Oaken from Poznań-based dev Low Poly Dreams and Goblinz Publishing is a deceptive game. On the face of it, it’s an attractive looking hex strategy game with turn-based combat. However, almost from the start it manages to frustrate and obfuscate key mechanics that it never really explains. It doesn’t really recover from this despite all manner of tooltips. It almost expects you to hit the ground running when you can barely walk.
After a mandatory tutorial where you don’t actually learn all that much, you’re down to the heart of the matter. We thought by choosing Relaxed mode instead of Journey mode we’d have an easier ride. Although all this really seems to do is give you a second try when you inevitably die due to a mechanic generally left unexplained.
Frustrating would be a fair description of our opening hours playing Oaken. At least prematurely ended playthroughs don’t count for nothing. You gain experience points as you play through what we presume to be the four chapters. We presume as we’ve struggled to beat the second chapter. This allows you to unlock new unit types as well as upgrade those units you already have. The problem is your playthrough will end abruptly, Relaxed mode or not. It feels like you’re destined to grind out victories by dying repeatedly, Oaken very much seems to funnel you in that direction.
It doesn’t help that the gameplay is generally insipid and unengaging so you’ll find your attention drifting. It’s never a good sign when doing my day job is preferable to playing a review game. Games are supposed to be a welcome diversion but this feels like a chore along the lines of fixing my Flymo. Or finally clearing out some of the clutter and taking it to the charity shop. I actually did that in the week. So, when chores are taking precedent, you have to wonder what’s gone wrong.
It doesn’t help that Oaken tries to shoe-horn card battler mechanics into a strategy game but it generally doesn’t work. It also restricts you from using particular cards at the outset. This is fine but for the trophies that ask you to use certain attacks multiple times in one battle. Especially if it’s with a unit you can’t get out on the playfield until a few turns in. You can at least discard one card per turn, but it rarely makes much of a significant difference. Unlike a traditional card battler, there’s also limits on the frequency you can use cards. They get fatigued and eventually become unavailable for use. At least implement a cooldown rather than the hackneyed having to spend pixie dust or whatever to reinvigorate them out of battle. It’s a unsatisfactory implementation if we’re honest.
Also, you’ll find yourself moving adjacent to an enemy unit and attempting to attack, only you won’t be able to. The problem is you have to specifically make sure you’re pointing directly towards the enemy. Thank goodness then for the fact that you can at least go back to your previous move if you’ve found yourself facing a wall for example. It’s a rare bright point unfortunately. The graphics are bright and breezy at least and the music fits the mood too. The arenas you battle in are fairly varied into the bargain.
Each battle has a primary and a secondary objective. The former is usually kill the enemy hero, but every so often you’ll have to protect a friendly unit. It makes a nice change and lets you be more defensive than having to get heavy hitters out. The secondary objectives are more exacting. One early one where you have to take down the enemy hero without killing its support units that heal it throughout the battle is particularly tough and rather annoying. At least they’re optional, but you end up missing out on otherwise useful rewards.
In conclusion, Oaken is a serviceable enough game but it’s let down by its fussy implementation and the identity crisis that runs throughout. Is it a card battler or a hex battler? It generally fails on both counts. Not to mention it’s boring to the extent that it’s not something you’ll actively seek out to continue playing. As a result we can’t really recommend it, but we find ourselves intrigued enough that we might dip in on occasion.
+ Varied arenas
+ Made by a team from the lovely city of Poznań
- Can’t decide if it wants to be a card battler or a strategy game and fails to stick the landing
- Unfortunately not all that engaging and can be quite boring