Among the big news and surprises that came out of E3 2016 this year was an intriguingly dark yet very English toned game and it captured my interest straight away. We Happy Few has now entered into the Xbox One Preview program as well as early access on STEAM allowing gamers to purchase this unfinished version of the game, to try it out and help refine the game with feedback before its full release next year. This was my first chance to see the game beyond the E3 trailer, and if I am honest, it is not the experience or the game I was expecting.
Developed by Compulsion Games, “We Happy Few” is set in a dystopian 1964 England that actually lost World War II. The game is set in the English town of Wellington Wells where the people are taking a drug called “Joy” which puts them in a state of happiness, forcing them to see the world around them only in a positive and wonderful way. Joy masks the reality of the world and helps them to exist in denial over what has happened, forgetting their bad memories and any pain they have suffered.
We are introduced to Arthur Hastings who works as a newspaper redactor, someone who scans newspaper stories in order to censor anything negative from them. But we also see that Arthur is beginning to fight against the drug Joy, refusing to take and when he comes across a news story that features him and his brother from years ago, he throws his bottle of Joy Pills away before another member of staff enters his office to call him to join a game of Piñata, but notices that Arthur is acting strange and asks if he has taken his Joy to which Arthur lies and says he has. On leaving the office you can see that another member of staff has gone missing after becoming ill, but you can see that she has been missing for a full month by the rotting get well soon fruit basket in her office and the cards there but seemingly due to the office taking Joy, her absence is not missed. The effects of Joy are also seen as Arthur makes his way to the Piñata party with the office in disarray, repairs clearly needed but ignored and work clearly piling up but no one caring to deal with it.
All this time the effects of Joy are starting to wear off in Arthur after refusing to take a Joy pill, and when he joins the others he can see them beating on a Piñata in order to get to the candy inside but when encouraged to hit it himself, he delivers the final blow resulting in blood splattering over himself, the shock of this shakes off the final effects of Joy in his system and he discovers that the piñata was in reality a giant rat, and the other people are now eating this resulting in Arthur being sick. This alerts the others to the fact Arthur is off his Joy and they call him a ‘Downer” and call security and Arthur tries to escape before being cornered and knocked unconscious.
The game picks up after Arthur wakes up, finding himself in a safe house of sorts, and this is where the game began to surprise me. From the E3 trailer I had expected We Happy Few to be a linear story driven game but I was very wrong. We Happy Few is actually a first person survival game where you will struggle every day to find food, water and shelter in order to live long enough to explore the world and find a way to escape. Like other survival games you must scavenge materials in order to craft weapons and tools whilst seeking out food and water to prevent starvation or dehydration. None of this was suggest by the trailer and it did catch me unaware to begin with.
Leaving the safe house, you find yourself in a very run down area of Welling Wells, with damaged and condemned buildings. The area is full of “Downers” people who have either stopped taking the drug Joy or who have become immune to it leaving only the pain and damage of taking the drug for years. This area has been abandoned by society and left alone without support or aid which means food, clean water and medical supplies are all in short supply and the locals are even less friendly to newcomers. The first thing you will want to do is begin exploring the area and doing so will start to reveal areas on the map. Soon you will discover encounters such as an area where bees are creating honey which you will require to craft a padded suit in order to go near. As you continue to move about you will find yourself needed to eat and drink to keep your food levels up, luckily plants can be used to create healing balms and some of the plants can be eaten to provide some nourishment whilst some water can drunk and taken from various water pumps scattered around.
Luckily to craft items all you need to do is find the materials required and the crafting menu will tell you what you can make with the items you are carrying with more advanced creations possible as you find more suitable materials and range from stronger weapons and tools to new clothing. One of the themes that We Happy Few utilises is that of how people see you and therefore react to you, and this is shown in the clothing you wear which will effect how the people around you react to you either positively or negatively. The next theme is how you perceive the world around you, now that Arthur has come off the Joy drug, he is remembering how the world really is how harsh that reality is. You can still take Joy pills that you find, and for a brief time you will see the world as all shiny and lovely and even your walk animation has you pumping your arms like you are in a Disney movie, walking to a lovely chorus song. But when it wears off, you will feel withdrawal symptoms but you can almost understand how powerful the Joy drug is now you have had a taste of life without it; it is very much like the old “blue or red pill” from the Matrix almost.
The aim is to survive long enough and find a way to escape, and if you explore enough you will discover different toll bridges that can lead you to different areas, one area is very much like the one you find yourself in from leaving the safe house and the other will lead to a town where everyone is on Joy and is patrolled by Police who as you saw in the opening section, take a very violent tone with anyone not on drugs as will any of the people there on Joy. In order to blend in here you need to not only take a Joy pill to fool door sensors and checkpoints but also the Police and other people. I did find however that how I was dressed at this point made the people question my presence even if I was on Joy and as the effects are short lived, knowing when to use a pill to gain progression in the town or access to a building. You can use the lock picks you craft to bypass these on some occasions but if caught the Police will come to attack you.
This preview build does not contain any of the main characters or storylines that will feature in the main game, and throughout the preview period, new features and elements will be added to test out game mechanics and ideas ahead of the full release next year and because it is in the preview stage, it does have quite a few issues that will be have to be addressed before it does release.
I found that need to constantly sleep a hindrance when trying to explore as failing to rest properly will result in a limit placed on your stamina bar which limits your ability to sprint and fight in combat. The game uses a day and night cycle but the day felt like it passed too quickly on some days and pretty soon my attempted sleep cycle was thrown off. Crafting made creating healing balms simple which is handy as I found myself getting into fights with the locals quite often and mostly they would attack in groups. The combat system works ok with weapon damage increasing depending on the weapon you wield and these can all be upgraded and improved with materials found.
It did take me three play through attempts to find my way off the first section by way of the toll bridges, as the game features a perma death option as default, the first time I died as a result of combat but the area was full of things to discover such as dig spots and abandoned houses. The second time however, I found less things to explore and as I revealed more of the map, it was all rather empty so my time was spent simply eating, drinking and walking around for a good five hours. The third time I was indeed able to cross the toll bridges and do some more exploring, but on each of the attempts, the need to constantly find somewhere safe to sleep and things to eat or just to find interesting things to do just left this initial preview experience feeling rather empty. When I did manage to find myself in the Joy part of town, I found myself with no where to sleep so my stamina was decreased in half and running out of joy pills so in an attempt to return to the downer area where my safe house was situated, I found myself in some kind of hospital where people were scanned to see if they were downers or not. I found my way into a room but then the doors closed behind me and the NPC there simply looked at me but I could not interact with him or any door in the room which just resulted in me having to starve to death and that was it, end of that play through.
Overall I was intrigued by the We Happy Few E3 trailer, and I was expecting a linear story experience. This preview has surprised me by revealing that the game will in fact be a survival genre game, with procedural encounters but with fixed main story missions and characters which will not be revealed until the game fully releases next year. As a preview build of the game, it certainly does give you a good idea of the way in which the gameplay works and the systems of the game, but it does just feel as though it is a very early build of the game, with too little to do and too many issues holding you back from really exploring its full potential. Frame rate drops, lack of encounters and a need to constantly sleep all left me with the feeling that We Happy Few needs quite a bit of work, and before recommending this for people to buy right now to try it out, I would suggest holding back until the first of many updates and new features added.
We Happy Few does still fascinate me with its story and gameplay, it might not be the game I was expecting just yet and certainly is not the finished game either, but right now, it is a game that belongs in preview for sure, but could have benefited by having just more things to do to showcase itself far better following that great E3 Trailer.
We Happy Few is available now on Xbox One Preview and early access on STEAM.