Unicorn Overlord Pushed My Strategy Skills to the Limit — And I Loved Every Second

Inverse Score: 9/10

Video Game Reviews

It’s been a tough fight. My Gryphon Knights scored an early win by flying over a mountain, bypassing the winding road to the castle to capture a catapult and thin the ranks at the nearest enemy outpost. That eased my ground troops’ advance, until we were faced with three fortified bases that none of my units had the strength to push through without heavy losses. I spend the last of my Valor to call in a ranged attack from my archers on their main base and then move in with the strongest unit I have left. Just before they make contact with the enemy, unexpected reinforcements appear across the map and — I look at the clock. I’ve stayed up playing Unicorn Overlord until 3 a.m. again, but I’m still going to stay up and defeat their commander before I head to bed.

Unicorn Overlord is the latest release from Japanese developer Vanillaware, published by Persona maker Atlus. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, a visual novel with light strategy elements, gained Vanillaware legions of new fans, who may now be perplexed by the latest offering. After all, Unicorn Overlord inverts the 13 Sentinels formula, focusing almost exclusively on deep strategic gameplay, with a somewhat more paint-by-numbers story holding everything together.

Normally, a lackluster story can destroy my interest in an otherwise enjoyable game, and I’ll get to some of why I find it disappointing later. But even though I wish Unicorn Overlord had a bit more of 13 Sentinels in it, its strategy gameplay is so undeniably satisfying that I can’t stop thinking about it, anyway.

Hard-Won Victories

It’s worth putting in the time to master Unicorn Overlord’s challenging strategy combat.

The combat in Unicorn Overlord can be pretty difficult to wrap your head around if you haven’t played old-school strategy RPGs like the Ogre Battle series, which heavily inspired Vanillaware’s new title. Battles start on a world map showing your command post and various bases that either belong to enemies or haven’t been captured yet. You and your enemy deploy units (made up of two to six characters, depending on how far you are into the game) from your bases and control their movement in real time. Deploying a unit costs one Valor Point, which you gain by defeating enemies and can also be spent on abilities on the world map to strengthen your own side or damage foes before attacking. When units from either side connect, they enter a turn-based battle, choosing their attacks automatically.

Before battle starts, you can change your unit’s equipment and formation — which is important because characters on the front line are attacked first — as well as their tactics. These tactics are the heart of Unicorn Overlord, telling each character what to do on their turn. They can range from broad (attack an enemy with your sword) to incredibly specific (use an area attack against whichever row has the most enemies in it, but use a ranged attack on healers first if they’re present). Each of Unicorn Overlord’s classes gets access to different tactics as they level up, and some equipment also grants new ones.

Certain classes have a rock-paper-scissors relationship with each other, where archers do more damage to flying units, which in turn do more damage to cavalry, which are stronger against infantry. But since there are so many tactics available to each side, and every unit can have multiple classes within it, it’s never as simple as choosing the objectively correct unit for the job and relying on that to win. Things get even more complex from there, with consumable items that can decrease damage, boost movement speed, or even prevent enemies from using some of their attacks.

What makes Unicorn Overlord’s combat such a joy, and so hard to master, is that a tiny tweak to anything can drastically change the outcome of a battle. Trading out a nimble thief for shield-bearing hoplite when facing armor-piercing enemies can be enough to turn a crushing defeat into a victory. So can using the right item at the perfect time, giving a key character a better piece of equipment, or changing the priority of tactics so that your archer takes out squishy mages instead of wasting arrows on armored foes.

Unicorn Overlord’s strategic battles are complex and deeply satisfying.


It’s a system that should appeal to the kind of players who like futzing around with equipment loadouts and formations in menus before every battle. Before battle, you’re given a preview of how much damage each side will take, but not which specific characters will take that damage, giving you one last chance to turn things to your advantage before combat begins.

I found the whole system thrilling, especially in how easy it is to completely change a battle’s outcome with a few smart decisions before it kicks off. It seems that there’s always a way to improve the outcome of a combat encounter, even if you’re going in with a weaker unit, as long as you’re willing to spend some time adjusting their equipment and tactics.

