We Happy Few is currently available on the Xbox One via the Preview Program and Steam under Early Access. Both of these programs allow users to purchase and play unfinished games. This allows users to offer feedback to the developers and watch a game evolve as it comes closer to completion. Games in this category are unfinished, many in alpha or even pre-alpha status and We Happy Few is no exception. We have seen reviews live and cannot understand why these outlets felt it appropriate to review a game that by the developer’s own notice upon launching reveals that the title is less than 50 percent complete. No exact release date for the completed Version 1.0 have been given.
I have been fascinated with We Happy Few ever since I saw a hint of it at Microsoft’s press conference during E3 2015. Back then it looked like a melee based first person title with style for days that was clearly influenced by Bioshock. Later I learned it was being developed by Compulsion Games (Contrast) and became even more intrigued. Seeing We Happy Few at this year’s Microsoft E3 press conference revitalized my interest in the game. I had been on a list to receive preview code for more than a year and upon seeing that July 26th release my opportunity to play this title finally had a date. Granted, this would only be an early access version as the game was not yet near completion, but I just wanted to play this title I knew so little about. This is often the case as games come together in development and evolve into what originally releases. Halo started life as a Macintosh exclusive RTS, Resident Evil 4‘s original incarnation became Devil May Cry, and Team Fortress 2 was to be a squad-based war shooter. We often don’t know about these decisions or changes because by the time any of us gets our hands on the game it’s well along the way of the final development path. That’s potentially not the case with We Happy Few given that both the impressions from 2015 and this year’s E3 demo, which is included, are centered on plot and story.
In case you have not seen the plot demo (it will be incorporated in the quick look going live this week), you play as Arthur Hastings, a newspaper clerk that approves or censors stories to the public. This is an alternative reality version of England in the 1960s where the Germans successfully invaded the country during World War II and only the island you live on, Wellington Wells, was able to keep them at bay. Whatever was done in those times was traumatic and thus society on this island now revolves around being happy. In order to accomplish this, every citizen is surrounded by positive thinking from the news stories they read to the regimented medication called “joy” that keeps you happy and upbeat as you go about your day. Oh, did I mention that everyone also paints their faces in a white, clown-like smile? One day Arthur decides not to take his joy anymore, a frightful decision given that the police are liable to bash your head in when it’s discovered and the fact that everyone ostracizes you as a “downer.” In his drug-free state he also notices things are amiss that he never seemed to recognize before. A celebrated co-worked that has been out for a few days is now showing signs that something bad may have happened, Arthur witnesses a co-worker nearly beaten over not taking joy, and probably the worst discovery is that the pinata he thought his family was bursting for candy is not at all what it seemed to be. His wife quickly realizes that he’s off joy and has become a “downer,” resulting in pursuance by the cops (“bobbies” in this title, keeping in line with common British slang) and hiding out in the sewers. Quite an introduction for a game with no campaign to speak of and three full character stories planned by the time the game releases. From an opening demo that provides quite a bit of story and details for the 5-10 minutes it will take you, the game shifts gears drastically and introduces you to the survival portion of the title. It appears this will be the brunt of the experience and the only content you should currently expect before the game’s final release.
I’ve not been a big fan of survival games as a general rule, but my biggest gripe with most of them is that I’m not prepared to deal with the world of game players online. I am aware that We Happy Few is not the only game to offer survival concepts in a single player environment, but I do feel it is one of the more effective titles to do so. You are given no direction at the onset and your exploration of the world will slowly populate the map and quests. Along the way you will most certainly meet with aggression as well as plenty of individuals who provide tasks for you. Everything is expendable, just like in the real world, so you will get hungry, thirsty, and sleepy. You will have to craft many of the items you want in the world and to this moment I have yet to discover the coveted shovel that will allow me to discover even more content. Managing the components you collect with the items you wish to craft is just another frantic mechanic you have to monitor. If you are in combat you can bleed, which will dwindle your health until your are bandaged, and can suffer massive damage with any encounter. Your weapons break and some find their way to that end faster than you would like plus your ability to swing a weapon is dwindled with each attack. If you happen to fail or fall in battle, you die, permanently. It’s a sneak peak at real life and breaks all of the rules we gamers have grown accustomed to being able to break since in most cases we are the ultimate hero. That’s not to say everything is against you, because there are still plenty of ways to game the system. We Happy Few differentiates itself with a combination of disguises, a smaller map, heavily directed tasks, and that visual style that initially piqued my interest. Also for a game so early in development I have to credit how high quality the graphics look and how well it performs. Sure, I’ve had it stutter on me a couple of times, hiccups in the dialogue or movement have occurred, and it’s crashed on me twice. That’s still better than a few of sloppier releases I’ve reviewed and impressive for a title only half complete or less. Even though there’s not a hint of what we can expect from the campaigns, We Happy Few sticks to the aesthetics and themes that the plot-heavy demo presented.
My biggest problem is that I’m not quite sure how compelled I am by this world. There are a lot of tasks to perform and anyone who tells you otherwise has not taken the necessary time with the game. One particular acquaintance that you find in a tree house near your sewer exit has a series of tasks for you that can spin off into stories of their own each time. This creation of a new story each time is the main drive to survival games. A routine search for the entrance to a gate resulted in me getting frantically attacked by bees and opened up a whole new area to explore. Every task is more complicated than it seems and every challenge could be the end of the line for Arthur, which makes even the menial tasks of We Happy Few into a cautious and tense endeavor. I did, however, find myself getting bored at times. It wasn’t because I was out of things to do, but more because I was only able to do so much exploring and cover so much ground before I would need to find somewhere to sleep, get some more food, or have to find supplies to bandage myself up after being ambushed. Your ability to progress into the quests you want to complete is often stifled by the systems themselves, as if they are at war with one another for your attention and neither has a particularly enticing proposition. Without many of the story elements the side quests seem mundane and without a sense of reward beyond getting yet another trinket that you can use to craft something or kill someone with. I also have to admit that a majority of your side quests are nothing more than glorified fetch quests, something I was hoping would be rare in titles at this point. Keep in mind it’s still early and we have no idea what the design of these campaigns are going to be, but I sure hope to see a divergence from the current side quest design otherwise I’ll be ignoring many of them in the finished product.
There’s plenty to do in We Happy Few and as the game continues development I feel confident we will see much more. In my five hours with the game I have seen enough to justify my continued interest in this title and there’s still content I haven’t seen. I will concede that We Happy Few will have to evolve into something much more than it currently is, especially depending on the final price of this title, and even the early access price seems a bit steep. On the plus side there will be some time – I presume mid-to-late next year – before we see a completed build. If the story demo intrigued you to the point that you can’t wait to play the campaign, then I must urge you to hold off for now and wait for the completed build that incorporates those elements. On the other hand if you like the survival genre or have always wanted to try one out, this is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of one of these complicated titles before its official release. The value proposition still remains solely to the individual player and what they hope to gain out of the early access version. Those on Xbox One are fortunate enough to be able to test drive 45 minutes of gameplay for free before having to make a purchasing decision and I really wish that Steam would follow suit and allow a similar experience because this game desperately needs it. For now it remains an interesting concept, a promising vision, and a strong initial display of what could be a single player survival title of note.
We Happy Few is currently available on the Xbox One Preview Program (https://store.xbox.com/en-US/Xbox-One/Games/We-Happy-Few-Game-Preview/99cb4d8e-9f97-4933-b6e5-858c80229b4d) and Steam Early Access (http://store.steampowered.com/app/320240) for $29.99. This price is expected to be higher upon the final release. Anyone who purchases this title in Early Access will be upgraded to the full release when it is available as well as updates as development continues.