Politics are pretty bleak nowadays. In basically all of the Western world, it seems everything is more of a joke. Or at least a hashtag. So we turn to the world of video games to try and drown out the nonsense of the real world, and sometimes those games decide to parody that real world dreariness. Typically they are not as obvious or hard hitting as We Happy Few. The Kickstarted dystopian survival game had a preview at E3, showing off the opening scene of the game.
Set in a universe where Britain was invaded by Soviet Russia, We Happy Few takes place in the aftermath in the city of Wellington Wells where the populace turns to a drug aptly named "Joy" to quell the guilt of what they had to do to stave off Russian invasion. For some reason, this simple premise also results in the country looking a bit like 1984, with aggressive police at every corner, complex security systems (or sometimes just cans on screens), and a society which expects utter conformity lest you be beaten and left in the street. The exact reasoning for all this isn't in the game, and even the basic explanation has to be looked up elsewhere. This is because, in terms of Early Access, We Happy Few is probably as Early Access as you can get.
You are Arthur, a formerly cheerful and complacent citizen of Wellington Wells. Until you begin to relive a harsh memory of your brother and, rather than "taking your Joy" decide to remember and are forced to flee. Of course, it has been discovered that you can choose to take the pill and end the game in a similar fashion to the "secret" anti-climactic ending in Far Cry 4. Obviously, you will do this the first time you open it, get a chuckle, and then move on to the real game.
After finishing the prologue, you are thrown into The Garden, the island of "Downers". Downers are people who don't use Joy, because they can't or because they simply refuse to. Whatever the reason, Wellington Wells can't have that and so essentially quarantine them to an island where the effects of the war are still very apparent. Nearly every building is dilapidated, and many are completely caved in. From there, your primary purpose is to get back to Wellington Wells.
That's it. The story hasn't been implemented, nor has the other half of the procedurally generated world. There's a bunch of features notably absent, and likely many quests that have not been implemented. We Happy Few does have one thing in abundance, and that is a remarkable number of bugs. While they have been relatively quick about fixing some of the bigger problems, and none of them thus far have been game breaking, it is amusing just how many bugs the title has. Obviously, this is Early Access, so we aren't looking for a polish product yet, but I have played other Early Access games, and they were never quite this glitchy.
The base game currently is to complete quests and survive day to day life scrounging about the different islands and breaking into peoples' homes. It is that simple, and while that particular aspect is fairly clean, there isn't a lot of variety to it for several reasons. The first is that up until you get to the main islands, populated by more "polite" (here meaning drugged) society, you can basically walk into any house, steal everything, and then leave. Occasionally people will fight you but you can pretty easily beat anyone in a fight, or just run away and they quickly give up chasing you. Once you figure out the layouts of each type of house (there are about six or seven house designs, and then a few unique houses, so it doesn't take long), then you can pretty easily just run around the map stealing dirty needles from cabinets without a care in the world.
Once you figure out how to cross the bridge, it gets a little more complicated. In the civilized portion of Wellington Wells, you have to do more to blend in to the crowd than just not pick fights with people. If you go without taking any Joy, wear the wrong kind of clothes, or look at anyone funny, you could get chased down. In The Garden you can wander into nearly any house and no one cares until you try to steal something. You can't get away with that in Wellington Wells. Whoever heard of getting so angry at someone for breaking into a house, honestly.
To be honest, the most amusing part of the game is the atmosphere, which is the main selling point of the game, so it's a good thing. The contrast between the Downers and the Joyful is heavily exaggerated, but it's hilarious moving back and forth between the two areas. Downers are all on the border of insane and are very stand-offish to any interaction unless you give them sometimes. Whereas the drugged up citizens of Wellington Wells are almost overly cheerful until you step out of line. After that, every single one of them suddenly becomes homicidal. You are constantly entertained by the chipper voice of television personality Uncle Jack who regales people all over Wellington Wells with stories about how the Big Bad Wolf ate Little Red Riding Hood and games of Simon Says, everyone's favorite game.
When you must take Joy to blend in, the buildings suddenly get some heavy saturation, the sky is filled with rainbows, and you start flailing your arms about when you run. Occasionally you have to take Joy in order to see objects to grab or get through certain objectives, which makes it seem less like a hallucinogen and more like magic, but who cares, life is great on Joy. That's something of the question the game poses - is a constant sense of happiness, a false sense especially, worth it? Even among the Downers, Arthur seems to be the only willful dissenter, but that might be because the conditions in The Garden have driven most of the others insane.
