Series like Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem, and Tactics Ogre (which received wonderful remaster in 2022) tend to dominate the conversation around SRPGs. And rightfully so. However, with its latest version – The Unicorn Lord – developer Vanillaware takes cues from older titles in a way that pays homage to the classics while delivering something fresh and engaging for 2024. And after being completely absorbed by this beautiful mix of old and new, The Unicorn Lord feels like a must play for fans of strategy games.

Vanillaware doesn’t care where draws inspiration for The Unicorn Lord. Instead of the typical grid-based battlegrounds, the game plays a lot like Ogre Battle 64, which puts you in command of a handful of smaller squads that you maneuver around the map to intercept enemy forces and capture strongholds. Each squad has a captain that gives a passive bonus with party sizes that grow up to five over the course of the game. But since you don’t have direct control over individual characters during battles, you have to be crafty to set them up for success.

Unicorn Overlord features beautifully hand-drawn characters that remind you of tactical games of yesteryear.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware

Strategy is dictated not only by the position of each squad, but also by which classes you choose and the actions you set (eg setting an attack command on an enemy with the lowest health or just hitting an opponent who is already debuffed). This results in gameplay that feels like fantasy football but for war. Look, you’re a general now. Except it’s better because you get to see how well your martial art plays out, like when your archers take down flying enemies like gryphons and wyverns that are naturally susceptible to their attacks.

But strategizing doesn’t stop there, because outside of combat there are other ways to manipulate battles. You can command siege units like catapults and ballistae to rain down damage on enemy units before they get close. Alternatively, you can spend bravery points (earned by defeating enemies) to upgrade friendly fighters (speed, extra stamina, etc.) or soften up enemies with targeted strikes like a cavalry charge. Then there’s all the varied equipment and loot you’ll collect, which adds another level of customization to your army.

Combat centers around skirmishes between squads of up to five characters each. Combat centers around skirmishes between squads of up to five characters each.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware

In addition to the normal specs, you can give units extra moves or change their abilities by adding poison damage to a spear or other weapon. And when you get it right, the results are devastating. One of my favorite combos was giving an archer and a swordsman fire-based attacks to inflict burns on enemies. I then followed this up with a mage that ignites any burning opponent with extra party-wide damage at the end of the fight, and I think you can see where this is going. Honestly, I’ve lost track of the amount of time I’ve spent going through menus to set up features and equipment. But minimizing the potential of each squad is a lot of fun in itself.

Meanwhile, another feature The Unicorn Lord borrowing from franchises like Fire Emblem is its Rapport mechanic. Heroes in the same squad will bond over time, offering improved stats over time. Alternatively, you can improve the relationship by sharing food or giving gifts, and after enough bonding, you’ll get a cutscene that dives deeper into the relationship between two people. Additionally, the main character, Alain, can develop a romance that allows you to choose your best girl (or boy, in some cases, though I haven’t had the chance to try this out myself).

Generally, the goal of each encounter is to capture the enemy's stronghold without losing yours. Generally, the goal of each encounter is to capture the enemy's stronghold without losing yours.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware

Unicorn Overlord’s the list is also massive. It felt like every other battle I was adding a new member to my ranks and before I even explored 50 percent of the map I had more than 30 unique characters from the story. And if that’s not enough, you can also hire mercenaries, which is perhaps a more strategic solution as it allows you to customize the growth of a unit (eg, ardent types get extra crit, while versatiles get more balanced stats, etc. n.).

I want to call too Unicorn Overlord’s visual design that is downright gorgeous. It’s a clear homage to the 2D sprite-based graphics of old-school SRPGs, but tweaked for modern HD screens. The portraits and character models are incredibly detailed, and the animations are a joy to watch even after the 1000th time. Of course, Vanillaware sometimes succumbs to trope of girl armor in games where male characters have huge metal sheets protecting them, while some female characters are much more scantily clad. Why does the witch class wear bikinis? We may never know, although this has been Vanillaware’s style for the past 20 years, so it’s no surprise. Really, my gripe is that there has to be a few more himbos to balance things out.

Previewing the results of the battle allows players to adjust their team's position, actions and equipment to achieve a more favorable outcome. Previewing the results of the battle allows players to adjust their team's position, actions and equipment to achieve a more favorable outcome.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware

As for the more general cons, the main one is that the plot of the game is a bit generic. It’s not bad, it just builds on a familiar setup centered around the disenfranchised Prince Alain (who probably looks a lot like Magnus from Ogre Battle 64, right down to the blue hair) and his quest to free his nation from the clutches of the evil Emperor Galerius. However, there are still plenty of touching moments to keep the plot from getting too boring.

The other potential problem is that some may find the game too easy. There are three difficulty levels to get you started, plus an even harder setting once you beat the game. However, the amount of strategizing you can do means you can almost always have the upper hand in a fight, so depending on how you look at it, the game hurts itself for having such a high level of control and customization. Although I think it’s a good problem to have.

Amalia is a mother. Amalia is a mother.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Vanillaware

Most importantly for The Unicorn Lord is that it feels like a passion project from start to finish. Its visuals are wonderfully handcrafted, and by taking and then updating features and gameplay from the Hall of Fame strategy titles, the game feels like a love letter to the genre as a whole. Heck, Vanillaware’s CEO even went so far as to pay for game development from pocket after running out of his budget. So while Unicorn Overlord may not be to everyone’s taste, fans of tactics just got a new instant classic.