Unicorn Overlord's overlapping RPG systems and gorgeous art look set to fill the Fire Emblem-shaped hole in my life

Unicorn Overlord map screenshot featuring a town and fireworks
(Image credit: Atlus/Vanillaware)

Despite my best efforts, and roughly four hours with the game, I am no closer to understanding the meaning behind the name Unicorn Overlord, the latest and greatest strategy RPG from developer Vanillaware. That's OK, though, because everything else about the game so far has me absolutely dialed in – not least because its strategy trappings, beautiful art, and overlapping systems are satisfying all of my Fire Emblem-shaped wants and needs.

If you're not already familiar, Unicorn Overlord has players take on the high fantasy role of a wayward prince, Alain, forced from his home and looking to defeat the evil traitor that has since gone on to conquer the world. The story is one of liberation, literally and figuratively, with your little ragtag group growing into a proper army as you explore new areas, meet unique characters, and generally pummel your enemies into submission – with loads of interlocking systems underneath the fantasy garb.

It's hard to say whether all of the little touches ultimately pay off in the end, but it's fascinating to be given multiple options on how to deal with various situations and for the game to immediately flag that said choices will have some kind of resulting effect down the line. Will my propensity for mercy actually come back to bite me in the end or will my empathetic nature be a boon, ultimately? Having only played the beginning of the game, I can't say for sure, but I can say that I'm intrigued.

High fantasy and stakes

Unicorn Overlord cinematic screenshot showcasing a knight and prince

(Image credit: Atlus/Vanillaware)

Actual battles in Unicorn Overlord play out a bit like a constantly rotating Rube Goldberg device. While you can shift combinations of units, formations, spaces, equipment, and tactics, the actual fight itself between them plays out automatically. Once you've committed to a battle, you're committed, and there's no stepping back from a fight. Unicorn Overlord is good at signposting the various ways in which these all interact, but maximizing the positives and minimizing the negatives feels like it might take more patience and brainpower than I personally have of either.

For example, certain units can pierce through a single line of your own, so perhaps you want to stagger those units in your formation ahead of that battle. And maybe you want a Lord in the front with a Witch in back so that the Witch can empower the Lord's ability to do extra magick damage. But that's all done in preparation, and none of that is actively decided upon in the heat of battle. Active skill and passive skills instead play out based on preordained tactics, for good or for ill. Helpfully, there is a predictive bit ahead of the battle that crunches the numbers to see who might win or lose, so preparation is very much the name of the game.

Even speeding through the opening hours to experience as much as possible, it's impressive just how much there apparently is to do and see in Unicorn Overlord. At the conclusion of my session, the world map indicated I'd not even seen 10% of it as of yet, and that was with me scouring the countryside for foraging nodes to gather materials, forts to liberate, and units to recruit. I only dipped my toe into making deliveries to towns and stationing guards there, basically didn't touch armorers or provisioners, and effectively set my initial tactics with some formation shuffling without bothering to change it up ever again for any of my units. Apparently you can sail to other places from liberated, advanced towns, and I didn't even do that once.

This massive variety of ways to spend your time makes for a fairly compelling, breakneck pace, at least initially. It feels like there's something new to see or do or discover around every bend of the road or past the edge of the fog of war. I suspect if I had opted into one of the harder difficulty options that individual fights would have been more complicated, requiring further time invested, and generally making for an even more involved experience.

Admittedly, I'm the kind of person that finds all of these systems working in tandem to be, in a word, delicious. The fantastical premise and unit recruitment speaks to my love for Fire Emblem: Three Houses while the liberation of areas and investment in towns scratches a deeply ingrained nostalgia for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance while the tactical combat compels my inner Total War and XCOM nerd. It's a combination seemingly deliberately designed for me and my proclivities.

I suspect that there might come a point where the game potentially collapses under the weight of all of this, especially as it adds even more to the pile to possibly become repetitive or tedious or worse, but my preview never became overwhelming. If I'm being completely honest, the most disappointing part of playing Unicorn Overlord, the only real sticking point as I look back on my brief time with it, is that I had to stop.

Unicorn Overlord is set to release for PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch on March 8, 2024. In the meantime, feel free to check out the best RPGs to surrender your social life with right now.

Rollin Bishop
US Managing Editor

Rollin is the US Managing Editor at GamesRadar+. With over 16 years of online journalism experience, Rollin has helped provide coverage of gaming and entertainment for brands like IGN, Inverse, ComicBook.com, and more. While he has approximate knowledge of many things, his work often has a focus on RPGs and animation in addition to franchises like Pokemon and Dragon Age. In his spare time, Rollin likes to import Valkyria Chronicles merch and watch anime.