These questions just make you yearn for the story more as you play. There is not much to take out of We Happy Few's commentary right now given the lack of a more solid objective. Especially since everything seems so repetitive and, frankly, easy. The map is tiny, which is fair since there are no vehicles and traversing a larger map on foot would be a nuisance, but there is so much unused space on the islands, so many buildings you can't access. Maybe they will open it up a bit more at a later time, but in the meantime, it makes a very clearly incomplete game just feel smaller. It doesn't feel much bigger than the Alpha in fact, which came out over a year ago.
Just to emphasize, there are a lot of bugs. Ranging from hilarious graphical bugs to far more annoying quest bugs, including one of the main character related quests. Essentially you have a quest where you must take Joy in a specific area at night to see a ghost or perhaps a memory of an old friend. I did this and was then instructed to follow the ghost, but it refused to move. I came back several more times hoping maybe it would trigger and not wanting to restart (because I had stumbled across the quest by accident and there isn't an autosave to my knowledge). Alas, she has not. While this is the biggest issue I ran into, other quests have issues as well, particularly issues like quest markers not showing up on the map appropriately.
Graphically it's nothing spectacular, but the repetitive environment is the bigger drawback. Not just the houses as noted before, but the character models are all carbon copies. For the Bobbies (the law enforcement of Wellington Wells) this makes sense, but seeing the same soulless woman on the same street saying the same bonkers statements on repeat starts off creepy and quickly become annoying. The models are very odd looking as well, particularly the eyes, which may have been intentional but is still disturbing.
Aside from that, there is a significant lack of object diversity - a procedurally generated game will have repetition of course, but it should not be quite this obvious. It is not all bad though, but you'll have to play through a second time to realize it. Certain objects, in particular the bridge between islands, will actually spawn differently in new playthroughs. For instance in the first playthrough you must cross the bridge by finding out who won Simon Says last Friday. Out of curiosity I started a new game, and this time you must find a full Power Cell in order to cross.
The UI is the biggest drawback. Specifically the lack of one. The only thing on your screen are the markers noting your health, thirst, hunger, Joy Level, and other health indicators, a rudimentary compass, the day and time, and something to indicate your equipped items. There is no minimap. There is no quest sidebar, and the compass isn't very efficient at telling you where things are unless you're already right on top of them. It's reasonable to not having waypoints or tracking, or not to get an instantly complete map (you have to explore to get the full map, understandably). But a minimap and quest bar are not so much to ask, nor would it take away from the spirit of the game, especially since you still have full access to both while looking at a menu. These types of things are so common in games that they're taken for granted until the instant you lose them. These may be implemented later, but it feels like of all the things that should have been included, even in Early Access, a completed UI should've been near the top.
The other problem is it doesn't seem well optimized, but they are already well on their way to fixing this. On the first day it launched on Early Access, even after fiddling with settings and trying to make it work, the game still felt like it chugged along. After the first patch, they brushed it up, implemented a frame rate limit, and the game is already running significantly better, making me think that will likely not be a long lasting issue. It also signifies they are dedicated to fixing problems and are prioritizing well. Obviously, the game being able to run at a sufficient level is the most important factor. Everything else comes later.
For what it's worth, I played the game for several hours, so it isn't like there is absolutely no content available. Currently, what is there is going to appeal most to people who enjoy or at least are alright with a more aimless survival experience like you'd find in Don't Starve or Minecraft. Even so, it doesn't quite fit the "early access survival game" stereotypes. We Happy Few has taken a lot of criticism already because the Early Access doesn't have the story, which was the big draw from the E3 trailer, but the development team has hardly been dishonest there. When the game opens, you're met with a screen that very plainly says the Early Access does not yet have the story implemented or a good portion of the map. It isn't a secret. Though the main concern is simply that people weren't expecting a survival game based on the trailer, and the bare bones seems very much like the many survival games on the market.
The full release will likely look more like Fallout, with the emphasis on quests and purposeful exploration, as opposed to "making your own adventure". You can even see bits and pieces of where the story will be once it's fully released. So, for now, it seems fair to withhold judgment at least on that end - the finished game could very well look completely different once the story is wheeled out. There is certainly a lot to look forward too, but it needs a lot more work to be presentable and of course, without the story, there won't be a lot of reason to keep playing except to explore updates. Most likely the full game will follow the Alpha's lead and have multiple endings, and there will hopefully be much more to do, and it will feel more like what the trailer advertised. The game is fun for what it is now, and it does its job with the atmosphere and message well, if not a bit exaggerated. Just keep in mind that they are very serious when they say it is Early Access. This is not a game near completion that just needs to work out some kinks or wants to implement features slowly over time. This is a short step up from where it was in last year's pre-alpha. So don't go in with expectations too high.
We Happy Few was previewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer. It is also available via Xbox Game Preview on Xbox One.