STAFF REVIEW of Oaken (Xbox One)

Wednesday, September 20, 2023.
by Adam Dileva

Oaken Box art Strategy based deck building games already tend to intrigue me, as nearly every one that comes out seems to have their own twist on the genre, making them stand out in some way, even if it’s something minor. Oaken aims to do the same with its gorgeous artwork, unique setting, tactical gameplay and adding in some roguelike mechanics for good measure.

Now generally in deck building games there’s not always a major focus on a narrative, as you’re generally in it for its card based gameplay. While Oaken is no different, there is story here that takes place in the world of the Great Oak where spirits listen to one voice, called the Oak Song. This voice disappears one day, unsure of what the outcome could possibly mean. There’s a few story segments here and there between stages, but I found it hard to follow along, as I was so focused on thinking strategically for my moves, which cards to choose, what upgrades I want and trying to discern what units were on the hexagonal tiles. This had the narrative really fall by the wayside for me. You play as “The Lady”, accompanied by a companion, think of her like a Hero, with another Hero unlockable as you progress. You’ll need to defeat enemies in each stage to progress forward, eventually culminating in a Boss battle at the end of each chapter.

One of Oaken’s unique traits is that it’s all plant and fungi based. All the characters and enemies revolve around flora, each brought to life in their own way as uniquely designed characters. You can expect plenty of roots, thorns, spores and other plant based themes. Their designs give them human-like qualities and each type looks distinct from others.

Playing out on a hexagonal grid, you’re zoomed out enough to see the whole playfield, but when there’s lots of units in play it can be a little confusing as having multiples of the same type of unit after playing a card, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish yours versus theirs at a quick glance if you don’t focus. The main bosses stand out enough though that you’ll always know who they are. Hovering over any unit will show you some gorgeous artwork of them along with some quick info so you can strategize your next move.

Like most deck based titles, Oaken is turn based. Your main goal is to generally defeat a set amount of foes on the board which will trigger your win, but you’ll also have a secondary objective(s) you can opt to try and complete as well for some bonuses once you learn its intricacies and can plan a few moves ahead. Some of these secondary objectives are certainly feasible, whereas I found others to be near impossible and didn’t even bother trying, though that was likely due to my hero and deck setup.

Being a roguelike, that means that when you inevitably fail and die, you’ll need to start a new run over by again choosing your hero, sidekick and then of course figuring out your deck. Your sidekick is an important unit and card, as they cost more to play, but are worth it for their unique abilities. Once you’re all sorted you begin your run once again, trying and get as far as you can before starting all over once you fail again. Thankfully you do make persistent progress, as new units, cards and upgrades you unlock make each subsequent run that much easier.

Before each stage, you’ll get to choose which level you want to play. You start at the top of a series of nodes, choosing your starting point of what type of stage you want to play. You defeat said level then come back to this grid and choose the next path, usually almost always a choice of two or more, until you reach the bottom stage which will be the boss. Each encounter is a different type, sometimes not being a battle at all, allowing you to make some narrative choices, though most stages will generally be the ‘defeat all enemies’ variety. Even though each level is supposedly different, they all feel basically the same and blend together.

You have your modest deck of just a few cards in the beginning, eventually gathering more as you progress and repeatedly play. As a round begins you’re randomly given four cards from your deck to start with, though you’re able to swap them out at the beginning once for free. Starting with your higher powered cards might not be the best play in the beginning since you probably won’t be able to ‘afford’ to place them for a few turns anyways. Once cards are played, they’ll eventually get replaced in subsequent turns randomly. It will certainly help if you know your deck well, as combining attacks, buffs and debuffs will be your key to victory.

The main goal is generally to not have your main character, The Lady, die. You can attack and defend yourself, but it’s like the King in chess; once they’re dead, game over. Each card in your deck represents a specific creature, unit or spell. You can play your card that has a specific cost indicated by your Lumi, essentially your 'mana' resources to tell you how much you can do in a single turn. Each turn it refreshes and increases, eventually able to play more of your higher tiered cards.

There’s another mechanic to learn that plays a vital role in your success, revolving around changing the color of the terrain of each hex tile. Turn these green and you’ll get a bonus for your characters, or possibly a debuff for the enemy, whereas sitting on a purple enemy hex and you’ll have a disadvantage. Where and how you change these hexes will play a large role in your tactics of being successful or not.

Spending the Lumi to place a card requires pre-planning, as once you’ve played the card and chosen the hex to have the unit on, you’re actually unable to use them to attack until the following turn. Each unit is different in how they attack, as some are only able to do so to units directly beside, whereas others can range attack in a direct line. It takes some practice to learn how each unit best works with one another, but eventually it’ll become second nature of how to best place them. I tended to play a bit more defensively, making the enemy come to me and having my units attack when in range, kind of like an overwatch trap.

Where the annoyance comes in is having to make sure that your units are facing the correct direction. Given the hex grid, they’re able to attack to the hex in front and to the sides of them, but if there’s an attack from behind a unit, they’ll take much more damage and unable to retaliate. There’s some units and abilities that can also ‘shove’ enemies, adding extra damage and forcing units to move places on the grid during an attack. There’s some interesting and high powered ‘combos’ you can do if you plan and strategize correctly.

Then there’s also a whole fatigue mechanic if you’re not playing on the easier difficulty. Some enemies can cause your units to become fatigued if they damage a unit, meaning their wounds won’t heal in the next encounter. You have to either deal with this penalty or spend precious resources you gather from winning battles to heal them instead of using for upgrades.

For how small the playfield is, it’s surprisingly cluttered and difficult to read at times. You can move your cursor over each unit and enemy to see what’s going on, but it’s not always obvious which direction their facing or if they’ve already taken their turn at a quick glance. Remember though, this is a roguelike, so once you die you’re going to have to start back at the beginning. Of course you keep your earned cards and upgrades, making the next run that much easier, but sometimes a good run can be well over an hour or two, so starting over is a bit disheartening. You are given a one-time ‘continue’ where you can restart the current battle once, and if playing on the easier difficulty, you’re at least able to start over from the same chapter.

While not explained in-depth, I did like the upgrading of my units. You’re able to do this at any point in-between stages, using a special currency you earn to improve your cards and units in specific ways, sort of making them evolve. Choosing to improve a card grants you one of three different ways to improve the card, each having a different positive or playstyle in mind. Each unit can only be upgraded once, but since you’ll eventually have multiples of certain cards, you can choose to upgrade each different, or the same, it’s up to you. You can even earn and have trinkets per run that give you powerful passive bonuses and upgrades that can greatly help.

I applaud Oaken for its gorgeous aesthetics and visuals, being quite colorful and all centered around the plant based theme. The artwork of each card is wonderfully drawn and it’s all simply easy on the eyes to appreciate, even if it does become a bit cluttered on the grid. The soundtrack from Ian Fontova is whimsical, full of wind instruments and a fantastic backdrop for the setting and gameplay. Even listening to it now as I write this review, I’ve already added the soundtrack to my saved playlists.

Oaken does feel unique in the deckbuilding genre, though the gameplay slows quite down once you’re trying to truly strategize, inspecting every unit and trying to come up with a plan. Those that enjoy roguelikes and deckbuilding will surely find something enjoyable with Oaken, just be prepared to sink many hours into upgrading your units to make the next hour+ long run that much easier.

**Oaken was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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