Unicorn Overlord Is A Fascinating Tactics RPG With A Fresh Take On An Old Genre

Unicorn Overlord is a fresh take on real-time strategy.

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key art from Unicorn Overlord

I’ve written a lot about Unicorn Overlord here at Inverse, from its gorgeous characters art to the welcome ability it gives you to smooch your teammates. But while we knew that it’s a tactical RPG inspired by old-school strategy games, exactly how its combat works remained a mystery. But thanks to a recent hands-on preview, I can confidently say that its battles are nothing like what I expected — and they’re far more interesting as a result.

My time with Unicorn Overlord covered roughly four hours at the beginning of the game, from a prologue introducing its story’s political struggle to the campaign’s first major boss battle. You play as Alain, wayward prince of Cornia. After an introductory scene where the country’s revered General Valmore overthrows your mother, Queen Ilenia, the game picks up years later, as Alain fights to free the world from Valmore’s dominion.

Unicorn Overlord begins with its protagonist fleeing as his future kingdom is overthrown.


Developer Vanillaware’s last game was 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, a visual novel with strategy elements sprinkled in. As Atlus representatives told us during the preview, Unicorn Overlord is essentially the opposite. Alain’s story isn’t the game’s focus, and from what was shown, it’s fairly typical fantasy fare. You’re on a quest to take your kingdom back from its usurper, gathering allies to join your Liberation Army along the way. During the chunk of the game I played, side quests offered more interesting stories than the main quest by offering a look into the lives of allies and enemies alike, but the preview’s embargo prohibits me from going into too much more detail.

Rather than reading through reams of text like in 13 Sentinels, you’ll spend most of your time in Unicorn Overlord on the field of battle, and that’s where it shines. Combat in Unicorn Overlord took me entirely by surprise, blending real-time movement on an overworld map with battles that play out automatically when two opposed units meet.

All of Unicorn Overlord’s strategy actually happens before your soldiers start swinging their swords. At the beginning of each stage, you arrange your units into squads, which start out capped at two members, but can be improved to include more. Where you place individual units in their squad’s two-by-three grid is extremely important. Units in the front row can block attacks from hitting those in the back, and some enemies can attack an entire row at a time.

Organizing your squads well can be the difference between victory and defeat.


More important, though, is who you decide to pair up into squads. Unicorn Overlord features a whopping 60 character classes, and from the handful I saw in the demo, there’s a world of difference between each of them. For instance, pitting a mage against an armored knight is much more effective than attacking one with your spearmen, and archers have an ability that guarantees they hit their target, making them perfect for pinning down thieves that dodge most attacks.

For about the first hour, I couldn’t see how this system would hold up over the course of a whole game. Arranging my units to take advantage of their unique skills was fun, but I wanted to be able to control what they actually did in battle. But as the game goes on, it opens up into a deep strategy system that I can easily see gobbling up hours of my time.

Units can gain more skills over time, and Unicorn Overlord features a system similar to Dragon Age: Origin’s tactics or Final Fantasy XII’s Gambits, which let you program party members’ behavior before battle. There’s a cerebral kind of thrill to watching your brilliant plans carry your soldiers to success that’s much different from the joy you get when you make each move yourself. It also means that once you’ve set your tactics to perfection, you can blow through battle after battle without slowing down to enter each command manually.

Battles play out automatically based on commands you set beforehand.


Before your units even meet their foes, there’s a whole other layer to Unicorn Overlord’s strategy on its map. You control each squad individually, and both allies and enemies move simultaneously in real time. In the levels I saw, the goal was usually to capture an enemy fort guarded by a boss.

Along the way, you can capture smaller enemy outposts, which then become bases that you can deploy units from. Other structures, like bridges or watchtowers, offer bonuses like healing or increased range for your attacks. As you roam around the battlefield, you also need to be careful not to let an enemy capture your own main base, or it’s game over.

A squad’s speed is determined by which unit you designate as its leader, so assigning a cavalry unit will let them zip across the battlefield, while a squad headed by a flying knight can soar over obstacles. That can also lead to trouble, like when I built a squad of three wizards for the demo’s final battle, only to find they were so slow that they spent the entire fight trying to catch up to their more nimble allies.

Leaders also determine each squads’ skill, which you can use on the map. These range from healing and defense boosts for nearby squads to artillery strikes using arrows and fireballs. Before using these skills, you need to gain points by defeating enemies, so there’s an element of strategy to eliminating weaker squads at first so you can weaken stronger foes before engaging them.

Unicorn Overlord’s two-layered strategy rewards careful maneuvers and quick thinking.


As you’ve probably gathered, Unicorn Overlord is a dense game. You can’t steamroll through by leveling up your units, as you’ll need to make smart decisions on different levels. I found that out the hard way in the demo’s final battle. After trudging my way across the map, I managed to whittle down its boss only after sacrificing multiple units and exhausting all of my squad skills. But as I moved my strongest remaining squad in to deliver the coup de grace, I suddenly failed the mission. The camera zoomed back in on my base, revealing that I’d forgotten to put the squad guarding it back in place after chasing down a nearby enemy, and another hostile squad slipped in to capture it at the last possible moment.

After the mind-bending time-travel story of 13 Sentinels, my biggest fear with Unicorn Overlord is that its thinner narrative won’t be enough to hold my attention. In the four hours I played, I did meet a handful of interesting characters, but it remains to be seen whether their journey will add up to anything more than a predictable tale of returning a monarch to his throne.

Even if Unicorn Overlord’s story doesn’t grip me, I’m confident that its combat will. After my last-minute defeat in the demo’s final battle, I spent the rest of the day running down all the things I could have done differently and actually secured my victory. In the heat of battle, it turns out I’d forgotten about a lot. While that might make Unicorn Overlord sound unapproachable, the fact that I immediately thought of multiple ways I could have turned the fight around tells me that its strategic depth goes far beyond just picking the right units to the job. I’m eager to put the game’s tactics to the test when it launches on March 8 — and hopefully this time I’ll remember to have someone keep an eye on our fort’s front door.

Unicorn Overlord releases for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox consoles on March 8.

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