Publishers sometimes get a bum rap, especially when you get to the more independent focused corners of the web. They're the monster corporations that devour studios and drown players in microtransactions. However, it's not all bad news, and We Happy Few's long road to release is proof of that. Without publisher support, this game had nothing going for it but a killer E3 showing. Its Early Access release can charitably be described as a bad time, turning many players off the project. It's clear that what Compulsion Games wanted to make wasn't feasible without some help, and that came in the form of Gearbox Publishing. No longer a weak clone of Sir, You Are Being Hunted, We Happy Few emerges from its cocoon as the story-driven British Bioshock experience we all hoped for.
This transformation doesn't come out of left field either. All the way back at PAX East 2015, I played We Happy Few behind closed doors. Talking with developers, I experienced very early story sequences and noclipped around planned environments. As I sat down to play at E3 2018, I got to see the finished version of exactly what I explored years earlier. The same situations played out before me with the same rowdy characters. I was giddy to notice the subtle improvements that three years of work will bring.
For those unfamiliar, We Happy Few is all about Joy. Set in the dystopian society resulting from an alternate World War 2, the citizenry of Wellington Wells drug themselves daily to suppress their horrible past. Of course, if they refuse to remember the past, their entire future skews. Morals take a back seat to societal stability and any force against the status quo finds themselves banished outside the city limits. That's where we find Arthur, one of three planned playable characters throughout the campaign. After refusing to take his medicine, memories of missing siblings flood his mind. He sets out to find where his family has gone and uncovers the dark secrets of Wellington Wells along the way.
I was able to go through over an hour of gameplay, set right at the beginning of Arthur's travels. Starting in the familiar slums of the Early Access version, I trekked towards the train station. Not only did I find a lot more dialogue along the way, I found side activities worth exploring. Arthur is talkative in this version, adding history and background to what had been a stale world. It's never unclear where I need to go to progress the story, and those who just want to get on with it can do so with ease.
The biggest change from the last available version of We Happy Few is the severe toning down of survival elements. Instead of requiring you to stay chained to a home base filled with edibles to survive, the game now lets you wander as you see fit. You'll still neat to eat and drink, but items litter the world at a generous rate. Neglecting these systems will only give you debuffs rather than threaten your livelihood, which is most welcome. This is similar to how Fallout handles radiation and broken bones, and it's a system more conducive to letting you experience the narrative at your own pace.
Another welcome change from other genre staples comes with the crafting system. When playing games like this, I tend to become a bit of a hoarder. After all, you never know when you may need an empty vial or a pile of fabric. Thankfully, We Happy Few features a repository for all your crafting junk in every home base you establish. Furthermore, any item you place here is accessible out in the world when you craft. This means that you don't need to be overburdened to be prepared.
As I wandered around, I stumbled into a would-be dungeon, complete with a Thunderdome-esque combat arena. It's here where I was introduced to how my paper clerk would engage in fisticuffs. There's a clear focus on choosing between lethal and nonlethal means. Just remember that your opponents will likely always go for the jugular. Thanks to Arthur's newfound memories, he can recall conversing with several of the Downers he comes across in his travels. Players will have to decide if he's the type who will try to snap them out of their funk or take advantage of their unfortunate situations.
As I snuck my way into a train station and met up with a surly war vet, my demo ended. If our E3 awards had a much-improved category, We Happy Few would be a shoo-in. The survival elements, while still present, now serve as just one strand in the wonderful tapestry that Compulsion Games have weaved. The narrative is front and center where it belongs, guiding players through an expertly crafted world. I can't wait to get past the train station one more time and see what else this twisted dystopia has in store for me.
Our We Happy Few demo took place behind closed doors in Gearbox Publishing's meeting rooms during E3 2018. The game is releasing on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 on August 10th.