Platforms: PC (Early Access) Xbox One (Preview Program)
Previewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Compulsion Games
Publisher: Compulsion Games
Preview code provided free of charge by Compulsion Games
We Happy Few takes its cues from the novels like 1984 and Brave New World. This isn’t a criticism; both books are wonderful reads and you owe it to yourself to sit down and begin turning those pages. Currently in Early Access you step into the shoes of Arthur, a man who works in a building where they censor articles to ensure that nothing bad seems to be happening. You see, sometime during World War II the Germans successfully invaded Britain, and to repel those invaders something so horrible was done that the entire population ended up taking a drug called Joy which makes everything seem…wonderful. It also has the rather lovely effect of making them forget things. People wear strange white masks with permanent smiles, and while on Joy they have a spring in their step and a friendly greeting for everyone. Joy alters their perception of the world, as evidenced when Arthur is pressured into hitting what a group of people see as a pinata, but is actually the corpse of a rat which they proceed to consume, believing it to be delicious candy. IN reality Britain is a mess, with huge swathes of it eating horrid, rotten food and barely surviving. It’s a fascinating world with a heavy atmosphere that feels unique within the world of videgames, although I’m sure someone will hastily correct me. People amble around with creepy white masks on, jumping up and down in puddles and going about their lives with such eery cheerfulness. Damn it, people, this is the UK. People aren’t cheerful here.
Thanks to a flashback caused by a newspaper article Arthur stops taking his Joy, becoming what others refer to as a Downer, something which is very much frowned upon by the rest of society. He begins to see the world for what it is before getting chased by the creepy police force and whacked on the head. Somehow he awakens to find himself in the slums rather than dead, without any Joy pills and with little hope of surviving among the other riff-raff. He has a goal, though; escape. To do that he has to work his way out of the slums, blend in with the rest of society and eventually get his freedom.
It’s such a marvelous setup, and We Happy Few turns it into a brilliant ascetic style that pervades every moment of the game. The opening minutes seem to hint at a narrative-driven title along the lines of the BioShock series that aims to explore deeper themes and ideas than we typically see within videogames, but then everything changes as you’re introduced into the wider world. As it turns out We Happy Few is actually a survival game, the kind where you have to scavenge for food and water to top up ever-draining meters, and craft new items using whatever bits and bobs you come across. If you’ve ever played a survival game before you’ll be instantly familiar with the gameplay loops here. It’s almost a jarring shift, although to be fair to the game the never hid this side of itself. Having said that, it’s also fair to say that it never really emphasized it either, opting to instead focus on unique theme and story. That means there is a fairly good chance that people are going to shell out the money for the Early Access version and wind up being a bit surprised.
The place where you begin, a sort of slum filled with wastrels who aren’t in the best of conditions, isn’t exactly rich in materials that you can use. Much of the food on offer is rotten, and will give you food poisoning if eaten, causing random bouts of vomiting that can potentially lead to death in some cases. To combat that you’ll want to find special pills that kick food poisoning’s ass. And boy will you need to hunt for those, because in its current state We Happy Few wants you to eat, drink and sleep at an alarming rate. Sometimes it feels as though you can’t get anything done without a meter popping up on screen saying that you’re hungry, thirsty or about ready to fall on your face and sleep. It quickly becomes annoying since it gets in the way of everything else, the game and its developers having seemingly forgotten that in reality people can go for quite a while without eating or drinking. Still, this is exactly what Early Access is for; tweaking.
There is a primary objective to follow within this first area, which is to get across the bridge to a more lavish area of Wellington Wells before hopefully escaping the city altogether. However, once you’ve gotten the power cell or keycard needed to pass over you’ll immediately start drawing the attention of the citizens and of the intimidating police force who go from mildly suspicious to full-on rampage startlingly fast. Why? Because you aren’t wearing a reasonable suit, and you aren’t hopped up on Joy, making you stand out like an emo at a disco. This is one of the game’s few interesting gameplay mechanics. To explore the world you have to obey the rules and continue doping up on Joy, which is even present in the water supply and even some of the food. Take too much of the substance and you’ll become addicted once again. It’s a cool idea, even if it does just boil down to another meter that must be topped up every now and then, adding yet another hunt for resources to the list. Likewise if you head back to the slums you’ll want to swap back to a tattered suit that better blends in with the unwashed masses. Provided you can avoid arousing suspicion from the population this new area provides much better quality food and new items, as well as slightly more interesting gameplay, albeit still with heavy flaws. Without Joy running through your blood the only way to avoid attracting attention is to cheerfully greet the people on the street, which is kind of awesome at first but quickly becomes a chore. You’ll also encounter new traps, and the local Bobbies (police) who patrol the streets.
