EARLY ACCESS REVIEW: ‘Oaken’ Delivers a Tactical Roguelike Experience (PC)

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Oaken is a turn-based tactical roguelike published by Goblinz Publishing and developed by Laki Studios. The forest is in danger. A dark corruption threatens the land, turning the spirits of the forest into hollowed versions of themselves. As you explore the forest, you must gather allies and strengthen your spells and powers if you hope to reach the end of your journey in one piece.

Great tactical gameplay is one of my most consistent loves in gaming. That feeling when you can bring a plan together and defeat an opposing force that just turns before looked unbeatable is one of the best experiences in gaming for me. Add on the constant improvements to player options that the roguelike genre is known for and the fusion of the two feels like a great hit. And happily, Oaken manages to utilize both aspects of its formula into a well-rounded and rewarding gameplay experience.

When the player first heads out to explore the Great Oak, they have their primary character, a secondary support character that is separate from their deck, and a handful of cards representing their other units and spells. Alongside these options are three permanent abilities the player can use one time each per turn if they wish.

To use their abilities and spells, or deploy units to the battlefield, the player must spend mana from their pool. The player starts each game with three mana and regains their mana plus one each turn until the pool reaches a max of eight. Once units are on the hexagon-laden field, they can move and attack once per turn in that order. No moving after attacking.

And how you move your units is of great importance as facing is something you always need to be mindful of.When two units fight in Oaken, if the attack comes from the front arc of the defender, the defender gets an automatic attack back. Even if the initial attack would kill the defender this attack will still occur. So being mindful of your opponent’s facing, as well as your own is of vital importance.

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While the majority of missions during a run will feature the mandatory goal of defeating all your enemies, it is the secondary goals that give the game a ton of variety. Ranging from clearing debris, to protecting innocent AI units, or gathering valuable resources. As the name implies, these secondary objectives are not required to progress further into the game, but the rewards for completing them are sometimes key to getting your run to progress.

As with almost every roguelike, Oaken rewards its players after each encounter with several different kinds of assets to help them on their journey. These can range from new units and spells to add to their decks, as well as points they can spend to upgrade their preexisting cards and abilities.

While getting new units with a wide variety of abilities has all the obvious advantages to it, it is in the upgrading of cards that Oaken forces the player to think even more. What and when to upgrade cards is critical as the game slowly wears down the player’s forces.

The overall game is broken into chapters. During each chapter, whenever a unit dies, it comes back with a point of fatigue on it. For each point of fatigue, a unit has, its max health is reduced by one. If the fatigue ever takes a unit’s health to zero it is out till the end of the chapter. This creates an interesting balancing act of when to pour resources into units. Pumping up a unit that is already suffering from some fatigue could ultimately be a waste of points in the short run. However, buffing its health up by one may be just enough to help it limp across the finish line.

To make the situation even more complicated, each unit can only be upgraded a certain number of times, and each upgrade slot is predetermined as to which stat will improve. Although, the player can find wisps that will add new abilities to units that don’t count against the upgrade cap.

All of these choices, plus managing your spells and abilities, makes Oaken a deep and complex game to play. While its complexity is its greatest strength, I can also see it is what turns a lot of people off. Not so much because they can’t understand it, but because of what it does for the run time of each game.

Most of the roguelikes that make the biggest splashes, games like Hades or Slay the Spire, share a short run-time per game. Usually, a run, win or lose, is wrapped up in under an hour. This allows players to see the gradual improvements they make frequently, as well as not making a loss feel like an epic setback, as it was only 45 minutes of gameplay. As players manage to progress deeper into Oaken‘s gameplay, more than that is required of the player. While this is not a bad thing at all, players looking for a roguelike they can sit down, knock a run out of quickly, and walk away may find this game to be a bit more than they bargained for.

The visuals in Oaken deliver some beautiful if simple, designs. Laid out on top of the hexagonal board, the three-dimensional units always looked cool and were rarely difficult to separate from each other. Even when clusters formed during big melees I rarely had any difficulting remembering who was who or managing to click on the correct piece.

The biggest problem I had during my playtime was a recurring bug that would halt my progress during a run. After reaching the completion screen of a mission, the game simply wouldn’t let me continue. If I went back to the main menu and tried to continue my game, it would put me back before my last battle. If I defeated the level again, the same thing would occur. I would have to cancel my run and start over. This bug happily didn’t keep me from unlocking any new cards I was owed for the run but was nonetheless frustrating. Hopefully, the problem was not widespread, or a patch will be released(if it hasn’t already) to address the problem.

When all is said and done, I have enjoyed the many microdecisions and challenging battles Oaken has tested me with. I think its small, but complex battlefields offer a lot of rewarding challenges for those who are prepared for a long and unforgiving journey.

Oaken is available on PC in early access on May 3rd, and a Nintendo Switch release is planned for the future.