First Impressions of We Happy Few
This review was written after playing a personal copy of We Happy Few from Gog.com. However, Compulsion Games has supplied another OmniGamer writer with a review copy of this game. An editorial and post early access review will be provided at a later time. OmniGamer’s writers happily give their honest opinions despite such acts of generosity, though appreciated.
We Happy Few made waves when its opening sequence was teased at Microsoft’s conference at this year’s E3. Compulsion Games’ interpretation of a world gone wrong was a personal highlight of the entire show and I absolutely could not wait to get my hands on it. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long as the game is now available on the Xbox One’s Preview program, Steam Early Access and on GoG’s Games in Development program in an early Alpha state. As such, these first impressions will be of a build of the game that may change between now and when it officially hits its retail version, which the developer has stated will be sometime later this year.
The first thing that I have to commend Compulsion Games on is their transparency. The minute the game boots up a message is shown by the developers stating that the game is only about half-way done. Furthermore, they state that glitches and crashes are bound to happen not just because the game is a work-in-progress but because they are still working out the kinks with procedural generation. Also in terms of missing features, the only thing We Happy Few substantially omits in its current state is its story mode which will be rolled out when it gets closer to its proper release.
As first impressions go, this is the best possible one to make. Too many games that go into Early Access don’t exactly have a plan or fall into the trap of just adding more and more bells and whistles without having a road plan. Worse still are projects that just stay in an unfinished state, not even an Alpha, and aren’t updated at all. Meanwhile, Compulsion Games mentions how far along they are, when they plan to finish, and what will be coming down the pipeline.
Then there’s the official opening of the game. Set in an alternate 1960s England, We Happy Few centers around the town of Wellington Wells. Everyone is happy because they take Joy pills, which helps distract them from something terrible that happened in the recent past, and anyone who goes off their Joy is a Downer. If you’re a Downer, expect to be thrown into a Downer ghetto until you shape up at best, or mauled to death by the populace at worst.
In a nutshell, the game takes serious inspiration from various Orwellian dystopias. The most prevalent I have seen is 1984 and Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World since both works also deal with paranoid surveillance and an entire community pacified by drugs. There’s even a menacingly chipper Big Brother meets Mary Poppins-style overseer in the form of Uncle Jack, performed extraordinarily well with live-action footage displayed on TV screens.
These elements are clearly where Compulsion Games have been putting the most polish. This is no surprise since their last game, the 2013 puzzle-platformer, Contrast, had a similar focus on atmosphere with gameplay being secondary to its narrative focus. Look no further than the game’s jazz club sequence to see how effective this developer can be when everything comes together.
I bring this up because compared to their prior outing, We Happy Few‘s gameplay is a lot more familiar. Contrast‘s unique selling point were its puzzles based were focused on lighting and shadows, the whole game had you alternating between traditional 3D space and using shadows as platforms in 2D space, my outing in Wellington Wells was yet another first-person perspective indie game kitchen sink. Being able to sneak around, a weapon and armor crafting system, open-ended sandbox with side missions, and having to manage hunger, thirst, and rest. This is before the aforementioned procedural generation gets factored in where every time you start a new game the map changes and various quests and events get switched around.
This is a minor disappointment conceptually and in actual practice, it is all over the place. Certain quests and events are varied and well made like navigating a mine field or tricking an officer into getting their key card, but due to the nature of things being randomly created I’ve actually had games where key items I needed wouldn’t show up. As for the food and drink system, you become hungry and thirsty far too quickly. I actually died of dehydration within nine in-game hours while desperately retracing my steps back to a water source while losing stamina due to not shoving rotten food in my mouth at every single interval. This is in addition to other small annoyances that come from a game that’s still in development such as awkward character animations and the odd way the game lurches from night to day with all the subtlety of a falling anvil.
There is one fantastic seed of an idea with We Happy Few referred to as social stealth. Instead of having to sneak around in alleyways and away from the pacified population of Wellington Wells, you can instead attempt to blend in. You can even go so far as taking a Joy pill, which puts everything in a nostalgic haze complete with a rainbow overhead. The problem is the citizen AI is unbelievably finicky. Sometimes simply walking down the street with a fresh suit and saying hello is enough, sometimes just saying hello causes everyone to come after you armed with cricket bats.
As it stands right now, there is a lot of promise in We Happy Few. The ideas at play are interesting, the art direction is distinct, and if you were even remotely intrigued by the game’s opening, this game will be right up your alley. However, in addition to feedback and polish, what is on display doesn’t do much to make it stand out from other games in development. As such, if you want to support Compulsion Games, by all means, put down the cash and see if you can help improve things. But even though I don’t like being a Downer, I can’t completely recommend We Happy Few as it stands right now.