However, I did find it frustrating how often the game’s damage predictions left out some crucial details. Countless times throughout the game, I moved one unit toward an enemy with a prediction of total success, but by the time it reached them, the odds had changed dramatically and now they were heading for defeat, or at least a less resounding win. That can happen for a multitude of reasons — if the enemy you’re heading for gains health as you approach, uses its own Valor ability, or receives support from a nearby unit; a special ability or some ranged classes that lets them deal damage during an allied unit’s turn. But at other times, I couldn’t see any clear reason for this reversal of fortune, and instead found myself charging into a different battle than I expected with no idea what had gone wrong.

While it’s an irritating quirk, this didn’t come close to spoiling my enjoyment of Unicorn Overlord. As hard as it is to explain the complicated system of gears and levers controlling combat, it’s just as difficult to convey why it’s so ridiculously fun to play. All I’m really doing is telling my units where to move, then fiddling with menus for several minutes before the game’s AI settles things on its own, so why have I spent every moment away from the game for the past week wishing I was playing it?

A lot of it comes down to just how many ways there are to win a fight. You can build up a couple of beefy units that tear down everything in their path, or use smaller but more specialized squads to hit the specific weaknesses of every enemy. You can set traps and lure enemies to their own demise, or capture stationary artillery on the map and use it to blast away from a safe distance. You can cover the field with units and swarm the enemy with sheer numbers, or use a leaner force and save your Valor Points to rain fire across the battlefield. However abstract your control over individual units is, Unicorn Overlord is a game that thrives when you find creative ways to approach your problems, rather than hoping one straightforward strategy will always win the day.

Story on the Side

Unicorn Overlord demands you have a solid plan before going into any fight.


Every moment I was in battle in Unicorn Overlord, I was enthralled. Outside of combat, it gets a bit shakier. As I mentioned earlier, its story doesn’t live up to the engaging battle system. You play as Alain, prince of Cornia, one of five nations now ruled over by the evil General Galerius, a turncoat who formerly served your mother, Queen Ilenia, and now rules over the empire of Zenoira. Alain’s quest is to free the world from Galerius’ rule, gathering allies from each of the five nations of the game’s world, Fevrith, to join his Liberation Army.

The overarching story is classic medieval fantasy without much to differentiate it from other tales, but it does have a few interesting tricks for how the story is told. You can recruit 60 distinct characters for your army, many of whom have relationships with each other and the game’s enemies. Occasionally, these stories come up in battle, with characters insisting in colorful dialogue that they speak to a sibling or former friend who’s joined Zenoira to bring them over to the Liberation.

Between battles, you’re free to roam the world, giving supplies to newly freed towns in exchange for bonus items and Honors, which you can use to expand your units. You’ll also run across side quests, which occasionally send you on treasure hunts across the world map, but most often just open up new, optional battles. I found it enjoyable enough to explore the world this way thanks to its gorgeous art, and on a few occasions your actions here can even impact nearby battles, but for the most part, there’s little to do but wander between fights.

It may not tell a tale for the ages, but Unicorn Overlord is full of distinct characters with their own storylines.


The major advantage of this sprawling world map is that it opens so many optional fights and ways to upgrade your army that it feels impossible to get stuck. If you’re even facing a fight you can’t win, there are plenty of ways to get stronger before challenging it again.

The best parts of Unicorn Overlord’s story come in side quests, many of which flesh out individual characters’ histories. One of the most memorable story beats in the game came early for me. As I explored the first region, Cornia, I kept encountering a mysterious knight in battle. I would enter what seemed to be unrelated side quests, only to find him once more fighting at my side, pleading to rid the world of Zenoira. Only after several of these quests was I able to learn his true identity and convince him to join my army — permanently. It was a nice blending of narrative and gameplay that brought a character to life outside the battlefield, but it was rare to encounter anything like that. And despite Unicorn Overlord featuring a Rapport mechanic that lets characters grow closer as they fight together, it doesn’t have much to offer for anyone looking for Fire Emblem-style romance.

Unicorn Overlord’s story may not have thrilled me, but I still can’t recommend it highly enough to strategy fans. Every time I found myself longing for more character depth or a less predictable story, those critiques were washed away by the next hour-long battle pushing my strategic abilities to their limit. It’s hard to focus on shallow character dynamics when every brain cell is focused on developing the perfect set of tactics to pull off a clutch victory, after all. The sheer joy of leading your army to victory through nothing but clever planning is hard to overstate, and I’m convinced it will make Unicorn Overlord a new classic of the strategy genre in years to come.


Unicorn Overlord launches on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox on March 8. Inverse reviewed the game on Nintendo Switch.

INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.
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