I’m beginning to wonder if We Happy Few isn’t a giant metaphor for recreational drug use to get through life. Because much to my disappointment, after I played a couple of hours of We Happy Few, I wondered if the whole experience would have been more enjoyable if I had some “Joy” of my own to take. With all the teasers we’ve seen over the past year and the exciting clips of gameplay we got out of E3 this year, I was thrilled to finally get a chance to play this Orwellian survival horror game that clearly has some ambitious gameplay mechanics. I knew that the game was going to be rough, all early-access games usually are. Unfortunately, not only is We Happy Few not ready for a full release anytime soon, I’m not sure I want to play the vision that Compulsion Games is currently trying to sell to me.
In case you haven’t been following We Happy Few, the game takes place in an alternate-history Great Britain in the dystopian society of Wellington Wells. All of Wellington Well’s citizens are on a psychoactive drug called “Joy,” which is taken regularly to keep everyone cheery and blind to the actual atrocities that surround them. At the head of all of this is Uncle Jack, a white mask wearing television personality who appears to double as the town’s illustrious ruler. If this all sounds absorbing, then prepare to be disappointed because once the prologue is over, the story goes away as that’s coming in a later update. For what little story you are told, you play as Arthur Hastings, a former citizen of Wellington Wells, who is on the run as a “Downer” for going off his Joy. You wake up in a dilapidated district surrounded by other Downers who are all insane. Also annoying, because all the NPCs all say the same things and don’t provide any purpose other than to get in your way and maybe give you quests. This is when the game falls apart.
Your main quest in this Alpha version of the game is to get back into the nicer part of Wellington Wells. In order to do that you have to complete a bunch of quests to get resources and/or information to get across the bridge back into the next district. I say “and/or” because one of the game’s cool yet incredibly flawed gameplay mechanics is how the world is generated. Wellington Wells is procedurally generated and no two “Wellington Wells” are the same. This is a great idea in theory, but in practice, I think it actually breaks the gameplay experience for the player. On two separate attempts to play this game, I had one world which I believe was generated to be impossible with quests that actually couldn’t be completed, and another which seemed reasonable but was buggy as hell. I would get quests but they wouldn’t appear in my quest log, characters would appear and then disappear, and inventory items would also appear and disappear randomly. It got so frustrating that I often just quit because I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. Not great for a game that has a world that could be worth exploring. To make matters worse, that’s not only problem with the current version.
Part of the game that again is cool but flawed is needing to eat and drink to stay alive. As you play the game your hydration and hunger levels will decrease and if you don’t eat or drink you’ll begin to experience the negative side-effects and eventually die. On the one hand this is great for adding tension to surviving in this already unforgiving world, but I can’t help but feel that this is too much for an already overly complicated game. It’s another thing to keep track of and in a game that is trying really hard to be engaging, this isn’t making it any better.
There are some redeeming aspects to We Happy Few in this first release build. The world itself is interesting and looks great, especially when you get to the bright and vibrant parts of Wellington Wells that oozes a mixture of ‘1984’ and Swinging Sixties glam. I’m also desperate for the story at this point as there’s so much potential here for an engrossing narrative.
I know I shouldn’t be too hard on a game that’s in Alpha, but first impressions do matter and I’m not sold on We Happy Few just yet. It’s true that early access games are very rough when you start to play them, and only time will tell if We Happy Few will evolve into the game we want it to be. I’m cautiously optimistic that through feedback from players and critics, they’ll be able to make a game worth playing. Improve the procedural world-generation mechanic and add a story to get us hooked and Compulsion Games might have a hit on their hands. Though, all I want is not feel compelled to seek out drugs to get through whatever We Happy Few turns out to be.