We Happy Few has been on the map for over a year now, though it did not start to receive its massive amount of hype until its E3 2016 trailer. There we saw a man existing in a Brave New World-esque “utopia” where high society live their lives under the constant influence of a drug called Joy. As a result, the citizens seem “happy”, but also a little crazy. The E3 trailer showed us the first real glimpse of the game’s story and atmosphere, which had Bioshock written all over it. However, We Happy Few’s gameplay in the early access preview build is nothing even remotely like Bioshock, which could potentially disappoint fans. Having played the game at PAX East this year, I actually found myself taken aback by the E3 trailer, and assumed that the game had gone through some massive changes since I’d last seen it.
The trailer lets on that We Happy Few is a narrative game, and it doesn’t give any context to the actual gameplay. While it may look like Bioshock mixed with an adventure game, it’s actually a survival game, and a fairly hardcore one at that. Eating and drinking is a constant priority, so you’ll need to stay on top of your resources. With that being said, “surviving” is actually one of the least interesting aspects of the game. It is set in such a brilliant world, completely decaying and sinister. Those who do not take the Joy drug, Downers, inhabit the outer villages of the city. They are considered the lower class and actually are not much more sane than their drug-addicted neighbors. Most of the gameplay is spent among the Downers, who must be handled with enough care and consideration so as not to set them off on a rampage.
The preview build is certainly an unfinished product, though that is not to say it is bad by any means. Playing in first-person perspective hasn’t felt this rickety in a long time. Simply moving forward and turning feels off, and I couldn’t seem to get the sensitivity right no matter what I tried.
After waking in the safehouse underground bunker, I took off into the procedurally-generated world to embrace the madness and begin the eternal search for more resources. I encountered a variety of small quest lines which ranged from simple to fairly obtuse. What made these quests so difficult wasn’t the instructions (which were clear to me) but rather how luck-based they were.
In one instance, I needed to fix a water pump, which required me to craft a repair kit made up of two ingredients: duct tape and metal bits. I had everything I needed except for one final roll of duct tape, which I could not find for the life of me. I explored every house and every section of the procedurally generated world – still nothing. As if the search for a random item wasn’t frustrating enough, I constantly had to rest and replenish my food and water. Keeping up with “survival” is the least fun part of this game, yet it is the most prominent, and in turn becomes the player’s highest priority. We Happy Few’s world is so interesting and fun to explore that it feels like a waste to spend so much time doing “chores”.
While searching for items is a large part of the game, you’ll also have to deal with other people. Downers are just as desperate for supplies as you are, so they are to be approached sparingly. Stealth can be used to eliminate them and take their materials, which is used for your own personal gain. Blatantly attacking people can lead to very dangerous problems, such as mobs of people teaming up on you. All of the combat is melee-based and it, quite frankly, doesn’t feel great. First-person melee combat has yet to be truly mastered in video games and We Happy Few is no exception. Swinging a tree branch at someone is done by simply pressing the right trigger repeatedly, which feels clumsy and primitive. It makes for easy death, which results in losing all of your progress in true roguelike fashion. Dying then becomes extremely frustrating, especially after spending two hours just wandering around gathering materials and trying to stay alive. The stakes are a little too high considering how much work it is just to survive.
The main objective of this preview version is to get into the upper-class Wellington Wells, which requires you to take Joy and be dressed to impress. Walking among the Joy-addicted folks isn’t any less dangerous than the Downers, as they will not hesitate to beat you down if you show signs of being off Joy. In this world, the player just can’t win. Essentially it’s all about blending in wherever you go. In Wellington Wells, you not only need to maintain your hunger, thirst, and rest, but also your Joy intake, which requires you to constantly search for it in people’s homes. Of course, if you die after getting into Wellington Wells, it’s a long road to get back there. This may discourage the player from wanting to go through the process again, as it can take several hours.
We Happy Few’s world is absolutely phenomenal, though the game itself leaves something to be desired, at least in its current state. This early access preview build definitely feels like it has a long way to go. Right now there are not enough story and gameplay hooks to really keep players engrossed, especially since dying has such a devastating penalty. As we already know, this is clearly not the finished product, so a lot could change between now and its 2017 release date. Perhaps the biggest issue is how different the gameplay is from the E3 trailer, which could discourage some players who have gotten the wrong impression. Right now, it seems like the best thing to do is stay away from this early access preview, which may sully your impression of the final game.