I Played ‘Unicorn Overlord.’

steve cuocci
7 min readApr 3, 2024

I opted for the Sega Saturn. Back when we were choosing which gaming console to pick up, back when information was still a little sparse, and I was at my PRIME in terms of gullibility and the way that advertisements effected me, I made the core decision that Sega’s new gaming console was going to be more “up my alley” than the Sony Playstation. I know enough now (as does the rest of history) to admit that I made the wrong decision.

I was never a fighting game person, but I still allowed Virtua Fighter and Virtua Fighter 2 to carry my interest a great deal of the way. I got really sucked into Panzer Dragoon and it’s wildly geometric and sliding patterns. I played a ton of World Series Baseball. But the one game that I will always think about when I cast my mind towards the Sega Saturn is Dragon Force. It folded strategy and RPG elements into one nice big product, and I was so addicted to the game that I ended up beating it with all of the 8 main characters. I never really ended up falling in love with the strategy genre beyond that, though I did love Starcraft for a time.

Move forward a couple of decades and take note of developer VanillaWare and their hand-drawn, anime-inspired throwbacks to classic RPGs with a bit of an overly-earnest approach to proper Olde English dialog and enormous armor sets. Something about the way their game Odin Sphere spoke to me from the shelf while working as a GameStop employee upon release made me re-purchase a PS2 just to play this game (and MLB: the Show which I stunk at). This game looked the way I always felt Final Fantasy III/VI looked in my mind while I played it. Vibrant. Medieval in dark ways. Colorful. I never beat it, but it stuck with me for a long time as I moved beyond that console and into an Xbox 360 world where guns were how I wanted to engage in combat, and the “old fashioned” games of PS2 became something I was only ever-so-briefly interested in.

Here come 2024 and a trailer I caught randomly which advertised a demo for a game called Unicorn Overlord, a title which is probably in the top percentile of game titles for games I would never want to play. Ignoring its name, the demo looked like it had the same feel of the game I fell in love with on my old forgotten Saturn console and the visuals were that same crisp, beautiful Vanillaware pedigree. I downloaded the demo and didn’t really know what to expect of it. I thought I’d celebrate the visuals, get majorly lost in a menu system and a difficulty curve within 25 minutes and then delete the demo, having spent a nice little afternoon with it.

Problematic mindset, man.

I ended up playing 4 hours of the demo in one sitting. I normally would say that I digested it, but in this game’s case, it was very clearly devouring me. The time limit on the demo was 6 hours and after an evening cleaning up the final 2 hours, I beat everything I could do on the initial landmass and was itching to get out there and dig into more. I put the game on the backburner before buying the full thing, hoping that the 6 hours were enough for me, just a romp through it which got me excited for that time being and that in a few short days, I’d be moving on to something else.

The gameplay at its core is very simple. I’ve tried to explain it to friends as I evangelize the demo to anyone who will listen. You open up the game with several main characters and build a few parties with those characters. Those characters each have a specific class which is assigned to them, and those classes represent distinct strengths and weaknesses against other classes. On a base level, it’s similar to Pokemon’s “advanced rock-paper-scissors” format. As you invade various provinces to restore the land’s providence via your liberation army, more generals and soldiers will join you, each with more strengths and weaknesses. Each small unit grows from 2–5 characters per unit and the combinations you start to concoct are really fun to mess with. For me, I ended up finding a bunch of favorites and mainlining 3–4 units who dominated the battle field, and using the remaining 6 to hold down fortresses, to clean up enemy reinforcements and also as cannon fodder to set off traps, sacrificing them in the process.

After a few days of going over the gameplay in my head, of thinking about the various characters that I was throwing into battle and even recalling the feeling of the game’s soundtrack in my head, I knew I had to buy this full game and get on with it.

This game is so addicting.

With the full game finally downloaded, I had enormous tracts of land to explore in the overworld, giving me endless more towns to liberate and provide resources to. I could find hidden treasure areas that would make my warriors more powerful. I could also have that same feeling that I love from open-world games, which is exploring every nook and cranny in the overworld, ensuring that I fought every possible battle, found every possible secret, and unlocked every possible ally. It almost wasn’t kind that the map shows the percentage of how much of it you’ve explored, making that 100% an attainable, chaseable goal.

All the while, the game is moving its storyline forward through animated cutscenes that were actually very capably voice-acted. As I talked about in my brief mention of Odin Sphere, it is a little earnest, a little stuffy, but character models are beautifully drawn and the detail is top notch. My biggest complaint is the deeply aggressive approach they took to making the characters who were women a bit too scantily clad and a little too unevenly proportioned. I’m not saying I was “offended” by it, but there were a few too many moments where I would roll my eyes at the outfits they put these women in. But their hair was super cool!

I’m not sure what it was like watching me play this game, but my wife was in the room often enough to give a rundown. I would say that this was probably the dorkiest game I have played in years. It’s all sword combat, LOTS of numbers and stats, lots of min-maxing, and lots of finding ways to stack the deck in your favor. Which reminds me, success in this game is probably very similar to the way you would find success in a card-based game. You are always trying to refine the ways that your skillsets work together, and finding ways to disturb the balance. You never have a say in how these characters attack or in the timing when it comes to dodging or healing or moving. You set the characters’ priorities up in terms of their special skills and you hope that the other party members you have them with can work with their strengths and weaknesses to create a juggernaut which any other type of enemy unit cannot stand up against. In the end, there were very few moments when I would need specialized units meant to take out the enemy forces. In fact, as I played, one unit in particular began to show itself as way more helpful against the opposing army than they’d been through 80% of the rest of the game.

I completed this game within 32 hours and did enough of the storyline and sidequests that I am very happy with my time with it. There were still a few little things here and there to clean up, but I’d say maximum completion of this game would take no more than 40 hours. I still find myself wanting to start a new playthrough of this one, but I’m going to have to move on. Final Fantasy 7: Rebirth awaits!

I get it. This is such a niche recommendation of such a niche game that it feels like I’m speaking into oblivion. I will say though, I highly recommend this game and it’s my Game of the Year so far in 2024. Last year, I spent so little time with new games that I wanted to be sure to at least try a lot more games that came out this year to at least have some opinion to offer in the new games space, and I’m so happy that one like this presented itself. I have to say that this is one of the most exciting and fulfilling games I’ve played in the last few years. I’ve been telling everyone I know to jump on that 6 hour demo, and I’m going to keep shouting that one from the rooftops. Phenomenal game.