“When life annoys, top off your Joy.”
We Happy Few is a game that has produced a lot of hype through its outrageously successful Kickstarter campaign and with its stellar E3 2016 trailer. It was one of my personal picks for most interesting titles at this year’s E3. As such, I was excited to get a chance to play the alpha version which released earlier today on Xbox One and PC.
The game opens with our protagonist, one Mr. Arthur Hastings, at work as a redactor. Articles come to him via a tube on his right. He reads through and decides whether the material is appropriate for the joy-obsessed populous of Wellington Wells–a retro-futuristic town set in 1960’s England. This beginning part is pretty clever, as it provides historical context through the news stories that are shown on screen without beating the player over the head with the fact that we are in a dystopian society.
After Arthur goes through a few articles, censoring those with questionable content, he comes to a piece that seems to be about him and his younger brother from about twenty years prior. Overcome with a sudden flush of memories and voices from the past, Arthur reaches for his Joy–a medication taken by the general population to help them forget their unhappiness. At this point, we are given the choice of either taking the pills or throwing them away. I decided to throw them out, following the path of the gameplay trailer revealed at E3 2016.
After making this fateful decision, Arthur is notified that his presence is needed for an office party. On his way there, our newly unmedicated protagonist begins to comment on the change in his surroundings. Everything is messier, less bright, and more realistic. From there, the beginning of the game proceeds in the general manner of the trailer (below). Somehow we are able to escape the clutches of the security guards and end up in an underground safe house, although exactly how this happens is a little unclear in the alpha version of the game. It’s a place in the game that I imagine will receive a touch up or two in its completed form.
The alpha version seems to focus on gameplay more than anything else. There isn’t much of a tutorial on how to go about the game, but a set of traditional RPG-style controls make the navigation fairly straight forward. The first thing I did once I was in the safe house was clear all containers of their contents. I was rewarded with a medley of items, from scrap metal to rotting food. I was required to access the crafting section of the player menu –where you can make weapons, medicine, and tools– fairly early on, as you need a lock pick to even leave the safe house. Some craftable items require a workbench, while others you can build anywhere. Whatever you can’t build is highlighted in red with an explanation of what you’re missing.
The player menu is equipped with some other interesting tabs. One keeps track of all the active effects either benefiting or plaguing Arthur. Hunger, thirst, and sleep all degrade over time. If Arthur is afflicted with a lack of any of these, it can be seen by an icon in the top left-hand corner of the screen or in this first tab of the menu. Another tab in the menu showcases Arthur’s inventory and equipped items, and yet another tab is a quest log and place for writings that Arthur picks up.
One important note about the menu: opening it does not pause the game. This is a lesson I learned the hard way when I tried to open the menu to heal myself and was unceremoniously bludgeoned in the face by one of Wellington Well’s incensed dwellers. I appreciate that from a survival game, though, which is what We Happy Few seems primarily to be. If you’re being attacked or are in some sort of danger, you have to run away or find a hiding place before you can really attend to your needs.
Speaking of needs, I soon found it best not to stay away from my safe house for too long at a time. After Arthur initially exits the safe house, it becomes clear that he’s more or less stuck in a really seedy area of Wellington Wells. Downers like himself but a bit crazier wander the streets spewing nonsense. They are being quarantined, and Arthur is stuck with them. It takes quite a bit of leg work to get what you need to escape this first area. I needed to return to my safe house often in order to have a secure night’s sleep and store all the stuff I was scavenging.
Besides my basic needs like food and water, I found myself worrying about my health a lot. Health is easily depleted, and not so easily restored–at least not in the beginning of the game. Plus, In We Happy Few, your game is erased once you die. No reloading! I love this aspect of the game, as I’m a big one-life junkie. But it also caused me to have to start over often. Luckily, Wellington Wells is procedurally generated, meaning the setting is a bit different every time you play.
Another interesting aspect of the game is the way that dying works. If your health reaches zero, your player is granted a “second wind,” in which they pass out and are able to heal themselves after waking. If you are in the middle of combat, you wake up in your safe house after passing out. Otherwise, you wake up wherever you passed out at. This is a forgiving feature to a game with such a brutal one-life policy. Once waking, though, you still must heal yourself as soon as possible or you die for real. I found myself in a couple of situations where the second wind didn’t help me because I didn’t have the necessary materials to heal myself. It’s a pretty well-balanced addition to the gameplay.
Overall, the alpha version of We Happy Few is incredibly impressive. The graphics are beautiful, creating an aesthetic somewhere between that of Bioshock and Fallout. I found myself challenged but not overly frustrated–the perfect balance for a game with strong survival aspects. Each time I died, I was excited to jump back in and use any information I had gathered on a new play through. The game is expected to feature a few more protagonist choices in its final version, giving some much needed variety to a game that relies so heavily on the replay factor. We’ll see what else the developers at Compulsion Games bring to the table as the game is updated. I’ve got high hopes.