“Lovely Day For It”
There’s just something compelling about mucking about in a forced utopian society under the watchful eye of a charismatic figurehead. Especially when everything has gone to hell and you’re tasked with figuring out where it all went wrong. Enter We Happy Few, the second title by developer Compulsion Games.
The Compulsion website describes We Happy Few as; “The tale of a plucky bunch of slightly terrible people trying to escape from a lifetime of cheerful delusion.” With an early access version now available on Steam I decided to take a look and see how the game lives up to the hype generated by its E3 trailer. The verdict is a bit underwhelming.
We Happy Few takes place in the city of Wellington Wells, in the southwest of England in 1964. In this alternative history the Germans successfully invaded and occupied England during World War 2. This lead the citizens (Wellies) to do ‘A Very Bad Thing.’ What exactly that was remains open to speculation at this point, but the result lead to the creation of the ultimate ‘happy pill,’ Joy.
There will be three playable characters in the game. The early access version puts you in the shoes of Arthur Hastings on the day he decides to stop blindly taking his Joy. This leads to harsh and immediate consequences as normal Wellies will not tolerate the existence of Downers (anyone not on Joy) in their midst. Eventually, Arthur’s story will interweave with that of the other playable Downers, allowing them to be unlocked.
Having to explore the rubble of what remains of Wellington Wells while avoiding suspicion adds somewhat of a stealth mechanic, but one that is easily dealt with. As long as Arthur doesn’t do anything the Wellies would consider strange while touring the city he can mostly fly under the radar. Naturally, this only works if you don’t intend to make any progress.
In order to preserve as much of the story behind the game as possible, Compulsion decided to strip the majority of the narrative elements from We Happy Few’s early access version. While the decision certainly makes sense, a large part of the game’s allure stems from solving its mysteries. As such, the early access doesn’t make for the best first impression of the game.
After playing through the bit of narrative shown in the E3 trailer the player finds themselves unceremoniously dumped into the garden district. From here they must solve a random series of increasingly obtuse missions in order to progress towards the city proper. The missions are further complicated by the utter lack of any meaningful mapping mechanism. There are no waypoints to direct your path and the maps are procedurally generated each time you die. This leads to a great deal of running back and forth having to re-explore old areas for things you may have missed.
This would be all well and good, except that there are still a few pesky bugs that need ironing out. Namely, finding critical mission items is a matter of luck. You can effectively lose in the early access version before you even begin if you can’t find the items needed for progression. As your map will not always mark mission critical spots, even after you’ve discovered them, you’ll find yourself backtracking frequently.
We Happy Few features a permadeath option, which will make you lose all progress each time you die, and you will die frequently. This option can be turned off, but I felt that its inclusion indicated that this was how Compulsion intended us to play. I’m a bit of a stickler for doing my first run-through of a game “by the books,” so I left it on, much to my detriment.
It’s not just a matter of keeping your head down and not aggravating the locals, although the wonky AI can make even that a challenge at times. We Happy Few also relies on unbalanced and tiresome survival mechanics. Monitoring Arthur’s food and water intake quickly becomes a chore, but not nearly so much as his need to sleep. The meters for each deplete quickly and can easily kill you. Having to pause in the middle of one of We Happy Few’s long and winding missions to take a nap every few minutes essentially kills the flow of gameplay.
The inventory and crafting systems are similarly fickle, requiring lots of micro-managing. Moving around the town and picking up items can feel like an endless slog when combined with the constant need to shuffle between menus and maps.
We Happy Few was successfully funded on Kickstarter. As such, Compulsion has done an excellent job of keeping backers and really the entire community involved, through blogs and progression videos. The gameworld is estimated to currently be 50% completed with the story following behind. The early access gives us just the barest hint of the game to come, but without the compelling narrative to drive the action, it quickly grows frustrating and stale.
Definitely worth a look if you’re already excited for the game’s eventual release, but remember to temper your enthusiasm. We Happy Few’s early access isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and if you’re mostly interested in the game for the story aspects, it’s a bit of a letdown.