Rogue-likes and tactics games are two genres that tend towards completely different gameplay loops and expectations. Rogue-likes tend towards giving a player almost no information, and the world and enemy actions typically vary wildly on every playthough. Also there’s permadeath and deleting your save on each run, but honestly everyone knows that by now. Tactics games, by contrast, typically present the player with quite a lot of information and fairly deterministic reactions to their inputs such that a player might be able to “solve” a game aside from the whims of the RNG. So, a game that touts itself as a Rogue-like Tactics game like Oakenfold does, developed by Rutger van Dijk and published by Studio Taghua, might at first seem a contradiction in terms, but in reality it sits at a very interesting intersection of these two distinct gaming styles.

Oakenfold‘s story is very straightforward. It is set the future, humanity has discovered a wonder element called Dilithium that powers everything, but overreliance has caused wanton destruction of the earth and giant monsters called “Biocides” have appeared to destroy humanity and restore the world. Humanity plans to escape Earth in the experimental arcology/spaceship the Oakenfold, but it is up to playable character, Aisha, to deliver the last supplies to the ship so it can safely leave Earth. Its up to Aisha to protect those supplies and make it to the Oakenfold alive. The twists are thus – every time you play Oakenfold, the game is procedurally generated – no two runs will ever be exactly alike, and if you lose your playthrough, you have to try again from the start. Helping you out in accomplishing your goals (despite the fact that there’s no prep screen and levels are essentially random) are the three possible ability sets you can select for Aisha: Agile, Survivalist, or Technological. Each has its own strengths and specialties – and the ability to basically rewind any map to the very beginning, so long as you don’t lose the game outright.

It's a very straightforward story, but that's what it needs to be
It’s a very straightforward story, but that’s what it needs to be

So how does Oakenfold work? Well, first, the goal of the game is not to defeat all of your enemies, but to protect yourself and your cargo. Some levels will require the destruction of all enemies, but primarily killing enemies is done to prevent them from attacking you or the cargo. Most often the objective of a level will be to simply survive a number of rounds, sometimes to reunite with your cargo. Levels will also have have sub-objectives to try and complete, though it’s not always possible to complete all of these sub-objectives and I think in some cases Oakenfold might give out an objective that’s not possible given the level it’s attached to, but there are always several secondary objectives, so the chances of not being able to complete any is slim.

Each level will let you know what its objective is, and what enemies you will face before going in, but not the layout or the spawn locations. As soon as the level begins, several enemies will spawn and then move and their intended attacks will be shown. Aisha will then have a number of turns to figure out how to kill her enemies or otherwise prevent them from landing an attack. At the end of these turns, any remaining enemies will execute their moves. So, how do you kill or stymie the monsters? Aisha has several skills – depending on your chosen path – that you start each map with and which then recharge after several turns. I picked the Technological Aisha, so my abilities were a Taser that dealt heavy damage and changed an enemy’s attack direction, a violent roomba that attacked sideways and pushed enemies, and a teleporter that could swap Aisha and an enemy to do damage  or – with an upgrade – safely move one of those precious cargo boxes. And if you screwed up your round and got hit or one of your boxes got destroyed? Welp, guess it’s time to rewind!

Each level is the same size, with your cargo strewn amidst the terrain and enemies trying to attack it, even boss arenas. It makes for a tight, hectic game loop
Each level is the same size, with your cargo strewn amidst the terrain and enemies trying to attack it, even boss arenas. It makes for a tight, hectic game loop

Aisha has a time machine that she can use to rewind to essentially the start of the level. If you every find yourself with spare turns before the end of a round, or need to kill a turn for something to execute properly, you can hit T to bank the time for later use. This, along with picking up energy drops from defeated enemies, is how Aisha can get upgrades to her abilities, though which upgrades are available to take are effectively selected as random each level. In an interesting twist, any upgrades you purchase in a level are still available even if you rewind a level, so keep that in mind if you need just a little more energy to get the upgrade you like but would need to take a hit to get it. You can always rewind the hit and keep the upgrade, so long as you don’t hit a lose condition.

There are two game over conditions, one of which makes some sense, and the other makes sense out of universe but not so much in universe: if Aisha ever loses all her health (in which case she is dead and cannot rewind time) or if she loses too many of her cargo boxes (in which case she cannot launch the Oakenfold). This makes sense from a gameplay perspective; cargo boxes are more important than Aisha’s Life Points, as those regenerate between levels, but boxes don’t, but it doesn’t make sense from a narrative perspective as why not just rewind time to save the box? This brings me to one of my few grips with Oakenfold: there are handy tooltips to let you know about game features and nifty mechanics, but they aren’t guaranteed to show up, given the random nature of the game. I was very confused as to how crafting worked until I managed to complete a wave with moves remaining and the game told me I could bank my turns for use in crafting. It also took quite some time to learn how the teleporter worked, and I’m still not sure I fully comprehend it. Maybe a non-randomized  tutorial prologue for each of the three skill sets would be in order, to guide new players into Oakenfold‘s mechanics before letting them run wild. I do want to thank the creator for allowing runs to be saved and ended without forfeiting them. This is a nice quality of life feature that oddly not all Rogue-likes have nowadays and it’s very welcome. For people looking for a slightly less random outing, there is the “weekly escape” a set collection of levels that every can challenge themselves against for one week’s time, trying to get a high score. Otherwise, give it your best shot and remember death is just part of the process in rogue-likes, so try try again!

Tim reviewed Oakenfold on PC with a review code.

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