Unicorn Overlord review – endless options propel this strategy RPG to epic heights

Vanillaware’s beautiful art brings to life a staggeringly deep strategy RPG where building units is just as fun as orchestrating battles.

Building an ideal party is one of my favourite things to do in any roleplaying game where the cast size matches a Wes Anderson flick – purely because, in the good ones, there’s no right answer. You can prioritise your most-loved companions over any real strategic logic. Heck, I sometimes just pick the characters who I think look cute together, regardless of whether they’ve spent any on-screen time together. Unicorn Overlord is a strategy RPG all about that lovely party tinkering, and this time, the cast is instead as big as one of those animated sitcoms that have been on air across a couple centuries.

That almost sounds like too much to manage, but I promise it’s not. Unicorn Overlord starts small. The evil Zenoiran Empire sweeps through a high fantasy world, seizing large swaths of land, murdering the Queen, and displacing the only living heir to the throne who later grows into a resistance-leading warrior (AKA you, AKA Alain.) Heard any of that before?

Unicorn Overlord plays with overfamiliar tropes throughout its entire 50-ish hour runtime (there’s a lot of side stuff to dig into, by the way), though that didn’t really bother me because – with over 60 unique characters plus ones that you can create and “hire” yourself – the game shines when it’s dishing out piecemeal vignettes that slowly contextualise its world.

You see, the resistance starts with orphaned prince Alain and his small crew of friends, before quickly ballooning into a dense army that welcomes new additions after every big battle across its explorable map, pulling criminals, noblemen, clerics, long lost cousins and, err, bird-thing-people into your ranks constantly. Meeting them all fills in the big world’s different corners with complicated histories and, more importantly, personal stakes that you sometimes have influence over.

Here’s a Unicorn Overlord trailer to show it in motion.Watch on YouTube

For example, one early battle gives you the decision to free or execute Gammel, a thief who invades a small town with his criminal band, after he gives you an admittedly sad sob story. I chose to let him go and, to my surprise, he showed up 10 hours later as a changed man, trying to liberate another woodland town from the bandits he once led. Another sees wyvern-tamer Hilda, sister to one of your own troops, brutally quarantine a diseased village on the empire’s behalf. Do you let your ally convince their sister to join the resistance? Or do you simply take her out mid-battle? I’m not sure what would happen to these characters if I chose differently, but I’d be more than happy to sink another couple dozen hours to find out.

Learning about the Fevrith region’s expansive cultures through the eyes of its very different citizens easily outshines anything that happens in the central (and quite rote) liberation story. There are some instances where a character appears again after hours and hours, just for me to scratch my head, wondering who they are. And the game sometimes stumbles with a quantity-over-quality approach to its many, many side stories, making some encounters as forgettable as a random battle. But overall, Unicorn Overlord’s untrackable number of moving cogs makes its quest for liberation feel both absolutely sweeping and, sometimes, surprisingly intimate.

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord, showing an elven city under attack

Lex climbs up a tower in the overworld in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

Alain runs through a liberated town in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord, showing the Tactics menu

Image credit: Sega / Eurogamer

I love that friendly soldiers don’t just feel like disposable pawns on the battlefield, largely thanks to Unicorn Overlord’s great writing. Having said that, please let me explain why bashing these people together like toys was so much fun.

When you’re not peeking into the character’s personal lives, Unicorn Overlord puts you in charge of epic battles that mix real-time strategy and party-centric RPG elements. You can fiddle with and create ten different units that house up to six characters, and then command them to run across and capture garrisons on large, top-down maps. Capturing a garrison means you can then deploy units from it and once units bump into an enemy, the game zooms right in, Fire Emblem-style (with all the excitement of a kid forcing you to watch its imaginary fight choreography) to show you how the battle plays out bit-by-bit. Watching these one-on-one encounters is also how you find out which parts of your strategy are working or not, since you can actively see how units compliment each other.

Unicorn Overlord’s vast and creative map design opens the door for strategy and emotion that’s constantly shifting. One battle makes you extinguish a large forest fire while also moving through enemy territory, an exercise that had me rubbing my forehead in an effort to not anxiously combust. Another has you protect a coliseum against a four-way invasion using trebuchets, archer watch towers, and roadblocks to turn the assault into a tower defence-like encounter. The game is practically overflowing with this kind of creative, varied, and gimmicky battles that force you to have a very different gut reaction each time.

A gryphon rider swings an axe at enemies in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

Alain and Scarlett talk in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

Pasta, salad, and bread served on a table in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

A group of warriors do a victory pose in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

Image credit: Sega / Eurogamer

But gimmicks like forest fires or sandstorms aren’t the only things that sell Unicorn Overlord’s grandiosity. Both the maps and your unit size will eventually fatten to the point where you absolutely need to send forces off in different directions, turning you into a board-wide thinker. A time limit also means that you can’t cheese most encounters by, let’s say, carefully poking an enemy and quickly retreating. And each unit’s stamina stops you from relying on the overpowered ones.

While pushing units into danger is all good and fun, the game’s real joy comes just before each battle, in the preparation. Assembling all ten units is an absolute blast thanks to the almost infinite number of characters and varied classes. There were several times in my playthrough where I simply deleted each unit and started over from scratch because the game just gives you so many options to experiment with. I built archer units solely focused on assisting friends and taking out flying enemies from afar. I built a team of wyvern and gryphon riders accompanied by one sole healer, just so that unit could comfortably fly solo across the map without backup. The possibilities feel endless, especially when you’re micromanaging every character’s equipment and under-the-hood strategy.

Alain holds up a brown chicken in the overworld in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

Alain has the option to execute or spare a bandit in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord, showing Scarlett encountering a tall woman in a sandy city

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord, showing a top-down battle.

Image credit: Sega / Eurogamer

Final Fantasy 12 fans might be glad to hear that its Gambits (a menu that allows you to customise a friendly AI’s routine) makes an appearance here under the name of Tactics, confusingly. Since you don’t have direct control over your teams once they engage in fights, Tactics lets you decide how characters act ahead of time, placing certain conditions on abilities and whatnot. Maybe you only want archers to target weaker enemies in the back row. Maybe you want clerics to buff allies before healing them. That’s all up to you in the Tactics menu that has practically every variable you can think of – between unit sizes, status’, and stats – allowing you to hyper-regulate every single action. Juggling a couple dozen fighters is never overwhelming (due to how incrementally your army grows) and always playful (due to how many different knobs and levers there are to play with.)

Alain attacks an enemy in a screenshot from Unicorn Overlord
Image credit: Sega / Eurogamer

There’s a lot to love outside of battle, too, since you can skip about in an explorable overworld. That’s where you can speak to NPCs, visit towns for provisions, gather resources, play mining mini-games, and dig for hidden quests. Soldiers who are paired up in the same unit can also build rapport and eventually unlock special conversations that flesh out not only their budding relationships but also their sometimes weird quirks, which is always nice to listen to.

Unicorn Overlord ends up feeling like the perfect middle ground between an RTS and a more traditional turn-based RPG thanks to the top-down, board-wide strategy, the more intimate turn-by-turn fights, and the ability to customise each unit like its very own roleplaying party. New possibilities sparked in my mind every time I saw “X/Y Joined The Liberation Army” pop up on screen. That’s an opportunity, an invitation, to play and experiment and mix and match. And I welcomed it at every turn because Unicorn Overlord gives you a staggering amount of impactful options when sticking teams together, but most of all, the game’s endearing quests mean you actually care about every chess piece in your roster.

A copy of Unicorn Overlord was provided for review by Sega.

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