We Happy Few – First Impressions
We Happy Few is one of the most anticipated games in recent memory. Trailers and early-access gameplay blew gamers away last year – since PAX East 2015, it’s been near impossible to talk about upcoming games without someone mentioning We Happy Few. Now, players on Xbox One and PC can finally play the game. So that’s what we’ve done! Keep in mind that this is not a review, and the game is currently only available in its alpha build. We’ll have a full review when the final build is released. With that said, We Happy Few is very good for an alpha, though there are definitely some things we hope to see changed in future builds.
The first few minutes of the game are fantastic. You probably know this already, though, since the introduction was played live at Microsoft’s E3 2016 press conference. When you actually play the game, though, there are more things you can do than follow the path shown in the E3 demo (which you can watch here). The game starts with your character, Arthur, spending a day at work. His job is to censor newspaper articles before they get published. It’s actually pretty interesting, and it gives a really heavy Nineteen Eighty-Four vibe.
After going through some pages, you decide whether or not to take a dose of Joy. If you choose not to, you’ll get to explore the area. You can even pick up the slack of other workers by sitting at their desks and looking through the articles assigned to them – depending on how interested you are in the story, this is either super interesting or mind-numbingly boring. Luckily, it’s totally optional. You’ll see some pretty disturbing stuff, and you’ll learn just how serious the residents are about keeping everybody on their Joy. After a series of unfortunate events, you end up in an underground safe house.
This is where things change – drastically. The narrative driven nature of the introduction ends here, and the story is much harder to follow from here on out. The BioShock-ish aesthetic of the game persists (and looks great), but the story fades and the focus switches to survival. It reminds me of games like The Long Dark and Don’t Starve. The survival features are what make up the bulk of the alpha build. You have to keep an eye on your hunger, thirst, health, and fatigue. You should also know that the game’s environment is procedurally generated, meaning that no two playthroughs will have the same layout – sometimes you’ll have completely different places entirely, meaning that multiple playthroughs are a must if you want to see all that the game has to offer.
You begin We Happy Few (and spend quite a lot of your time) in what is called the Wastes. It’s a depressing place full of Wastrels – these are poor, sick, and quite often disturbed people who don’t take Joy (which makes them “Downers”). Abandoned houses are everywhere, filled with evidence of previous inhabitants who are now long gone. This wasteland environment means that the materials you find aren’t exactly desirable. Most food is rotten, medicine is rare, and actual weapons beyond sticks and clubs are almost non-existent. This makes your survival decisions interesting – you can eat rotten food to bring down your hunger, but there’s a risk of contracting food poisoning, which you then need to deal with. Your character will frequently vomit and stumble about, and you’ll want to get it cured as soon as possible. You can also use dirty bandages to raise your health, but you risk infection. Honestly, food is so hard to find that I usually just stock up on food poisoning cures and eat the rotten food anyway.
Crafting is a huge part of survival games, and We Happy Few is no different. If you want to survive, you’ll have to gather materials to craft items like first aid kits, lockpicks, tools to disarm traps, reinforced clothing, and weapons. Some things are quite easy to craft – like lockpicks, for example – but others take much more effort. I’ve spent most of my time so far raiding houses for materials – seriously, it takes up a lot of your time. You’ll definitely want to make use of the personal safe in your safe house to store items. Luckily, the contents of the safe are shared between all the safe houses in the game, and those contents will also be included when crafting. It’s a life (and time) saver. This is especially helpful given the game’s inventory system – it’s a grid in which each item takes up a specific amount of squares. Small items (like lockpicks) take up one square, while a larger one (like a bottle) might take up two. You can only hold the things you can fit into the grid, so you’ll have to be wise when organizing your inventory. It’s a fun part of the game, and I think most people will enjoy it.
I often wonder what happened to make the Wastes the way they are. It’s not explained in the alpha, but I’m excited to learn more in the final game. The game does, though, do a good job of displaying the mutual hatred between Wastrels and “Wellies,” who are the more affluent members of society – and the ones that take their Joy. Though I think the wastes are technically a part of Wellington Wells, it’s clear that Wastrels are not considered citizens. There’s a quest involving an apple tree that is heavily guarded and marked as for “citizens of Wellington Wells” only. You’ll also have to change your clothing based on where you are – it’s very important to fit in, even in the Wastes.
That’s not to say that there’s no story at all, though. You have basic goals (your main one is to get the hell out of Wellington Wells), there are side quests, and there is a basic framework for a plot. A statement upon starting the game lets players know that they’re experiencing some of Arthur’s story – one of three characters that the full game will feature. It’s way too early to knock the game for the lack of story (it’s an alpha) – but if you’re only interested in We Happy Few for the story, then I suggest that you wait a bit longer, since you’re not going to see too much of it.
I’m also hoping that future builds improve NPCs. As of right now, they’re insanely dull. They all have names, but only a select few have personalities of any kind. Wastrels just wander around and spout nonsense about Oedipus and how they want “the screaming” to stop – things that don’t bother you at first, but after hearing multiple different NPCs say the exact same thing for hours on end, it really gets on your nerves. Wellies are just as bad – they strut through the streets, talking about how great the world is, asking if you’ve taken your Joy, and constantly saying “lovely day for it.” Arthur isn’t much better – he periodically thinks out loud, and it’s always the same few questions: “Is there true happiness?” and “Why does everyone look the same?” and existential things like that. He also says “to sleep, perchance to dream” almost every time you go to sleep, which honestly makes him sound really pretentious. I have no doubt that this is just a part of the alpha, but I sincerely hope the NPCs get a major upgrade in future builds.
Right now, We Happy Few contains about 50% of the procedural world that’s planned. You start out with access to one district, and as you complete quests, you’ll gain access to new ones. I think 50% sounds about right, and I’m very excited to see what Compulsion has planned. Making procedurally generated worlds that all have true personality isn’t easy, but even in the alpha it’s clear that they have the skill for it.
Another development I’m hoping for is the optimization of survival elements. I really love the survival part of the game, and have no desire for it to be removed. I do, though, want to see it at a more finely tuned place. Even something as simple as more in-game explanation would be good, because I’ve heard many people complain about being confused. I do find myself spending most of my time in We Happy Few eating, drinking, and sleeping, but that’s a part of survival games and I accept that. I think it’ll be much easier to swallow for newcomers to the genre once the full story and environment is put in place.
As for the graphics, the game looks pretty great – all of the screenshots in this article were taken on my Xbox One. The framerate does stutter pretty often, and the game has a tendency to crash – but this is an alpha, and those things are totally expected at this point.
I thoroughly enjoy We Happy Few in its current state, though it leaves a lot to be desired. It’s only going to get better as the development process continues. I think there’s a bit of a disparity between what most people expect from this game and what it actually is, though. If you don’t like survival games, you’re not going to enjoy We Happy Few – it’s a survival game. Even while playing with permadeath off, it’s still a survival-focused experience. Keep that in mind. That being said, it does strike a good balance between a more classic survival game and first-person games like BioShock.
I want to say again – We Happy Few is in alpha right now, and this is not a review. We just wanted to share our experience with the game so far, so that those who are considering picking up the early access version (or just those interested in the title) can know more about it. There’s no doubt in my mind, though, that We Happy Few is a game that’s absolutely brimming with potential, and the full release could be an essential. We’ll see. For now, though, I think that big fans of survival games and those who have seen (and enjoyed) a decent amount of gameplay should pick up the game, while those looking for a great story and FPS elements should probably hold off.
As for me, I’m excited to play along as We Happy Few develops. It’s definitely going to be an awesome ride.
Preview code provided by Compulsion Games.