We Happy Few – Early Access Preview
PC, Xbox One
After almost half a dozen hours played, it’s safe to say that my disappointment with We Happy Few most certainly results from my attempt to go in unspoiled. Since viewing the announcement trailer back in 2014 I went on a media blackout, daftly refusing to even read the Kickstarter campaign pitch. In my mind, Compulsion Games were crafting something that felt aesthetically reminiscent of BioShock and Dishonored, two titles that I hold in very high esteem. I expected We Happy Few to follow a similar route, mixing RPG-lite and FPS mechanics with a highly engaging story. What I’ve experienced so far in its Early Access offering has been an unfulfilling ‘survival/crafting roguelike’ that feels half-baked, occasionally offering glimpses of potential brilliance inevitably mired by frustrating inventory management, buggy missions and an RNG loot system that actively halted my progression for extended periods of time.
We Happy Few takes place in and around Wellington Wells, an alternate Post-WWII British town struggling to cope with an atrocity committed by the townspeople in order to rid themselves of an occupying Nazi force. The citizens, or ‘Wellies’, deal with the emotional fallout of this atrocity by self-medicating with Joy, a hallucinogen that suppresses guilt, sadness and memories. Anybody who refuses to adhere to this new order is labelled a ‘Downer’ and banished to the decrepit areas surrounding the town. This intriguing setting is one of We Happy Few’s high points, strongly realised through art design that mixes the psychedelia of the mid-late 1960’s with post-apocalyptic urban decay. A scripted prologue chapter introduces Arthur Hastings, who in Orwellian fashion works to redact and censor old newspaper articles that don’t gel with the current Joy-fuelled climate. After an incident prompts Arthur to quit both his job and his Joy, he is forced to flee to the outskirts of Wellington Wells, at which point the game proper begins.
It must be said that the prologue is only a teaser of a trio of planned story experiences, which Compulsion Games have stated will not be coming to the Early Access version. This is a pity, as without a strong driving plot We Happy Few quickly becomes a repetitive slog. It’s hard to lay the blame on one single element of the game, but instead, it seems to be an imbalance in the way many of the games systems work together. The biggest offender by far is the RNG nature of loot drops which actively halted my progression for quite some time, preventing me from completing a quest necessary to move the story forward. Allow me to give you a feel for much of the current quest design in We Happy Few – in order to move to the next island and advance the story, I needed to deliver honey to a gatekeeper manning the bridge (there was another bridge I could have crossed, but the necessary quest had bugged out on me). To get honey, I needed to raid a beehive. To do this without dying, I needed to make a Padded Suit to protect me from the bees. I spent two hours looking for the necessary materials to craft a Padded Suit before I gave up and went on a suicide mission to collect some honey. Had the games Permadeath option been enabled, this wouldn’t have been feasible and I would have had to restart the game, the whole time praying that RNG didn’t screw me over again.
What was my reward for overcoming this obstacle? More bloody fetch quests. To add insult to injury, the survival system requires Arthur be given a steady stream of rest, fluids and food. It seemed that every time I was finally making progress with some quests, I had to backtrack to a safe house to have a snooze. Rather than adding excitement, I found the survival elements of We Happy Few detracted from my experience and I honestly think the game would be better without them. There is nothing rewarding about diving into an inventory system to double-click on icons just to make other icons disappear. Making matters worse is the inclusion of an inventory system that is absolutely abysmal. Employing a Diablo-like grid system, I spent more time that I would have liked manually stacking, arranging, dropping and storing items desperately wishing for a sort button.
While I might sound very critical, We Happy Few is honestly an experience I want to like. The world of Wellington Wells and the story of Arthur Hastings have me very intrigued, and I can’t wait until more of the planned narrative aspects are implemented. Unfortunately, as it stands some poorly executed design decisions encroached upon these favourable aspects of the game and in some cases felt like they were actively detracting from my engagement and enjoyment. It’s impossible to guess where the game will sit at final release given that Compulsion Games have demonstrated their willingness to address many of the complaints currently levelled at the game, but I’m confident in my assertion that the Early Access release of We Happy Few is a bit of a downer and should be avoided for now.