By Nick Whitcroft
“This isn’t a bed and breakfast!!” No, it’s the stark and threatening world of Wellington Wells, a faux 1960s London with all the bobbies and cockney cursing but a distinctly less tea and orderly queuing. Since launching on Kickstarter last June We Happy Few has come along in leaps and bounds, crowd-funding over $334k and eventually appearing as part of Microsoft’s 2016 E3 conference. With the game now in Early Access, how does this early look at Compulsion Games’ ambitious title hold up?
It was hard not to be drawn in by the E3 trailer. Compulsion Games presented us with a beautifully imagined but truly menacing segment in which the player character, an employee responsible for screening redacting newspaper articles on behalf of the overbearing powers that be, is discovered to no longer be taking his joy - the euphoric meds that keep this ‘Keep calm and carry on’ society forcefully ticking over. The painted smiles and macabre piñatas swiftly take a dark turn and he’s forced to flee for his life. Audiences were swift to make apt comparisons: the likes of Bioshock, Dishonored, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, THX 1138, Fallout, Logan’s Run, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Boy & His Dog, to name but a few.
Set in a diverted timeline, post-1933, We Happy Few brought a quirky dystopian world to the table but framed this within a procedurally generated world and distinctly survival focused adventure mechanics. It should be stressed that the Early Access is focused on precisely this framework, with the narrative set to follow in the eventual 2017 1.0 release. Indeed, the initial hands-on does feel somewhat sparse. You begin in an underground safehouse, emerging into the dilapidated Garden District, populated by Wastrels - fellow Downer citizens who have also come off their joy and degraded into various degrees of insanity and ill health. You certainly find yourself immediately grabbed by the world itself. However, the game is immediately worlds apart from the opening sequence. Those who followed the Kickstarter campaign will have some idea what to expect; the survival elements rapidly moving to the fore, as you begin a desperate scavenging hunt for materials to begin sneaking, crafting and of course murdering your way to freedom.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. Compulsion Games is a 20 strong team based out in Montréal and the game is certainly an ambitious undertaking. By framing the world within these freeform mechanics, where the player crafts for themselves a story within a desperate and fearful environment, a lot of resources can be saved that would otherwise be spent on vast set-pieces, script-writing, motion-capture and more. Simultaneously, you’re forced to piece together some sense of the world around you via the interactions you are forced into in your quest for survival: drink the tap water in the more ‘civilised’ districts and you’ll soon discover the authorities have been lacing it with joy all this time; slip a bottle of booze to a bobby and you’ll soon be forgotten as he stumbles away from his post in search of fresh legs to break. It’s this that is one of We Happy Few’s biggest strengths. For all its lack of fully developed content at this stage in development, throughout the 4-5 hours I played in my first sitting, I found plenty to talk about on my livestream and came away with an array of anecdotes that still have me chuckling - from my desperate brawl with the entire local police force all in the name of an apple, to killing a crazed runner only to realise Arthur’s main motivation was that he really didn’t like the guy in school, to developing an unhealthy attachment to a corpse that became my regular sleeping companion… Yes, really. I actually found myself feeling a slight pang of guilt as I asphyxiated a jittering man who’d demanded a toll of my ‘precious fluids’ (fortunately referring in this instance only to the honey I’d recently acquired and was now stealing back from him).
Unfortunately, many of these stories came about not from the game’s living, breathing world but from its abundance of bugs in its current state. Credit where credit’s due, the game carries rare polish in many respects for an Early Access title - the art direction and looming sense of threat in the town is exquisite - but I was stumbling into noticeable technical issues a little too often for comfort. My corpse companion was in fact the eventually immovable body of Mrs Stokes, and removing her from my lair was in fact an opening questline. Similarly, the game refused to let me give my anti-nausea tablets to a perpetually vomiting (we’re talking day and night) fellow (another questline), who I later discovered, via a little strangling, had two of them in his pocket, the cheeky sod.
