We Happy Few has been one of the more interesting games on everyone’s radars of late. How could it not be, it’s a dystopian, alternate 1960s, sci-fi game about people living a perfect utopia they’ve invented in their minds thanks to being so hyped up on a mandatory happy drug. Kind of like Bioshock meets the movie Equilibrium. If you’ve encountered both of those things, you’ll know there’s nothing about that sentence that doesn’t sound awesome.
Well, after being in development for what seems like forever, We Happy Few has arrived on PC and Xbox One, but in “early access”. The game is playable, but incomplete and will be tweaked and added to in the lead up to a full launch sometime in 2017. I’ve spent several hours playing the PC version, so I thought I’d dive into some first impressions based on what I’ve seen. Obviously you shouldn’t take this to be a review of the game or anything given it isn’t finished, but rather feedback on what the game is like in its current state, which is kind of what is expected of anything in early access.
I want to see where the story goes
Now Compulsion Games, the developers, have said the early access version doesn’t contain any of the main story campaign aside from the introduction, so this pre-release is more about the core gameplay. However, I wanted to talk about this first to get it out of the way: holy cow, what an introduction.
There will be three playable characters in the full version, but in this taster we play as Arthur Hastings, a citizen of Wellington Wells whose decided to stop taking his Joy pills, the medication citizens take that puts them in a state of bliss, and is chased out of town for being a “Downer”. In the altercation, Arthur loses consciousness and wakes up outside the city in a slum full of other Downers, and he sets out looking for a way to get back. And that’s really it for the narrative side of things, the rest of the game is exploring the slums and completing minor quests.
I haven’t completed all the quests and seen an end for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but suffice it to say the premise presented thus far makes me want to see more of what the story has to offer. The introduction was compelling and actually pretty unnerving despite some hammy voice acting, so I really want to see where it goes.
Now, on to that gameplay I mentioned.
The survival elements aren’t great
Completing the quests littered around We Happy Few‘s map often requires crafting specific items, meaning scavenging the necessary resources is the main driving force of the exploration gameplay. Seems all well and good, but We Happy Few also goes one step further and adds some staples of the survival genre: status meters.
You need to keep yourself fed, hydrated and well rested, and as it stands right now these stats drop way too quickly. The default settings alert you of a diminishing meter once it drops below 80%, which seems to occur after a couple of minutes from reaching full. For food and water this isn’t such a big deal as there’s usually plenty of it to be found, but the rest meter is just straight up annoying. You need to sleep as often as you would in real life, at the end of each day or every 12-15 in-game hours, and the only safe way to do so is to run back to your safe-house, lest you risk a mugging during the night.
Sure, the need to rest is realistic, but it really serves no purpose other than to obviously slow down the player’s ability to explore. All three of these meters need to be balanced out.
As for the inventory, it’s the classic set up of a grid of squares where items take up one or more of them depending on their size, and you need to keep things organised in order to make items fit. Some people might appreciate the classic inventory approach, but like the status meters it just serves as an annoyance. For example, when you come across a new costume that takes up six squares and you have six separate free squares on your grid, you’ll be told there’s no room in your inventory for the item. But if you go in and rearrange all your items so those six squares are grouped together, suddenly you can fit the costume!
Given the game can automatically place single square items where they fit upon collection, it wouldn’t be too much to ask that it rearrange things when you encounter a bigger item, providing you had the same total number of free squares? This may sound like a minor issue, but trust me, you’ll be doing a lot of item gathering in We Happy Few and this will bug you very quickly.
You’re at the mercy of the item placement
On the subject of item gathering, intentionally finding specific ones that you need for certain quests feels nearly impossible. Aside from plants obviously being outside in gardens, there aren’t really any discernible areas where certain items are plentiful, meaning tracking down those last few bits and bobs for crafting becomes a case of “it literally could be anywhere”.
Item placement, as well as the whole in-game map, is randomly generated when you start a new character. After searching aimlessly for a while on my first character and getting nowhere, I gave up and thought I’d start a second one. On that second go, I seemed to encounter a lot of the items I was needing the first time really quickly, but I still reached a point where I needed the last few and again wandered aimlessly for a couple hours trying to find them but to no avail.
As such, I’m yet to leave the opening area, hence why I haven’t finished the game as I mentioned earlier. After wandering around for ages, battling my status meters and still not finding what I needed to progress, it just got frustrating. Perhaps their absence was an early access glitch, but if there were specific kinds of areas plentiful in certain materials it would make life easier without diminishing the scavenging ideal.
Conflict can be pretty terrifying
NPC interaction consists mainly of either Arthur saying something weird to them, or them telling him to fuck off in some way. This is probably due to the game being pre-release, but seriously every NPC has the same “get lost” mentality, and a lot of their phrases repeat so it gets old very quickly. However, when you really cross them, things get interesting.
Combat in We Happy Few feels surprisingly meaty, with heavy hitting punches, blocking and the use of melee weapons. Attacks are tied to a stamina bar, meaning you can’t just punch wildly and need to coordinate yourself if you want to fight your way out of a situation. The enemy AI can behave pretty erratically, but there’s a consistency in how they act if you’re unarmed or if you have a weapon.
I once had a pointy stick, and the three people I was fighting were hesitant to come too close, and they kept jumping back as I jabbed at them. But after getting a couple of hits in, my stick broke (weapons are degradable) and suddenly they rushed me as I was unarmed. It makes combat tricky, and makes you question whether it would just be better to run.
Now running is pretty intense too, mainly because enemies will pursue you for longer than you expect, so you really need to weave in and out of houses and alleyways to escape. Running away and then turning back to see if you were still being followed certainly got my adrenaline pumping.
Verdict? Probably wait
We Happy Few shows promise. The really creepy premise and exhilarating combat give me hope for a haunting dystopian thriller. I encountered a couple of quest glitches and the game lacks any kind of proper tutorial/direction, but it’s in early access so that’s what I signed up for. And while We Happy Few is on the whole playable and has a wealth of content to explore, the constant annoyance from the survival elements coupled with the frustration at the randomness of critical item placement has already begun to bore me after a couple hours.
Hopefully when the story comes in it will feel more focused and compelling. There’s a good game in here, it’s just hindered by some tedious mechanics. So maybe wait it out a bit, at least until these issues are addressed.