ReviewsReview: Oaken

Review: Oaken


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The term “Early-Access” gets a bit of a bad rap. There are all sorts of negative connations floating around this section of gaming, and rightly so. Many gamers have had the rug pulled out from under them and been left with the sour taste of broken and unfinished products that will never improve. However, it looks like Oaken just might break that mould. 

You Messed With the Wrong Tree

Set in the world of Oaken, you begin as a hero known as the lady, who journeys to save the great oak. This monumental tree is home to all manner of spirits who are linked through the voice of the tree, called the oak song. Looming darkness is causing the loss of this voice, and so you fight the darkness in order to save the great oak.

It’s a by the numbers story that never really went in any kind of a unique direction. If I’m being honest the story might as well not have been present. It may be a tad harsh, but the narrative was quite bland. I didn’t care all that much about the world or its inhabitants. It was simply a matter of moving from battle to battle. 

Getting around in Oaken is done by way of a branching and randomly generated world map. You choose which branches you go down, although you won’t know exactly what you’re up against until you’ve made your choice. There are some indicators though. There are seven kinds of situations you can find yourself in. Including regular battles that net your new cards, or refuge spots than can give you new wisps, or heal some of the fatigue you may have racked up along the way. Regardless of choice, there’ll be a reward. The best rewards however, must be fought for.

Watch Your Six

While the story may have been a bit disappointing and forgettable. The actual gameplay was great. Oaken is a strategic turn-based deck builder in which you take control of a hero who has command over spirits. The battlefield is a grid made up of hexagonal cells in which you move and fight. You and each of your spirit troops have six lines around you, with the front three lines being the “frontal arc”. 

However, this frontal arc is much more than just an indication of bearing. It’s a field through which you can attack, and defend. If an enemy attacks you head-on, you will automatically counterattack, dealing half of the damage received. This goes both ways though, meaning that if you head into every skirmish guns blazing you’ll always be punished for it. This is where Oaken’s most important mechanic comes into play. Spacing and placement. 

If you manage to position yourself appropriately and attack from behind you can deal some damage with no consequences. But this means keeping in mind where enemy troops might be in their next turn. Sometimes going for that opening can leave you more vulnerable than you started out. There are also battles where time is not on your side. When every enemy spirit has been summoned, their spawn point begins to inflict fatigue on you. Removing one point of HP every turn. This keeps you from dragging your feet and maintains some pace.

It’s all about weighing risk and reward. Do I attack head-on, in a race against the clock? Or do I try and out-manoeuvre my opponent to possibly save some HP? This kind of gameplay made it feel like chess, where every move requires some thought or planning to an extent. The moments where I could manage to take out multiple enemies in one move using placement, skills, and spells were extremely satisfying. As things progress, employing strategy becomes so much more vital. Especially in big boss battles against other heroes that can both attack and summon troops of their own.

Bag of Tricks

Spirits form the bulk of your cards, and chief among these spirits are powerful beings known as guardians. Each guardian will provide you with cards suiting a different playstyle. Like the wise Enju whose cards as more defensively inclined. He provides spirits such as the HP-rich wardens that protect their comrades and incite enemy aggro to hit them head-on, dealing counterattack damage. Or like my current favourite, Baralais the poet, who provides a card that pushes adjacent spirits away when summoned. If a wall of another spirit is in the space they would have landed, they take damage. This has so many benefits, including providing you with more space, or pushing a friendly spirit into an ideal position to deal some damage from behind. 

Combat doesn’t just rely on spirits though. Spells, skills, wisps and trinkets all help to give you an edge. Spells can shield, inflict damage, or grant you an extra move at the cost of some Lumi (the mana of Oaken). Skills can buff hexagon cells, heal, and even push enemies away from you for just one point of Lumi. Wisps provide a wide range of buffs for spirits, such as boosting strength or locking an enemy in place after hitting them. Lastly, trinkets grant passive benefits. Such as Baralais’ mossy cover that grants HP to any friendly troop that gets pushed. Combine this with the many push based abilities in Baralais’ card set and you can pull off some awesome plays.

It was surprisingly easy to get sucked into an extended session. There’s a really satisfying feel to gameplay, and when you begin to delve into the mechanics it becomes clear that Oaken has a lot more depth than you might initially expect. 

Give Me More!

Earlier I mentioned that I felt Oaken could definitely be one of the good Early Access titles. However, there’s still some work to be done before it becomes a fact. While I struggle to find many weak points in its gameplay, it is lacking a bit in terms of content. Especially in the number of different kinds of spirits and spells, which are the two most important aspects. 

Even the music suffers from this lack of content. However, to be fair the music is pretty good. Its this lovely selection of jungle themed tracks. The soundtrack is wonderfully generous with the pan flute, and it compliments the aesthetic well. The dense amazon art style can be beautiful when it wants, especially the card and chapter backgrounds. There’s an air of lush spirituality to all aspects of the visuals. And it really works in Oaken’s favour.

I think, at the end of the day this title’s biggest problem is that there’s just not enough of it. However, if future content is up to the same standard as what we’ve got right now, I think Oaken will end up in a very good place


+ Satisfying strategic gameplay
+ Beautiful artstyle
+ Great music
- Bland story
- Needs more content

(Reviewed on PC, release date TBD on Nintendo Switch)
Jonah Ehlers
Jonah Ehlers
A lover of films, dogs and cooking, even though I'm terrible at it most days. Ever since my first console (the legendary PS2) I have had an immense love for Video games. It has given me some of my favourite memories, my closest friends and countless hours of fun.

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Review: Oaken+ Satisfying strategic gameplay <br /> + Beautiful artstyle <br /> + Great music <br /> - Bland story <br /> - Needs more content <br /> <br /> (Reviewed on PC, release date TBD on Nintendo Switch)