We Happy Few made quite the impact at E3 this year. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, gamers were eager to see what Compulsion Games had in store and they certainly delivered with a very atmospheric trailer at the biggest game show of the year – one which brought to mind the claustrophobic unease of BioShock. The short video showed us the prologue to the game, where we see Arthur Hastings – a newspaper redactor whose job it is to censor “unhappy” stories from the news – decide to stop taking his “Joy”. This is a drug developed to control the mind-state of the populace so that they only think happy thoughts, and don’t see the bad things going on around them.
Game: We Happy Few
Developer: Compulsion Games
Publisher: Compulsion Games
Previewed on: Xbox One (Preview code provided by publisher)
Set in an alternate 1960’s British village called Wellington Wells, almost all of the inhabitants have chosen to take their Joy – to forget the horrors they witnessed through a war with the Soviets. To everyone who has taken the drug, the town seems fine and all is going swimmingly – but come off the drugs and you can see how the world really is, and how society is falling apart. This opening segment sets the scene perfectly, creating an uneasy atmosphere and a unique hook – which really makes you intrigued to find out what happens next.
Sadly – whilst the preview version lets us play through the brilliant tightly controlled opening sequence – once Arthur is found to be a “Downer” off his meds and thrown out into the real world, things go quickly downhill. This Early Access build is very much an Alpha version. There are no story missions included in the preview, and only certain areas are accessible. Instead, you can simply explore, complete several nonsensical side quests and manage the games main mechanic – survival. The survival elements don’t inspire great hope for the full game. Marrying full-time survival resource management with a tightly-written plot and atmospheric world will be difficult. Having to manage your tiredness levels, hunger, thirst and more when there is a whole procedural-generated world out there for you to explore is actually a pretty huge hindrance.
Want to check out the bridge? Better not, as you need to find some food. In the middle of a treacherous minefield? Better get home quickly, you could do with a good sleep. The survival mechanics are too tedious and crop up far too often, meaning that you never feel free to explore what is on offer, but rather what you can get to before you run out of energy. The interesting setting and backstory are literally buried beneath eating rancid food, and hoping that it won’t make you sick.
The quests that are open to players at this early stage don’t always make a whole lot of sense. Taken out of context from the rest of the story, they usually are pretty un-intuitive and difficult to figure out by yourself. The map system only makes things worse, whereby you cannot place markers or waypoints to help yourself navigate – hopefully something that will be added once the game leaves its Alpha stage. Permadeath is also a thing – so unless you really want to make things difficult for yourself – turn off that setting upon startup. I really recommend that you do this, as the in-game combat is very random and unsatisfying – and the townsfolk will become angry with you at the drop of the hat – for no reason sometimes. You don’t want the constant danger of permanent death hanging over your head as well as the other requirements you need to constantly manage.
The game world itself is a bit sparse too. Being in the “Downer” part of town, you are surrounded by the craziest of the crazies – those who have been driven mad by the horrors of the truth, or from drug withdrawal. This is handled in a fairly poor manner too – cookie-cutter citizens simply shout gibberish at you – not creating the disturbing, edge-of-your-seat madness that Splicers in Bioshock possessed, but rather a lazy caricature of what people think madness could be. The houses and buildings are all pretty uninspired too – being procedural generated they all consist of the same building blocks, meaning there is little in the way of variety and unique design – just the same buildings over and over again.
More interesting ideas come into play when you realise that you can intentionally choose to take small doses of Joy – which allow Arthur to either pass as a normal citizen when around other drug-users, or to discover new secrets that can only be located when in a happy state. This creates a sort of two-layer game world which can be flicked between – a feature that could certainly have a lot of potential for puzzles and the like further into the game. The use of Joy as a stealth mechanic to move freely in hostile areas – or cause people to become aggressive if used in the wrong place – is also a unique one.
That is a much more exciting proposition than having to move larger items around in your inventory to make space for another new item. Having to keep drinking water isn’t a challenge, but something that just takes away from the game design that has been created. The item crafting options can alleviate some of the more irritating elements, but you need to explore to find the parts you need for crafting, and you can’t explore without getting tired – so it is all part of a repetitive cycle which hopefully will be tweaked somewhat by Compulsion before a full release is ready.
There are of course a lot of glitches present, as this is such an early look at We Happy Few, but most of these can be easily worked around. The AI is still pretty haphazard and certainly not consistent yet – but again, this could be put down to the early stage development is still at. For an Alpha, there is a large area open for you to roam around in, and a lot of side quests – it is just a shame that none of these are particularly interesting.
All of the promise shown in the prologue is muddied by the somewhat boring survival mechanics and the unsatisfying fighting. There is still plenty of time and potential present here that could allow things to become a lot more focused and far more tense and exciting once more storyline and missions are included, but you can’t shake the fact that this Early Access feels VERY early. Most gamers will probably want to wait quite a long time before visiting Wellington Wells, as most of what people were hoping for from this title isn’t ready yet.