Uniform Overlord Key Art

Review: Unicorn Overlord (Nintendo Switch)

Words do not describe just how brilliant this game is.

12 mins read

It feels like I’ve been asking for a new Ogre Battle title for decades (probably because I have been). No, not Tactics Ogre, though those are also very fine. I do mean Ogre Battle, the JRPG/Real Time Strategy series of just two titles that I was obsessed with back on the SNES and Nintendo 64. Where most classics get some kind of homage, even if the original is laid to rest, there has been nothing quite like Ogre Battle in all this time, since 1999. So leave it to Vanillaware to take something I loved so much and not only modernise it, but make it better in just about every way. Unicorn Overlord is a very special game.

Related watching: I really need to get into streaming again. Here was a stream I did of Ogre Battle 64. I enjoyed this.

It all starts with the kind of plotline that Fire Emblem has made its own in the years that Ogre Battle has languished in the piles of almost-forgotten retro games. There’s an evil empire that has systematically conquered almost the entire world. The son of one of the conquered rulers escapes to a small island, where, after growing up and learning the basics of fighting, decides to kick off a rebellion. His motivation to do so is boosted because a girl that he almost certainly has very special feelings for is kidnapped by this aforementioned empire. At that point the empire was basically asking for it, really.

Of course, our young and in lust hero can’t just go knocking on the gates of his enemy. That would make for a very short adventure, given that the empire has the world’s entire armies in its thrall. Totally outpowered, he must first travel the world, rescuing and recruiting heroes and earning renown so his heroes can hire and lead mercenary troops into battle. Slowly but surely his rebellion starts to gain momentum, which in turn starts to draw the eyes of his enemies…

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

Vanillaware is such a maverick developer. Its last three games have been the limited-narrative brawler, Dragon’s Crown, the mind-bendingly intelligent and philosophical 13 Sentinels, and now the epic fantasy Unicorn Overlord. Here, there’s little effort to challenge players with subversion and breaks with tradition. It’s not a mind-bending puzzle like 13 Sentinels is. But then, there’s also little need for that, either. What we have here is a classic fantasy that takes the cliches of the genre and tells interesting, honest stories with them. Every hero that you recruit to the party has their own story about how they survived under the brutal rule of the empire, and commits to the rebellion for reasons that don’t come across as trite or arbitrary. It’s impressive just how much characterisation Vanillaware has crammed into the relatively brief cut scenes that showcase each character. There’s a classic understanding of storytelling efficiency and poignancy here, and that is refreshing in an era where most games take a long time to say nothing, with characters whose names we barely remember out the other end.

While the storytelling is brief, the adventure itself is not. Unfolding across around 60 or so hours, you’ll get to visit each corner of the conquered empire, liberating and completing small side battles along the way. Previously, the Ogre Battle games were broken down into a series of menu-driven battle scenes. That’s unsurprising given they were massive in scope for their time (and we are talking about decades ago here), but Vanillaware allows you to roam the world between battles, and that adds so much to the experience. You’re free to chat with people, collect resources, use those resources to develop the towns, and generally become invested in your broader quest. The “open world” is designed well enough that the chances of you stumbling into a battle that you’re just not up for is pretty slim. Meanwhile, there are often bits of treasure hidden in the most unusual places, giving you the incentive to explore everywhere.

When you do finally get into a battle, you’re in for a truly brilliant combat system. Your army is split up into little “units”. They start with two characters to a unit, but eventually, you’ll upgrade them to have three, four, or even more fighting together. Each unit has different rows (fighters and shield guys at the front, mages at the back), and you command them around the battlefield in real time (with the ability to pause at any time and make tactical decisions). When they run into an enemy unit, the two will fight, with each character in each unit getting one or two attacks for the skirmish. The unit that does the most damage will “win,” knocking the other unit back and stunning them for a short time. Once all the characters in a unit have been defeated, that unit is wiped off the battlefield.

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

In a very pure sense, it’s fun to send units all over the battlefield to different objectives and feel like you’re a commander pouring over a map and moving “pieces” around as part of an intricate web of tactics. We’ve all seen those movies. We’ve all wanted to play with those pieces. But that’s just the start of it. It is almost impossibly entertaining to carefully construct your units of fighters. Each unit behaves differently whether they’re in the front row, or somewhere in the back, and there are very good reasons to try to make combinations where you’ve got your squishy mage in the front row or the hulking knight in the back. Those units can really change up the dynamics of combat and, in specific cases, give you an incredible edge. You will also want to form units that can provide ranged support to melee units from anywhere on the battlefield, and then you’ll want carefully constructed units of knights to flank around the battlefield, and rogues to support your front-line attackers with an evasion rate that makes them a nightmare to actually hit.

Related reading: It’s not quite to the same standard, but DioField Chronicle is another good real-time Tactics JRPG for the Nintendo Switch. Our review.

There is so much depth to the range of characters and the potential construction of units that you could play this game a dozen times, trying different things, and never get bored of it. This was part of the Ogre Battle games, too, but Vanillaware has taken it and thrown in so much additional depth that my one and only criticism of the game is that I am deeply disappointed there isn’t a more complete multiplayer mode. Being able to battle armies with friends would have been a more intense and downright enjoyable experience than Smash Bros or Mario Kart. Hell. It would be better than chess.

All of this – the exceptional, classical story and characterisation, the sheer entertainment of the battlefield tactics and the depth of the unit-building strategy – somehow pales compared to Vanillaware’s single greatest quality as a developer: This team has the absolute best artists in the video game industry, bar none (though Experience Inc does come close while working in much more limited genres). On top of that, Unicorn Overlord is the ultimate expression of their talents. The level of detail in the settings, the deep, rich use of colour that makes me so happy that I have an OLED Switch model, and the intricate, detailed character models and animation come together so beautifully. This game is the perfect example of why strong art direction will forever stand out in an industry increasingly washed with wasted efforts at extreme realism and/or a “best practice” approach based on what has proven to sell elsewhere. Nothing else in the industry looks like Vanillaware’s work, and that immediately elevates Vanillaware’s work. This is what an artistic game looks like.

A screenshot from Unicorn Overlord

I have to go back to 2018 and NieR Automata (wow… that was six years ago now) to think of a game that has stunned me quite as much as Unicorn Overlord. That’s not to say I haven’t loved plenty of other games in the interim, but I’ve been waiting for a sequel to Ogre Battle 64 for 25 years now, and this delivers. I am so glad that Vanillaware was the developer to see the opportunity, because no other team in the industry has the talent to do something like this.

Buy this game on Amazon (by purchasing this game using this link, you support DDNet, which earns a small commission on each sale)

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Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

      • I travel for work and I’ll be home next week to dive into my collectors edition. Vanillaware is one of my favorite developers so I’m beyond hyped for this. I’ll let you know what I think when I finally dive in!

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