Game Preview: We Happy Few (PC, Xbox One)

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N Roll; That is the definition of 1960s right? We Happy Few will take you on a strange ride through this drug addled decade. Except there is no sex, no rock or roll, and a whole lot of crazy people. This is the 1960’s of Compulsion Games’ new survival game.

You may remember it as one of the interesting surprises from this year’s E3. The retro design elements and curious dialog were reminiscent of Bioshock. Many were impressed and excited about a new action game tackling dystopia. The trailer only featured the opening moments of the game, which may have obscured the title’s true design. It’s retro and does feature subtexts of psychological manipulation, but this is an entirely different game and that is a good thing.

This alpha build is not a final product, and Compulsion Games have promised more playable characters and other developments in the final version of the game. Step into the twisted world of We Happy Few.  

We Happy Few Screenshot Fitting In

Narrative

We Happy Few takes place an alternative history of post war Britain. Bright colors and ‘60s flair inform many of the design decisions. The art style is closer to something from Pixar than the gritty realism of many modern games. Yet, in this bright animated world, it is clear there is something very sinister is going on. As of right now, players can only take control of Arthur Hastings, who works retracting unhappy news articles (an early theme in the game is that “a country with no history, is a happy country”). In the future, there will be two other distinct characters who will experience their own challenges within Wellington Wells.

An article triggers Arthur’s memory and before long, his world unravels. Arthur refuses to take his Joy and is rejected from “polite society” for being a “Downer”, a title that sends the citizens of Wellington Wells into a violent rage. Banished to the Garden District, players are left to explore, survive and piece together the mystery of how things got so bad. The story is told through pieces of lore players can uncover throughout the world.
We Happy Few Screenshot Not A lovely Day

At first glance, it may be easy to dismiss the similar buildings and character models, but the world of We Happy Few is immense in its detail. From overly polite signs, quest titles, and even random ramblings and deranged scribbles. Even innocuous nursery rhymes begin to weigh on the player’s mind. Menacing Uncle Jack seems ever present, even in the abandoned Garden District. The NPCs range from simply deranged to dangerous. This is a world on the edge. The game’s dark side can be seen in how quickly everything turns to violence. It is truly showcased in the nuances of the game design and dark sense of humor. Even within the procedurally generated maps, the story is carefully put forth to players. The mystery keeps players engaged while players learn the rules to survive and escape.

Gameplay

Learning is an important element in We Happy Few.  Players are thrust into a world of madness. Only by exploring, collecting supplies, and testing can you hope to learn the rules of Wellington Wells. There will be mistakes and there may even be a few deaths. You learn to balance your suspicion for this unknown world with your desire for vital supplies. Sometimes to progress, but often just to live.

We Happy Few Screenshot Seems Obvious
Believe it or not I still tried to loot this corpse, it was a mistake.

The world is procedurally generated, which means that maps change every time you load a new game. As it is possible to permanently kill Arthur, the game focuses on helping you learn the mechanics of survival rather than a walkthrough on how to simply beat the level. It’s possible to turn off permanent death, though. This may be the game’s equivalent of easy mode, as it only costs you a few days of in-game time, minor resource losses, and the loss of any passive abilities gains rather than how every many hours you have put into it.The objective for Arthur in We Happy Few is to escape. He is bent, on it although he may not be sure what he is escaping to. As players unlock more of Wellington Wells they will piece together the mystery of this tragic town and restore Arthur’s fragmented memories. In order to do that, however, players must be able to survive. Like many other games in the survival genre this means balancing resources such as food, water and medical supplies. Mismanaging any of them could lead to your character taking a permanent “vacation”.

