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Written by Rob Larkin on 8/7/2023 for PS5  
More On: Oaken

The first thing that comes to mind when I even watched my first trailer for Oaken was "Gee, this sure looks a lot like Faeria..." I even had to doublecheck the developer and publisher before confirming: no, this is a standalone game. Faeria's not bad company to be in, I love that game. However seeing Oaken's hex grid maps and a similar whimsy in its art and style really raises the comparison. Gameplay elements are shared as well. They are both kind of deck building games and both massively incorporate that hex map to augment the gameplay of just spending the mana to execute units on the battlefield. But Oaken certainly does stand on its own merit and offers its own twists to that play loop. 

For starters, Oaken does not use the map anywhere near as much. The map is important, but you're not so much actively building it from more or less a blank slate like Faeira. You can change terrain colors for boons and penalties, interact with elements to alter the environment or spawn units or other power ups, and traversal and range are ever-present critical elements of your available tactics; but the map in Oaken is still a background to the major game loop, not as integrated as part of the loop itself like in Faeria. That's fine, it makes Oaken's strategies tweaked to follow suit, displacing map building and terraforming with other strategy elements like the way a unit is facing. In Oaken, you can only attack to the front, and are penalized if attacked from the behind. So essentially we trade the terraforming for a positional battle that is closer to a chess match. Neat. 

There are also the roguelike aspects borrowed from other giants in the genre. Each run is played out across a randomly generated set of paths, like Slay the Spire for example. You can choose which branch to take and alter course at every fork in the road to steer towards danger and greater rewards when feeling strong, or away from it when on your last hit points. Sometimes you will encounter skirmishes with weaker foes, sometimes areas to spend currency for rewards. Other times will pit you against a mid-boss or tougher encounter before waltzing to the end of the line and big boss battle. The key aspect that Oaken introduces in really ramping up the difficulty is not the battles themselves, but the way certain penalties from them carry forward. 

In most battles your troops can be expended and they will refresh on the next encounter. However, certain enemies are empowered with a special penalty called fatigue. When an enemy with fatigue damages a unit, those wounds don't heal for the following encounters. They can be healed in the menu screen by spending more currency that otherwise could have upgraded your team. However, if a fatigued unit becomes Exhausted, then that character is out of play until you can find a special Refuge to revive them or finish the current level, or Chapter. So play those encounters against enemies with Fatigue wisely for sure. 

And it's not just the penalties accrued that can ultimately derail a run, it's also the way you build your army. Each unit or spell can be upgraded. Each unit can only hold one upgrade at a time. So choose wisely. If you replace a previous upgrade with a better on on your favorite fighter, the first is lost. The opportunity of cost of which could leave another unit at base level and too weak to really tip the scale come the boss at the end level. There are also bonus objectives on every step leading to greater rewards. Banking those could also be the difference between affording the necessary healing of fatigued units or going into the boss level with one hand tied behind your back. 

As far as the quality of life aspects, Oaken has everything I could possible ask for. This is a port of a PC game, and ports can suffer all too often when care is not taken; there is no evidence or experience of that present with Oaken. All actions are clearly defined with corresponding markers relating to the button inputs. Health, damage, the result of actions, everything is clearly laid out in the UI. There are a number of keywords that need to be understood and the glossary is no more than two buttons away. One for the menu and an R1 right into the glossary area. The 37 keywords therein don't need to be learned or memorized, just referenced; and they stand out in bold in any text when you do encounter them, be that an enemy, reward at the end of fight, or otherwise. While the tutorial was decent at walking through the mechanics, it may have skipped over the Fatigue element a little too quickly, but the glossary covers and errors and makes the game so easy to plow through with confidence.  

It might be unfair to compare Oaken so heavily to Faeria, but the two games exist in the same genre space, share similar art direction, and both play out across maps of hex tiles, making it a little unavoidable. Considering that I adore Faeria, it is at least a comfort to say that Oaken stands up to it well. I still think Faeria offers a little bit more, as there is a greater variety in troop units and more synergies between terrains, but I always do lament Faeria's lack of cross-save. I even scored my Switch review of Faeria lower than I would have on other platforms and noted that missing killer feature.

If Oaken really wants to surpass Faeria in my mind, then cross save between platforms could be a welcome step in that direction. Even absent that, Oaken is an excellent game, coming in at around the same price point for the base game as its rival. Both reward the player well for the time spent exploring cutesy worlds that offer surprising depth under the bubbly surface. Oaken replaces Faeria's mastery of the map and deck building with elements that make choices in upgrading units along the way and managing health all the more important. Each stands tall with what they offer. 

Oaken might immediately bring comparisons to Faeria to the fore, but it stands on its own as a very good game. It incorporates the hex map as an element, but doesn't make it the star. Instead, it focuses on the survivability of units as you must measure out success across a series of encounters, and balance both the Fatigue your units must endure with the resources at your disposal, building them into a force adept enough to overcome some very challenging bosses at the conclusion of each chapter. It has all the quality of life elements you could hope for. Be endeared by its wonderful art and style, but don't be fooled - there is depth beneath those cute little plants as well. 

Rating: 8.5 Very Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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