“Happy people have no history.” – Leo Tolstoy
Warning: Trailer contains gore and disturbing images.
The first time I played We Happy Few was for a magazine subfeature, back in October 2015. Compulsion Games was still seeking Backerkit funding at that time to help continue their Kickstarter support as they sped things along; the past nine months of development have proven this to a wise investment for all of those involved in that extended backing.
[Disclaimer: I played in the pre-Alpha version from late 2015. I purposely avoided the game until now, as I wanted to see how far the game was developed before Early Access release. Therefore, my preview is based on a direct comparison of then vs. now, as well as a fresh outlook on newer features, because I am that nerd. If my descriptions seem disjointed to continuous players, that’s why.]
It is October 1964. England has lost to Germany in World War 2, with The Blitz wiping out a fair amount of the population. Rather than rebuild and move forward, the residents of Wellington Wells have decided that forgetting the entire incident is preferable. In order to do so, they’ve developed a drug called “Joy.” This substance is not only taken in capsule form, it’s also used to treat water and food, so that the levels in the citizens’ blood remains consistent. Joy helps residents remain blissfully ignorant of all but their current surroundings, and anything that harshes their mellow is subject to immediate expulsion by any means necessary.
Enter the protagonist, Arthur Hastings. After an unfortunate incident in which his memories of the war break through his Joy-haze, Arthur refuses to continue to take his Joy. Since he is partly responsible for removing unpleasant stories from the newspapers, this is…unwise. He discovers some very disturbing facts about workplace customs, is labeled a “downer” by his coworkers, and banished to the Wastes with the other undesirables. He later awakens in an underground safe house, wondering aloud what the hell has happened, where he is, and what he needs to do. Later, Arthur wonders, “what happens when the memories come back?” That answer clearly lies in those memories.
The difference between We Happy Few and most survival games is that there are no monsters. This is not a fantastic world of beasts affected by radiation or horrific scientific experimentation. Well, okay, that’s not entirely true – the monsters are human, and a parallel can certainly be drawn between the Wellies’ desire to forget their past, and modern humanity’s quest to strongly filter the negatives out of their lives with medication and other substances. (The developers encourage players to find their own interpretation of the game, so your mileage may vary.)
In addition to Wellies (the “normal” residents of Wellington Wells), Wastrels are in the outskirts, outside of the city limits. They have either become mentally ill as a result of excessive Joy use (perhaps even suffering a poor reaction to the meds), or they’ve become so addicted to the substance that they act in a way similar to opiate addicts, unable to function in society, and always searching for their next hit. The Wastrels are just as volatile as the Wellies, but for different reasons.
Your job? To escape the Wastes, enter Wellington Wells, and somehow exit to a train station undetected, utilizing Joy, your wardrobe, and other tools to your advantage. There are also safe houses located throughout to provide cover and rest in times of need – you just have to reach them in time. It’s kind of tricky for those who are used to more cut-and-dried survival or combat games, but if you’re good at games like The Forest, you should do just fine.
Playing this game with a controller is a bit challenging. You don’t have access to all of the functions, at least not easily, and figuring it out is a bit of a hassle, because the menu doesn’t show key bindings for the controller, only for the keyboard and mouse. Even the keyboard mapping is a bit complicated for unpracticed players, but it includes the very standard controls, so the learning curve is fairly low. Combat is a bit awkward, and I noticed a similarity to The Culling in form, though the responsiveness seems to be better than it was before the significant updates (in the previous version I played, landing a blow at all was a triumph). Blocking, shoving, and attacking are all useful tools, with blocking necessary a good bit of the time, as some enemies attack much more quickly, and hit much harder, than others.
I cannot apply enough superlatives to the graphics. I’m a bit biased because I saw what was essentially the rough cut, but with the game more fleshed-out, and the lighting and shadows filled in, We Happy Few is gorgeous, even at lower graphics settings. The colors are bright, and though items you can use are clearly visible, they don’t stand out in an abrupt or distracting way, and they are easy to recognize once you know what they are. The movement of the other characters is natural, if not a little stiff, but it’s fitting for both the animation style and the fact that everyone’s on drugs. In fact, when you take Joy, the world looks very different, and the change in environment is unsettling.
The voice-acting is delightful, with the earlier version mostly employing Uncle Jack as a constant background announcer and guide (Julian Casey brilliantly portrays this “creepy uncle”), and limited dialogue from the protagonist and the NPCs. Now you have Arthur given even further life through his voice (Jay Simon), with more of his backstory built into his interactions. There is also some additional NPC dialogue, fleshing out the noises in the game. I was startled on a number of occasions by the added speech, because I wasn’t used to it. The stories told by some of the Wastrels are heartbreaking, adding a new dimension and desperation to gameplay.
The music is quite good. The theme song has been described as reminiscent of “Experiment in Terror” by Henry Mancini (if Mancini’s composition wasn’t a direct influence, then that would be a hell of a coincidence). There are some definite nods to The Beatles and other prominent musicians from that time period in the actual game, as well. Ambient sounds are fairly natural, and the usual game sounds such as eating, drinking, and crafting are present and well done. There’s nothing that stands out, ambience-wise; I personally have no problem with that.
If you’re not good at stealth, well…good luck. You can try to battle your way through Wellington Wells, but you’re going to need to get supplies throughout the town, and most of them are gained by breaking and entering. If you can avoid the bobbies (those are policemen, BTW), and not trip the Wellies’ alarms, there’s no need for violence. However, if you have to kick some ass, you need good weapons. You can find some in the Wastes, and discover more effective ones in the town itself. Your first task, actually entering Wellington Wells, will be a doozy, with guards on high alert, and/or alarms at the entrance (you can use these against your attackers if you’re quick). This is the point where you’ll likely have the opportunity to find out which method you’d like to use to reach your goal. Some violence is necessary, as it will be visited upon you. Respond accordingly, or die.
While ultimately, those who don’t do well with survival and combat likely won’t do very well with We Happy Few (I’m kind of terrible at it, honestly), I would urge you to at least start out by watching an LP or visiting a livestream, and pick it up if you like what you see. If you’re uncoordinated or are easily freaked out by violence, agility and nerves of steel are needed at times, so tread lightly, and maybe pass up this game for something a little less tense. Outlast fans, on the other hand…you guys will have a field day.
We Happy Few is available today in Early Access on Xbox One, Steam, Humble, and GOG. The price is currently $29.99, but may rise after Early Access is finished. Visit Compulsion Games on their website, Twitter, and Facebook for more information and media.