In recent years, genre mashups have become more common. We’ve been seeing rhythm games combined with action games, rpg’s crossing over with life simulation and so on. One of the most popular genre mashups are card games, roguelike games and turn based strategy games. Oaken falls into this category and we’ve gone hands on with this indie title which recently left early access. Read on for our Oaken review.
A clear cut story
Oaken has been in early access for more than a year, before launching its 1.0 update back in July. I’m a sucker for card games, roguelike games or turn based games. So when a game has all three of these aspects, I just have to try it. Oaken takes place in a high fantasy world, where you have to save an entity called The Great Oak. Using tribal spirits, it’s your task to ensure it doesn’t get destroyed by malevolent spirits.
This is basically the story that you’ll follow along the game, to its end. Oaken’s story is a struggle about good and evil, which plays out exactly as you’d expect. Roguelike games aren’t known for it’s deep and engaging story in general and that’s alright. They are mostly games focused on gameplay. The story of Oaken is fairly predictable but light hearted which is nice if you’re looking for a change of pace in between all the AAA game violence.
Well eased into the mechanics
In contrast to most roguelikes, the game has a pretty linear and clear tutorial. Step by step you’ll learn the game’s mechanics in some practice battles before you go into the real deal. Generally, roguelikes throw you into the deep end learning the mechanics as you go. Because like every roguelike, you’ll more likely than not fail miserably at your first attempt. You’ll get better from there, as do your options to get through the game. Oaken does a great job of getting you up to speed with its mechanics, which won’t be unfamiliar to card game enthusiasts.
Every ‘run’ in Oaken starts you out on a path. You can choose three starting points and have to go to the end of the path node by node. You can map out a path to take before you go since you can see every node. Whichever starting point you pick, you’ll need to choose carefully which way to go. You’ll be faced with battles, easy or hard, with the appropriate rewards. Sometimes you’ll come across events, where you can choose between just rewards or getting a penalty for bigger rewards. Or you can find a resting point. It’s very similar to roguelikes like Slay The Spire.
The battles are where the meat of the game is. Every battle takes place on a big hexagonal grid full of hexes. You start the game with your signature unit, which generally has a lot of health but does normal damage. There’s a reason for this, because if the enemy manages to defeat your signature unit, the game is over. Every battle has its own objective. Sometimes you need to defeat all enemies, sometimes you need to survive or kill the enemy leader. There’s enough variation to keep things fresh for a while.
When your turn starts, your cards and deck comes into play. Every turn, you get a certain amount of energy to spend on summoning cards. You’ll start with a low supply of energy, around three, and every turn your maximum amount increases by one. You can use your energy in your turn to either summon friendly spirits, which you can use to attack and defend, or cast some spells. Every turn, your units can move one hex around it, sometimes two if it’s buffed. And this is where the strategy comes into play.
Watch where you’re going
Every spirit faces a side on the board. It can attack the front three hexes but is vulnerable in its three back hexes. If a unit is attacked from behind, it cannot counterattack. So what ensues is a very tactical game, like chess, where positioning is even more important than raw power. If you manage to flank your opponent, you can whittle them down easily. But you may leave units vulnerable in the process. It’s a great way of setting up turn based strategy, which I haven’t encountered in a long time if ever. As you progress through the game, you’ll need to have perfected your strategy for success. The AI is intelligent enough to cause you an upset in early game, if you don’t pay attention.
Every spirit has a value for health and attack, like many card games do. Whenever you attack another unit, they counterattack (if able), so you’ll always need to take into account whether you won’t leave yourself vulnerable on your opponent’s turn. Sometimes, not attacking is the better option. There are also various special effects cards can have, upon placement, attacking or dying. Some may heal nearby allies when they are placed or get bonus damage and health when placed on certain tiles. There’s enough debt to switch up your strategy.
Where are the others?
As you progress through the game and gain experience to level up, you’ll unlock more cards and new heroes to adapt your strategy. While everyone starts out with the same cards and deck, after a few levels you can start by defining your own strategy with some new options. While the game has two factions with multiple heroes, each faction caters to its own theme and playstyle. This limits your variations when compared with other roguelikes. It’s something which would make sense for early access, but I really hoped that with its 1.0 update we’d have multiple factions each based on very different playstyles. That’s not a new concept nowadays but it’s not to be.
There are choices you can make though. During your progress, you’ll get wisps and upgrade points. Wisps are modifiers you can add to existing cards, to give them special effects or stats boosts. You can use these to customize your deck to your strategy. For example, want to make spirits that become stronger on specific tiles extra strong? Go ahead! Or suddenly want to place spirits anywhere on the map due to a wisp? A cunning strategy. Furthermore, you can upgrade cards when you’ve got enough points to make them stronger. Something you’ll need as you make it further into your run because enemies will become stronger too.
Fatigue and chaos
If you play cards from your deck more than twice, you’ll notice they become fatigued. This prevents players from simply overusing their most powerful cards. When fatigued, they’ll become unusable after the battle. In order to reuse them, you’ll need to spend the same currency you need to upgrade cards. A tough decision, which in the end often forces you to just rotate your cards some more and hope for the best.
As you progress into your run, battles get tougher, as you’d expect. However, enemies also tend to become more numerous, which is part of the challenge. One thing that annoyed me, is that it’s at times very hard to tell apart your units and enemy units when the map gets filled up. The color palette was not different enough to keep it from becoming very chaotic. At times, I simply lost because of the chaos, not because I was overpowered or outmaneuvered.
Relax, take it easy
One cool option the game offers is a relaxed mode. There’s of course your typical roguelike mode which you’ll need to fail at a ton before you reach the end. But with its relaxed mode, they’ve made it easier to reach the end and remove some barriers. While it was still fairly challenging, it’s still a great option for players looking to simply complete the game.
Despite looking very similar, the various factions and units do look great. They fit the fairy tale fantasy great, and look exactly as you’d expect. Every unit combines into an aesthetic that matches a faction’s theme. Cards are beautifully drawn and look to come right out of a TCG. Additionally, the interface is very clear. Accompanied by a tranquil soundtrack, Oaken offers a relaxing and thoughtful experience.
In the end, Oaken is a great mashup of roguelike, card and strategy genres. Its hexagonal approach and focus on positioning offers refreshing gameplay for strategy enthusiasts. However, the lack of variation in terms of factions offers less replayability and variation than you’d expect from a roguelike. Big battles also tend to become very chaotic by the end. It’s definitely worth a try if you love the genres but it also doesn’t stand out enough among it’s peers.
- Unique gameplay due to the hexagonal approach
- Excellent strategy gameplay
- Good tutorial
- A relaxing game mode
- Battles tend to get chaotic near the end
- There’s not a lot of variation in terms of factions