We Happy Few is now on Steam early access and I’ve jumped into the totalitarian, psychedelic nightmare to see what it’s all about. It’s worth noting that Compulsion Games haven’t released the full game. Only the opening section revealed in the trailer is a playable part of the narrative. The rest is a walk around in the procedural world, with a few missions thrown in for laughs.
I’ve spent between one and two hours in the game and have to say, the setting of We Happy Few is its real strength. Imagine 1960s Britain with more than a hint of A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick’s film) or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Ghoulish bobbies on the beat (police) wield their truncheon’s with gay abandon, while cracking skulls.
This is a regime where the populous is kept in a state of blissful ignorance through the enforced medication of a pill called Joy. When you take Joy, all your worries are forgotten (and these people have worries) and the world is transformed into a bright, fairground utopia. Forget to take your Joy or wilfully become a ‘downer’ and you see the literal cracks and stains, such as a pinata party turning into a bloody feast on a rat. In addition, nobody likes a downer, so the police will come running to sort you out.
In post-Brexit Britain, the false hope of the little Englander mentality portrayed in We Happy Few is even more depressing. The playable character, Arthur Hastings, works in the redacting office, where he censors historical news stories that might upset the social order. Village fetes okay, but a protest among ‘breeders’ (pregnant women) must be censored.
Outside the office, where contemporary 60s style is apparent, the village of Wellington Wells is festooned with bunting, giving way to a pre-war innocence. Only, it’s an Orwellian nostalgia for simpler times, when everyone spoke proper, knew their place and Britain was great.
All the state communications are conveyed by television figure, Uncle Jack, who harks back to the days of the BBC, when presenters wore dinner jackets. He’s like a sinister Orson Welles, delivering dark bedtime stories and propaganda, wherever you go.
The opening has a strong narrative and works really well to build up tension. Once you’re discovered to be a downer, you’re kicked out into the slums of Wellington Wells, with the others who refuse their medication. These forsaken, Joyless citizens are all cray-zee, so don’t expect a nuanced take on mental illness here. But this isn’t the only thing that jars.
Everyone took one look at We Happy Few and thought – ooh, it’s Bioshock. Compulsion took great pains to explain that it isn’t anything like Bioshock, but we refused to believe them and expected it to be like Bioshock. It’s not like Bioshock. We Happy Few is more akin to the wealth of procedural survival FPSs that have been hitting Steam lately.
So, yeah, less tight narrative and beautifully styled, cinematic tension and more openworld survival game. You’ve got an inventory to manage before it gets full. The clock is continually ticking, which means you’re either tired, hungry or thirsty. Or, if you’ve had an encounter-gone-bad with one of the downers, you may need to patch yourself up back at your safe house.
Fortunately, there are crafting tables, where you can cobble together things you’ve collected on your travels, to make other better things, like lock-picks and health kits. Are you bored yet?
I’ve never been a fan of inventory management, so the survival sim isn’t my thing, but especially when the story and world is so compelling. I felt like the need to survive was just punishment to prevent you from getting on with the fun bits the developers tantalisingly offered around the next corner, if only you could find a bit of rancid meat.
Then of course, there’s the permadeath option. Thankfully, it is optional, otherwise I’d have given up on We Happy Few very quickly. Not that I died very often, but the fact that I could die and have to start all over again would be so distracting that I’d never get anything done, other than foraging for food.
The combat is just a frustrating button mash and doesn’t add anything at all, other than the need to tend to the old, health, thirst, food and sleep levels.
In addition, the procedurally generated village feels a bit like a Hanna Barbera cartoon. Haven’t we seen that house before? Add this to the joyless (sorry) survival aspect and it becomes a bit tired, quickly.
Joy can be used to blend in with the crowd, if you’re in the main part of town, where everything is just ‘fine and dandy’. However, being drugged up, doesn’t really help you keep an eye on the job in hand, so don’t over indulge. And taking Joy among the downers, breeds suspicion and eventually mob violence, so it’s not a way out.
This is just an early access We Happy Few, so 50% of the game is missing, but it’s still a good gauge. The setting is engaging and taps into a macabre sense of Englishness, which is particularly poignant, at the moment. However, I’m not convinced by the survival gameplay mechanic. Perhaps the addition of a compelling story (missing from the early access) will pull everything together, but I have my doubts.
Despite all this, I do want to know who Uncle Jack is and what the big, dark event was that is so terrible everyone wants to forget. Who is behind the regime? And what happened to Arthur’s brother?
I think there is a good game waiting to be released in We Happy Few. Compulsion is keeping the game in early access for the next 12 months, so there is hope. Is this enough time to create a great story that draws us through the turgid survival aspects? I’ll see you back here at launch to decide. It’s definitely too interesting to write-off yet, but I’m thinking maybe I’d like it better if it was like Bioshock.