We Happy Few turned a lot of heads when it debuted in 2015. Its intriguing premise of a drug-fueled utopia, combined with the Bioshock-esque presentation and gameplay, gave the impression of narrative-focused shooter on-par with Ken Levine’s work. That excitement turned to disappointment when the game’s multiplayer entered early beta in 2016. Even though developer Compulsion Games promised a single-player component from the beginning, an off-put player base didn’t react kindly to this first offering. They weren’t alone. My own enthusiasm for We Happy Few waned significantly in light of this direction.
Fast-forward months later, and Compulsion has found a publisher in Gearbox Software. The financial backing of a triple-A publisher has allowed the developer to expand the project’s scope–particularly its single-player. After spending an hour with We Happy Few’s revamped story campaign, I can confidently say that it feels like the experience people wanted from the get-go. On a personal note, I fell in love with the project all over again.
To quickly recap the game’s premise, We Happy Few takes place in the retrofuturistic city of Wellington Wells. Set in an alternate 1960’s Britain, citizens live their lives constantly hopped up on a drug called Joy. As the name suggests, the drug basically brainwashes them into a creepy, forced happiness, causing hallucinations and general insanity. Those who don’t take their Joy get labeled as Downers, and become exiled as enemies.
The demo I played picked up immediately after the conclusion of the game’s E3 2016 trailer. Protagonist Arthur Hastings, a newspaper censor, (and one of three available characters) was outed as a Downer and narrowly evaded capture by the authorities. We last saw him enter the sewers where I continued his escape.
I immediately felt the Bioshock vibes, from the quirky writing (though We Happy Few leans harder into black comedy territory) to the the exaggerated characters. Logs and books filling in the world’s lore littered environments for the player’s reading pleasure. Every piece of furniture, as well as bodies, can be searched for supplies.
And search for supplies you should because We Happy Few focuses heavily on crafting and survival. Food, medical supplies, tools, and even clothing must be whipped up using random parts. Additionally, players can discover blueprints to make other items. As someone who enjoys picking up junk to create not-junk, I felt that unexplainable but familiar satisfaction of hoarding everything in sight and got excited for every new blueprint.
Player’s maintain Arthur’s hunger and thirst by devouring food and water. Most of the food I found barely qualified as edible, so I needed to craft food poisoning remedies to keep on hand at all times. Maintaining Arthur’s statuses seemed like a potential burden, but these meters depleted slowly. I also frequently found food (albeit decayed), which left me to enjoy myself without stopping every few minutes to stuff Arthur’s face.
The map’s enormous scale stood out as I roamed the scenic British countryside. In fact, my lengthy trek only uncovered a relatively small portion of it. Furthermore, the area I occupied only represented one of around five or six zones players explore. Needless to say, We Happy Few seems poised to offer plenty of game to across its roughly 20 hour campaign.
A huge world needs plenty of side activities. We Happy Few features traditional NPC side-quests as well as extra objectives. I found maps that revealed dig spots where I unearthed buried treasure. Discovering certain ingredients opened up crafting quests which essentially acted as tutorials for assembling a new recipe. It remains to be seen just how much We Happy Few has to offer outside of the critical path, but the diversions I found left me feeling optimistic on that front.
I eventually reached my objective: a dilapidated, poverty-stricken town. Its population appeared to consist of sullen Wellington Wells outcasts. Since they resented their former home, they didn’t take kindly to Arthur’s fancy city garb and proceeded to band together and give chase. I fled into a nearby church. Inside, I met a character recommending I tear up my clothing to appear more downtrodden. Blending into the surroundings is another crucial element of We Happy Few. That could involve posing as a exile on the outside or maintaining the illusion of Joy-fueled cheerfulness within Wellington Wells.
After crafting a crappier version of my outfit, I stepped outside to greet the unruly mob. Upon noticing my new digs, they instantly shrugged and dissipated in a somewhat comedic moment. I could now freely explore the town. Citizen interactions have an Elder Scrolls-like flavor. For example, intruding into homes uninvited or getting caught stealing possessions can cause residents to violently retaliate.
Now that I’ve successfully assimilated myself into the local populace, crossing a bridge to reach the next region became my next goal. I reached the gentleman guarding the bridge gate; however, it turned out a local gang swiped his precious war medals and he wouldn’t let me pass until I recovered them. Furthermore, I also needed to find a necessary power cell. To recover the medals, I had to locate and infiltrate the gang’s stronghold. Despite sneaking through a back opening undetected (one of multiple routes), the gang were prepared for intruders all along and captured me when I rode their elevator. The reason behind their setup: to lure potential competitors to battle to the death in their popular fighting arena.
After stripping me of my belongings, the thugs led me into their battlefield. I met my opponent: a former associate of Arthur’s who blamed him for not publishing one of his articles in the newspaper. Arthur explained that the man’s piece blatantly plagiarized Arthur’s own work, but the man still swore revenge in a humorous exchange. I had the option of choosing to use non-lethal or deadly force. I went with the non-fatal pipe wrapped in padding. My adversary swiftly opted for a deadlier weapon, much to Arthur’s chagrin. Despite having this choice, We Happy Few doesn’t feature a morality mechanic. When I asked Compulsion’s Narrative Director Alex Epstein about this, he told me he’d rather players feel the consequences themselves rather than gamify it. Judging by this response, I wouldn't expect any horns to sprout on Arthur's head if you opt for a bloodier approach.
Combat resembled the style of BioShock or Dishonored. The right shoulder button initiated attacks while the left shoulder button blocked. Players can also perform a guard-breaking shove. Picking up downed bodies and hurling them at opponents became my favorite offensive move for its silliness. After incapacitating the writer, more enemies entered the fray. I found it easy to drop foes by backing them into a corner and wailing on them, though I had to remain mindful of Arthur’s stamina meter. After finally beating my challengers, the gang allowed me to walk free, but I had no intention of leaving without accomplishing my mission.
I snuck my way into the underbelly of the hideout. Navigating unseen, I creeped up behind unsuspecting foes and choked them out. To distract others, I lobbed glass bottles. These mechanics won’t surprise stealth fans, but players can access more abilities by unlocking them in the skill tree. I eventually found the gatekeeper’s medals, along with a power cell and my stolen inventory, and chose to escape without making a ruckus.
After returning the medals to the grateful veteran, I passed through the gate and took a train to the next area. Unfortunately, I had to end things there before I could see what lay ahead. Had I not had to hoof it to another appointment, I’d have gladly kept playing. We Happy Few’s strange world begs to be explored, and I got hooked on gathering as many resources to make Arthur as capable as possible. With a world this large, We Happy Few will live or die based on the number of interesting things to do. Ultimately, I’m relieved to have substantial single-player component to sink my teeth into as the idea of the multiplayer doesn’t excite me in the same way. The wait for We Happy Few won’t last much longer, thankfully. It launches August 10 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
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