Ever since the closing moments of BioShock: Infinite’s gripping DLC, fans have been clamoring for more experiences in a similarly uncomfortable, doom-laden vein. This is likely why the ID@Xbox title We Happy Few is creating so much buzz of late. But this is no Bioshock clone, friends, despite a similar look and feel. Instead, We Happy Few is a much less visceral, but no less intense adventure – one that should gain even more hype as development continues.
Though currently still a work-in-progress, gamers now have the ability to test drive this growing world on Xbox One through Microsoft’s Game Preview program. After spending some quality time exploring, I can say with confidence that We Happy Few has the potential to bring back that desired dystopian atmosphere, with a few new tricks to boot.
Set in an alternate, almost Orwellian retro-future clearly inspired by 1960s London, the city of Wellington Wells revolves almost entirely on a hallucinogen called Joy. But before anyone starts thinking Plasmids and Vigors, know that this is an entirely new idea.
As gamers quickly learn, Joy makes the world appear beautiful and serene, in stark contrast to the flawed society that actually exists behind the drug-fueled haze. Players will get a chance to experience it from a first-person perspective, through three unique character story arcs. For this round of preview testing, players assume the role of Arthur Hastings, an average government employee responsible for erasing unwanted items from recorded history.
In an effort to let the world tell the story, developer Compulsion Games reveals precious few details about the plot. What gamers do know from the outset is that one of the items Hastings has to delete is an unsavory piece of intel about his brother. This sends him into a fit of depression, causing him to skip his daily dose of Joy and bringing about alternating scenes of misery and hallucinogenic weirdness.
We learn in time that Joy not only paints a brighter picture of users’ surroundings, but also prevents them from remembering past events. Because, let’s face it, the world would be much nicer without bad memories to bog it down.
The story progresses from there in a measured, methodical fashion. In the first chapter alone, Hastings lulls in and out of both consciousness and sanity, with the Joy deprivation causing seemingly normal situations to quickly become eerie mind trips, full of creepy visuals that set the tone for a title that will undoubtedly get stranger and more disturbing.
Looking at the mechanics, the available build of We Happy Few focuses almost entirely on introducing players to the survival element, quest structure, and inventory management systems — all important, because preserving resources and health is key to progressing. Looting and crafting bring a welcome RPG element to the title, but at the moment, the loot drops are so sparse that I often found myself a bit frustrated.
In this build, Arthur Hastings is not a well man, and maintaining his health becomes a maddening game-within-a-game, often distracting the player from taking in the story and surroundings. It becomes the world’s most stylized Tamagotchi, which is fine in and of itself, but becomes a major hindrance when story progression is halted because the player didn’t loot enough of the right item.
Why is this maintenance of Arthur’s health so important? Because player death in We Happy Few is just that – the end. The game’s procedural engine generates unique settings and situations after every player demise, so no two people will have the same experience. In this preview it was difficult to gauge the scope of how this system will work in the final title, but early signs point to the randomly generated world being a point of potential frustration and disconnect.
In terms of actual gameplay, the controls and menus worked very well, and navigating the world was a little stiff, but never a problem. Though the mechanics will be familiar to FPS fans, it becomes abundantly clear We Happy Few is not a stylized shooter, but rather a survival adventure title with combat serving as a secondary tactic to puzzle solving, item management, and remembering key plot details.
Sure, there is some melee to be had, but it seems like an afterthought at the moment. The game’s most palpable tension comes when interacting with Joy-ridden crowds who don’t necessarily like citizens who aren’t committed to the addiction. It’s important to NOT stand out in this world, so it’s vital to keep Hastings as balanced as possible under the circumstances. No sudden movements, no tell-tale lack of Joy – assimilation is key to survival.
Visually, We Happy Few is shaping up beautifully. Wellington Wells is an incredibly detailed environment full of things to explore, and should become a graphical standout once complete. In its current state the only blemish is that the title’s rich surroundings lower the framerate to a crawl when on-screen activity is high. However, it’s still early, and this is what development time and testing is for, right?
Despite the aforementioned concerns, I found myself engaged in the next steps of Arthur Hastings’ journey, and expect We Happy Few to be a standout title with relatively few tweaks. This tale of drug abuse and mental illness has a big-studio feel, and player feedback is only going to help fine-tune gameplay to a better, more cohesive place. With more environments and two other storylines waiting in the wings, We Happy Few already has the makings of a sleeper smash.