A trailer can make or break a game, it can make you drool at the mouth (like Dead Island’s launch trailer a few years ago) or it can make you just give up on any concept of a good game (see Sonic Boom, Mighty Number 9 and any other number of nostalgia trip releases). We Happy Few already had some heavy buzz around it just from some screenshots and short videos shown a couple of years ago. But it was the E3 presentation from developer Compulsion Games this year that made the wider public sit up and say ‘wow’.
Set in an alternative history 1960’s in England We Happy Few smashes together many literary concepts into one brutally unsettling dystopian past where the public take Joy, a pill that makes the bleak distressing world a bright, happy and colourful place where nothing bad ever happens. You play as Arthur Hastings a gentleman who spends his days censoring the newspapers to keep his happy town happy. The start of the game sees you remembering…something.
This early access/ preview build is all about managing people’s expectations. After E3 hype for the game grew wheels and hopped on a track to become a train people’s ideas of what the game was seemed to leap away into fantasy. With only screenshots and the video at E3 there really wasn’t much indicator of what the game is. We had known it was a first person game, but unlike many people’s thoughts from the story driven video, this is not Bioshock.
Instead We Happy Few is actually a first person survival game; much like the definition of an RPG is “do numbers come off enemies when I hit them?” survival games have “do I need to arse about finding water to keep going?”. Health, hunger, thirst, tiredness and sickness all have meters at the top of the screen that crawl down as you move around the town of Wellington Wells. These meters are the first exposure to We Happy Few’s list of worries at this stage. They drop at a brutal rate basically meaning that if you spend more than a moment considering a quest you’ll already be behind on your babysitting duty of care for your character.
At its simplest We Happy Few is a Survival, mission based game with stealth and puzzle elements. When you first start the game you have the option of it being perma-death or not, it defaults to being perma-death, trust me when I say this is not the way to play this game, as soon as you get stuck in the loop of desperately needing water and food you won’t get enjoyment from the threat of failure, instead the stresses of issues with an early build of the game become more apparent and irritating.
As you emerge from the underground bunker you call home you are presented with a quaint British village, everything is kind of crappy and the people don’t look good. Your starter quest is a vague “escape” but quickly you’ll start picking up random quests as you walk past various scenarios around you. Your first real roadblock isn’t the enemies or the world, instead it’s the UI which is some of the most convoluted I’ve had to deal with since Gran Turismo 5. No icon for any of your items is clear enough meaning as you’re trying to find some food to save yourself from starving you’ll repeatedly try to swallow a rock. The map is equally confusing with its lack of real quest tracking and the compass at the top of the screen does little to aide you in finding your way around the town.
What caught most people’s attention is quite simply the design of the game, with its 60’s inspired psychedelia in little Britain it certainly is an original style and something to be praised greatly. To overcome the horrific past that I’m still not entirely sure about the whole town takes Joy, a pill that makes everything happy, if the locals notice you not on your pills, either through violence or theft or other such crimes, you’ll be declared a downer and everyone will turn on you in an instant, at which point you must run or fight, neither of which is a particularly easy option. If you decide to take some Joy that you find lying around you will be treated to not only a happy town but also the happiest first person stroll you have ever experienced.
The build you can buy now on Xbox One is alpha, and by that I mean true alpha, not a demo like EA seems to believe they are. There are audio issues, graphical issues, gameplay issues and issue issues. The core concept is there, and what is there is sometimes enjoyable, just don’t go in expecting this to be a fully fleshed out, or balanced experience. A few patches down the line I’m sure this will be super fun even before full release, but as it currently stands this is a sparse game with a number of anchors holding it back. As with any preview you have to look at its’ potential not completely as it is now, this has the chance to take survival games to their next evolution, a deeper, more varied and lore filled experience; but that’s just its’ potential, we’ll have to see if Compulsion Games follows through with the momentum they’ve gained from their E3 hype.