As you amble through the streets, ransacking bins and knocking out hapless inhabitants in order to comb through their pockets, you’ll chance upon Encounters. The primary story Encounters aren’t in the game yet and won’t be added until the full launch somewhere around 6-12 months from now, but for the moment there’s a handful of other ones to check out. You might stumble across a raving looney who demands you get his doll back in order to join his ranks of spies, or perhaps you’ll simply try to sneak past the Bobbies guarding an Apple Tree. There’s a strange mansion occupied by an equally strange cult worshiping a familiar deity. Mechanically many of them aren’t very interesting, or they rely on the iffy stealth or the even worse combat which on Xbox One serves to highlight how damn heavy and imprecise the controls currently feel. Nor is combat itself very exciting anyway. You flail away at the opponents while using block to deflect incoming blows and shove to gain a little space. It’s graceless stuff. But ultimately the theme of the game manages to make the encounters feel more interesting and enjoyable than they actually are, deflecting your attention away from the fact that you’re mostly just doing standard fetch quests or undertaking quests that use entirely mediocre combat and stealth.
Inventory management also rears its divisive head as We Happy Few employs a system where you have to shift things around in order to maximize space. A new suit might take up four slots, for example, so you move over to the side and rearrange a few things so you can wedge a shovel in and maybe a branch or other weapon. Not that weapons actually feel too useful at the moment since they break insultingly fast, forcing you to resort to your fists. Anyway, inventory management is one of those things that divides folk; some are more than willing to spend the time needed to really maximize their carrying capacity, while others, like myself, find it dull and needless.
It all plays out like…well, a survival game. It’s instantly familiar stuff executed in entirely mediocre fashion. It’s not bad, but it’s not good, either. I’ve done this all before so many times that doing it again isn’t very interesting. The thing is these survival mechanics currently feel like their burying the narrative and theme, obscuring both of these factors thanks to the constant search for food, water and empty beds. And that’s in the game’s Early Access incarnation where the narrative is largely non-existent, save for the one the player makes as they stumble around, get food poisoning, murder a few people and accidentally contract the plague. Once the full game is released with its three characters and full storyline there’s a danger that without some heavy tweaking those mechanics will get in the way too much. Thank God there’s plenty of time to make sure that doesn’t happen.
That isn’t to say there aren’t occasionally cool moments, though. On first entering the posher area of Wellington Wells I was assaulted and didn’t know why, but having escaped I examined the sign in front of the gateway and realised it was because I didn’t have a good suit on and wasn’t being polite by speaking to people. Sadly this did lead to an annoying hour where I had to ransack every abandoned house in the hopes that one of them would contain the items I needed to progress. Indeed, this happens too often in We Happy Few. I also contracted the plague at one point because I ignored the sign telling me not to touch the corpse, and after a while died because of it. Another time I stumbled some weird house full of nutters that were cooking up mushroom soup. I stole the recipe and learned to make it for myself. Who needs Joy, eh?
And of course being an Early Access title there are a fair few problems to deal with, such as quests not working correctly or not dissapearing from your log or just not being marked as completed. There are drops in the framerate, too, bearing in mind that I was testing this on the Xbox One. However, it’s also reasonably polished at the moment, so you shouldn’t have too many issues.
I’m incredibly conflicted about We Happy Few. On the one hand I adore its theme, and am already very intrigued about where the story could go upon launch. There’s also a couple of fun gameplay ideas that I like, and some of the encounters are enjoyable. And yet the rest of the game, that whole survival nonsense, just bores me. I’ve done it so much already that doing it again doesn’t appeal very much, despite the much prettier wrapping paper it might be presented in. But the promise of the story…well, that does appeal to me, and it should be enough for me to come back at the full launch and see what sort of world and story Compulsion Games has managed to create. And I have no doubt that there’s going to be plenty of people who will enjoy the survival gameplay loops. But for now my recommendation would be to hold off a little longer on We Happy Few.