Sept. 20, 2017
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Game On: We Happy Few Early Access Pre-Review

Canadian dev Compulsion Games creates a nightmare fit for Orwell

August 2, 2016, 11:00 am

I’m not entirely sure who I am. My job, I know, is to decide what news to distribute to the people; I redact what I must, but I’m beginning to change, I’m beginning to remember. I’m sick of the meds. Joy, once a happy and helpful little pill that seemed to erase all of my problems, no longer seems a wise choice. I want to feel again, but I’m scared. They’re watching. They’re following. I need to get out of here.

Thus begins We Happy Few, the newest kickstarter-funded title from Canadian developer Compulsion Games. Think of it as a Bioshock-meets-Orwell nightmare with a healthy dose of first-person melee combat and exploration plus crafting, light puzzle-solving and resource management. When we’re dropped into the too-perfect British town of Wellington Wells, we see a terrifying landscape of drug-addled madness. Everyone is legally obligated to take Joy, a pill that manufactures a false sense of happiness and that comes with slight hallucinations. To wit, an early sequence that finds us just off our meds and at an office party with a piñata reveals that it isn’t a piñata at all, but a dead rat. Watching our coworkers greedily eat up the blood and guts of the rodent tells us we’re probably doing the right thing, but this puts us into the category of what they call “downers.” That is, those who refuse to take Joy.

The downers are relegated to a slum-like and dilapidated part of town where everyone steals from one another just to get by. There are varying degrees of withdrawal to observe here, from the mildly bummed-out to the straight-up demented. We have to skulk and sneak our way around, collecting resources with which we can craft anything from sneakier shoes and more protective outerwear to alarm-negating tech and weaponry. It’s oddly addictive to search the various houses for crafting material, and the loop of find stuff/create other stuff doesn’t get old. One early sequence required me to find enough tough material and sewing paraphernalia to create a padded suit that would allow me to harvest honey in order to pay a toll which, in turn, allowed me to access another area of town.

The ultimate goal is to get the hell out of Wellington Wells, but to do so will take all of your cunning. This is in no small part due to the baffling choice to not include an option to mark waypoints on the map, but also because the town is procedurally generated and the deaths permanent (though you can turn off perma-death); you die, you start back at square one. This is an interesting trend in gaming and requires you to pick up new tricks with each playthrough. Did those thugs in the park beat you to death? Avoid that area next time. Did you fail to notice that pedestrian cans-on-a-string warning system? Now you’ll know to duck when you see them. It’s a trial and error process that makes each time you hit the streets a little more exciting than the last and you’ll be a little smarter and more resourceful.

Of course, since this is an early, as-is release, there are a number of minor annoyances. Load times are so long as to be nearly unbearable and the whole thing has crashed three times thus far. NPC chatter and a small handful of literary statements from the main character are overused and become annoying (if I have to hear, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” one more time, I’ma freak) and the inability to ever fully flee from a violent encounter—especially due to the finite amount of stamina we’re given to sprint—is downright irritating.

Resource management isn’t awful so much as it’s difficult to identify what’s in your inventory on sight, and there’s a couple seconds of delay before the information pops up in the menu. Even worse, survival elements like need for sleep, food and water occur at an accelerated rate, and it seemed like I was forced to find food or a water pump or a safe bed in which to sleep every few minutes. Aspects like these can actually be enjoyable as another resource to manage, but you’ll tire out or grow thirsty so quickly and often that it usually seems like too much. If the goal is to deepen immersion, Compulsion may want to ask themselves when the last time they started dying of hunger seven minutes after eating something.

I suppose it’s all about creating interactions that, to their credit, are interesting. For example, when you grow hungry and only have something rotten or rancid to eat, you run the risk of getting sick, which means you must carry anti-nausea pills at all times. It’s a tad more difficult to deal with when you wind up with the plague (yes, you can contract the plague in We Happy Few) or are bleeding out, but again—this is not a final release.

Art design, however, is brilliant. The quaint country surroundings strike a sublime counterbalance to the underlying sinister goings-on, and the way the people who continue to take Joy face-paint distorted smiles onto their visages is subtly terrifying. It’s almost like a cartoon version of Dishonored’s Dunwall but everything is more distorted and the procedural generation makes it harder to get a lay of the land and that adds to the ever-mounting sense of dread.

And that dread is the main sell for We Happy Few. There are even moments that require you to actually take Joy—and that’s even more horrendous. Other sequences will require the player to blend in with everyone else and these become unbelievably tense affairs wherein you constantly pray no one will notice you aren’t on your meds and you’re pretty sure they’re staring at you. This recalls something akin to survival horror, though the ultimate mechanics at work are more like Don’t Starve meets Dying Light.

There’s still a ways to go for Compulsion’s game, but thus far it seems like they’re on the right track. It’s important to go into We Happy Few with the knowledge that it’s a work in progress, but if you can handle that or are OK with it being a bit rough around the edges (they simple must give us map waypoints), then by all means check it out. If you’ve got other games you’re already enjoying, though, you can probably wait for its full release sometime next year. This one’s more for the hardcore set or people who compulsively play everything they can get their hands on, and those people are probably going to find it sneaking up and them and dwelling in their brains for months to come.

The Details:
We Happy Few Early Access
Xbox One, Steam
$29.99 or free for 45-minute trial
Rated M (You’ll smash some faces)


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