When we last had a look at Compulsion Games' creepy survival game We Happy Few, it was little more than a loose collection of interesting ideas. Of course, the game is still in alpha so it will probably continue being that for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean the developers have been sitting on their hands. Since the game released on Steam's Early Access platform in July of last year, Compulsion Games have added a variety of new systems to the game in addition to fixing technical problems as they come up. Recently, Compulsion Games released the fifth alpha update for We Happy Few: the Maidenholm update. This update added a ton of new systems and encounters (We Happy Few's version of quests) and more of Wellington Wells to explore.
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Before we jump into the gameplay; here's what We Happy Few's setting is all about. You play as Arthur Hastings, a redactor for the government. Redactors check and approve all news out to the public, and it's Arthur's job to censor all negative news before it gets sent off to printing. In the game's intro, Arthur decides to no longer take his Joy, a mandatory drug for the citizens of Wellington Wells. This pill removes all negativity from a person's thoughts, leaving them ignorant, obedient and blissful. Joy is meant to suppress memories of a mysterious but catastrophic event that the entire city needed to forget. What could drive an entire city to willingly induce amnesia on a daily basis is still a mystery. Regardless, not taking your Joy is effectively a crime and so Arthur has to escape Wellington Wells and its totalitarian regime led by Uncle Jack. There is more to the story, but that's being drip fed to the players with every new update in the form of encounters. The full story will be released when the game reaches version 1.0 and will reportedly feature an actual campaign. So for now, all you'll be able to play with are the encounters and the survival aspects of the game.
With the Maidenholm update comes the ability to predefine your playstyle by picking one of three options. The first one is Birdwatcher and is a more relaxed difficulty setting where you don't have to manage all your resources constantly. Downer is the second choice and it has been put forth as the quintessential We Happy Few experience that is a nice mix between exploration and survival. The third option is called Vigilante and is only for those who want an unforgiving version of the game where a wrong move might be the difference between life and death. In addition to these three modes, you are also able to select permadeath as an option before you start a new game.
At its core, We Happy Few is a survival game in a procedurally generated open world that has you scavenge for supplies while simultaneously trying to blend in just enough to not be arrested for being a Downer (a title given to users who have stopped taking their Joy). As a man on the run, you'll have to deal with a variety of situations that test your ability to adapt quickly to a world that is most cruel and most unkind. Wellington Wells is filled with oddballs, and lots of them don't take too kindly to an intruder rummaging through their houses for dirty bandages. Successfully scavenging for junk allows you to craft a variety of tools and weapons. Some of these items patch you up, and there are items that give you an edge in combat if you manage to anger the locals. You can unlock new schematics by randomly finding the ingredients out in the world or by completing encounters.
Whenever you're ready to head out to the great outdoors, you'll have to make a choice: do you go out during day time when it's safer unless you're breaking and entering, or do you wait for the cover of night to find crafting reagents. Generally, going out at night is your safest bet if you manage to circumvent the various enemies and green clouds of deadly plague. The stealth mechanics in this game, while rudimentary, work well enough to make sneaking a decent choice. You can creep around to minimize the amount of noise you make and you can silently take people down by sneaking up behind them and knocking them out. I hope that Compulsion Games adds more to the stealth system since I think that sneaking around fits the game's style and world way better than melee combat.
You'll also have to deal with an inventory system that is smaller than you'd like initially, so you'll often throw away some things you really wanted in favor of keeping stuff you need right now. The UI is easy enough to navigate and all items you pick up have little blurbs with flavor text, some of which grant some additional insight into the daily life of a Wellington Wells citizen. The crafting in We Happy Few is starting to become more robust, with a myriad of items for you to craft and use. Some of these items help you to disappear into the crowd while others will allow you to switch off alarms and open gates to otherwise unreachable areas.
Wellington Wells is divided up into four (a fifth is on the way) separate islands that all have their own challenges and aesthetic. The first two islands make up the Garden District. This district is in a sorry state, with dilapidated houses filled with broken people. This is home to the Wastrels, what people become if they're off their Joy for too long. Then there's the Village of Hamlyn, a beautiful and fairytale-like place where the Joy flows freely and any downer unlucky enough to be caught off their Joy will be met with violence. This doesn't mean you can chug down vast amounts of pills since overdosing on the stuff can knock you out cold for a few hours after which you wake up in the nearest hideout. There's also the newest addition to the map, Maidenholm, which is the fourth island in Wellington Wells and the second village you encounter in the game after the village of Hamlyn. The challenges here are more difficult than in any other area currently in the game and needs you to manage your vitals with increasingly harder to find resources and harder encounters.
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What truly sets We Happy Few apart is its wonderful art style that draws heavily from 60s retro-futurism and, to a certain extent, the wackiness associated with the beloved Dr. Who franchise. This game has style oozing from every pore, with gorgeous lighting and fog effects that compliment the melancholy. Despite its cartoony art style, We Happy Few is a very gloomy game set in a world that's pretty creepy. You constantly feel uneasy due to the strangeness that permeates Wellington Wells and the lives of its inhabitants.
Then there's Uncle Jack. This man serves as the game's primary antagonist, although he does not interact with you directly. Uncle Jack is the face and voice of the Wellington Wells establishment and his near-omnipresent TV shows and radio programs can be heard in most places in the world. In his various broadcasts around the city, he urges people to take their Joy constantly, whilst simultaneously calling for violence against the ones that don't take their Joy. In practice, he's a religious leader and a king in one neat package. Hats off to Julian Casey for delivering an unsettling performance that fits the creepy mood of the game.
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This game is currently in its alpha phase which you can buy into by purchasing the game on Steam. Because it's still relatively early in development, you can expect the regular pitfalls of an unfinished product: frame drops, pop-in, the odd interaction that doesn't work the way it's supposed to, etc. Even in its unpolished state, We Happy Few manages to make it work. It might not be the most in-depth survival game out there, but it's most certainly unique due to Compulsion's heavy focus on world building and lore. We Happy Few has the potential to be the next big Early Access success story if they keep this up. Compulsion Games have been wonderfully transparent about the development process and they send out regular updates as well as some first looks at the upcoming content for the game. Whether you're a fan of survival games looking for a new twist on the formula or new to the survival genre in general, this game offers more than enough in its current state to warrant the purchase.