quickly expands to an enormous cast of characters. Players will meet many of them as they liberate towns and cities and become embroiled in the local drama. “Unicorn Overlord” has more than 60 distinct characters and players can also craft other recruits to fill out other units.

It’s a lot to keep track of because when players help someone, they often add friends or attendants to the staff and the roster quickly balloons out. Although it features a huge cast, several characters will have to sit out missions because “Unicorn Overlord” limits how large squads and armies can be based on Renown.


Players start off with a lowly grade, but as they become more successful defeating the Zenoiran minions, it rises. They’re also awarded Honors, which is the resource used to increase the size of squads or add more military squads. Basically, the more players break the shackles of Zenoiran tyranny, the more sophisticated, flexible and powerful the Liberation Army gets.

Having many members of a unit is important because “Unicorn Overlord” has an unusual combat system. When players engage a foe, they have little agency. It goes into a battle where the computer calculates the winner. Players will see the back-and-forth of the turn-based combat, but they don’t choose the actions.

The best that players can do is essentially program their units. They can offer parameters when actions take place, prioritizing healing for clerics or guarding allies if they’re a heavily armored hoplite. The magic in the gameplay is fine-tuning and figuring out which characters work well together based on weapons and skills. It’s akin to building a Rube-Goldberg machine with intertwining parts that cascade to full effectiveness.


Eventually, squads become like specialized tools that excel in certain situations and against distinct enemy types. Once players find a combo that works, it’s best to keep them together. That’s because folded into the combat are relationship and rock-scissor-paper fighting systems. Hunters fire arrows that shoot down winged foes while swordfighters takeout thieves and other scout-type enemies. As party members fight alongside each other, they build a bond called rapport that blooms into somewhat entertaining side stories.

All of this is reminiscent of “Fire Emblem”, but Vanillaware adds a twist as distinct as its art style. Players have to guide their troops to meet enemies almost as if “Unicorn Overlord” was a real-time strategy game. Positioning becomes important as a way to prevent enemies from taking over the protagonist’s base.

Players also build up a resource called Valor, which they spend to use special abilities that aid allies or hurt adversaries from a top-down perspective. These are tide-changing moves and are vital in the more difficult battles. It adds another layer of strategy and becomes another way for Vanillaware to distance itself from other games in the genre.

The one problem with “Unicorn Overlord” is that its plot takes a while to pick up after a derivate beginning. What saves this part of the campaign is the little dramas between the characters. With more than 60, the way their stories intertwine is remarkable and it has a way of engrossing players with just enough narrative fuel to power them through a long campaign.

’Unicorn Overlord’

3½ stars out of 4

Platform: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X and Series S, Nintendo Switch

Rating: Teen

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