We Happy Few Screenshot Obituary
Apparently, rotting meat is not a suitable dinner option

We Happy Few adds a few other things to manage. Players will regularly have to put Arthur to bed or risk losing vital stamina, and they will have to manage their intake of Joy in order to access certain parts of the map. Last of all, they will have to manage their behavior. A key part of surviving in Wellington Wells is fitting in. Suspicious behavior will land you in trouble and fighting off mobs is not advisable. Crafting is another important part of We Happy Few. The ability to craft items can be unlocked by finding new resources or recipes, but many items share key ingredients so players will have to manage their needs wisely. You can also combine multiple crafted items into new special items; Let’s say for, you know, curing a case of plague. The mechanisms are exceptionally thought out in a lot of smart ways. You will come across a number of seemingly useless items but don’t necessarily dismiss them. Rotten food, for instance, isn’t a waste of space. It can be used to craft certain items and eating rotten food may make you ill, but if it is between that or starvation? Players can manipulate their dose of drugs to gain entry into specific areas or recover from that food sickness you are definitely going to get at some point. Drugs have drawbacks, however. Joy will grant to access to some areas but it will cost you when you crash. 

Rotten food, for instance, isn’t a waste of space. It can be used to craft certain items and eating rotten food may make you ill, but if it is between that or starvation? Players can manipulate their dose of drugs to gain entry into specific areas or recover from that food sickness you are definitely going to get at some point. Drugs have drawbacks, however. Joy will grant to access to some areas but it will cost you when you crash. 

We Happy Few Screenshot Inventory

Multiplayer

Unfortunately, We Happy Few is an exclusively single player and Compulsion Games does appear to have aspirations for multiplayer.

Performance & Graphics

We Happy Few has a fairly light system, requirements making it very accessible. Compulsion recommends:

OS Windows 7
CPU Quad-core Intel or AMD, 2.5 GHz or faster
RAM 8GB RAM
GPU NVIDIA GeForce 470 GTX or AMD Radeon 6870 HD series or higher
HDD 8GB Available Space

My PC is a few years old now and the game runs smoothly on high settings. The game design is more in line with a Pixar movie than the gritty realism of the modern first person shooter. This takes some pressure off your PC, but more importantly creates an interesting aesthetic.  It’s not just that it’s retro. The art style calls on classic 1960s embellishments in a quaint English village. There is as much beauty in the decrepit ruins of the Garden District as there is exploring the nicer part of Wellington Wells on Joy.

We Happy Few does currently suffer from some glitches. Reading the discussion boards on Steam, it appears a number of players are having issues completing objectives. I myself had the game freeze moving in between sections of the map. This is an early release, however, so some problems are to be expected. The title is still very playable, and there are hours of gameplay even with only a single playable character. Compulsion is responding to its community and working on the game consistently.

We Happy Few Screenshot Joy

Audio

The sound in We Happy Few follows in Compulsion Games attention to detail. Even seemingly generic sounds such as crafting or running have their own character. The music stirs a sense of mystery and darkness. It does not overwhelm like in shooters. Rather, it plays subtly in the background, building the world’s atmosphere and sense of danger.  The voice work also adds a lot of character.  Arthur’s uneasy tone perfectly conveys the fear of a man trying to maintain his sanity among the madness. The streets are filled with the delusional ramblings of the townspeople. Wandering the streets of Wellington Wells feels tense and will keep you on edge.

Final Thoughts

We Happy Few Screenshot Treehouse

Although perhaps not what I was originally anticipating, it delivers a fulfilling gaming experience. Even in its early release state. It wasn’t with glitches, but non-significant enough to not be written off by its early release status. There is an excellent foundation for a great game here. Compulsion Games is working to refine its current game and is promising two more distinct characters and stories. 

I loved the emphasis on learning mechanics over memorizing level design. The procedural world building allows for replayability that may have been lost with the lack of multiplayer. Each new game will offer the same challenge as the first for learning your environment and where you can find the necessary resources. The game rewards restraint, but also provides very satisfying violence. Beating people with sticks has never been so much fun and full of high stakes. Arthur is by no means a hero, and that includes the super human combat skills of most action games. Most confrontations feel risky. In fact, most of the game feels risky. We Happy Few has built a tense atmosphere that is thrilling to explore.

Score: 8

We Happy Few is available for PC and OS X via Steam Early Release and on Xbox One.

Images © Compulsion Games

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