It’s perhaps clear why Compulsion Games chose to open it up to Early Access - in its current form, it’s a success in world crafting and atmosphere but actually a fairly mediocre survival game (a market that’s uncomfortably crowded), and it’s clearly this area that they want to gather feedback on and focus on refining. Many aspects, such as the combat, are already pretty satisfying - there’s weight to the weapon swings, a claustrophobia to hitting walls by accident in enclosed spaces, and a sense of genuine helplessness when your weapon breaks and you find yourself hurling bricks and frantically punching your way out of a house you sneaked into for some shut eye, to escape pursuit by enraged citizens. But there’s much that’s still frustrating, not least the survival elements themselves. The meters dictating your need for such staples as food, water and sleep deplete at a familiarly nonsensical rate, forcing you to spend the majority of your waking moments forcefully shovelling food down your gullet - it’s no wonder Arthur has trouble running more than a hundred yards, it probably has something to do with the several tons of rotten potatoes he had for his second breakfast.
Eating includes some interesting quirks. Consume rotten food to stave off starvation and you’ll swiftly find yourself vomiting, emptying your stomach of both food and water, leaving you far worse off than when you started; unless, that is, you happen to be carrying some Neximide pills. Fortunately, however, you almost certainly will, as they seem to be carried by many of Wellington Wells’ residents and it’s a surprisingly simple job to strangle half the town and pick their pockets, due in part to the rather sketchy AI and aggro system (a task you can repeat as often as you like, as, whilst a quick fix for looting, those you put down without a genuine combat engagement are rendered only unconscious rather than killed, a fact that I discovered only after a creepy cycle of returning to the same spot to ‘murder’ one particularly unfortunate individual on a near-daily basis, whilst my character literally shushed them and whispered in their ear that it was ‘nothing personal’).
There’s plenty else that still needs a lot of polishing: the map currently doesn’t allow for waypoints, so your compass will be getting a lot of use, and I often found that quest locations were actually failing to appear on it or displaying in entirely incorrect locations; initially quaint voicelines get incredibly repetitive, especially Arthur’s own incessant book quotes, sucking a little of the individuality out of the many Wellies you encounter (though I never quite got tired of hearing a voice hilariously similar to Overwatch’s Tracer telling me to “Piss off!”); inventory management is functional but could use a little work to help make items more easily recognisable at a glance, especially when trying to scrabble for a second weapon in the heat of a scuffle.
Perhaps the most jarring thing for me, for a release that’s about testing the procedurally generated world, is how little variance it felt like there was when going for a second run through. As a game with roguelike elements, permadeath and restart is a natural part of the experience, but upon re-emerging into the Garden District it was some time before I even noted much in the way of changes. The map spawns as essentially a grid of streets with tumbled-down houses and, in each regular square, some kind of randomly-determined landmark, from a night garden to a ‘special agent’s’ treehouse, yet in my second playthrough I was met with almost exclusively the same array of locations on each of the main islands, only in a slightly different layout. This was emphasised by the linear nature of the quest structure. Whilst there were multiple side quests to be dabbling in, the core aim of escape was achieved via a pretty straightforward chain of seeking materials to make a suit to protect myself from bees to pay a toll to reach a second island where I could seek out materials to power a battery to power a device that would allow me to cross a bridge onto a further island… You get the picture.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The crafting system is fairly intuitive and initial recipes are quite forgiving, as you piece together the main things you’ll need to survive - from lockpicks to antiseptic. It also presents ‘stealth’ in a pretty unique way - sneaking into houses is a part of it, but We Happy Few is characterised by the idea of hiding in plain sight. Most of your fellow Wellies aren’t violent by default; donning shabby clothes, muttering nonsense and handing an old lady flowers will often quell the bubbling rage of wastrels and once you’ve scrubbed up a little you’ll even be able to stroll down the more well-to-do streets (albeit you might have to pop a few pills first so as not to arouse too much suspicion). In fact, the drug-fuelled nature of Wellington Wells is one that’s innately fascinating and leaves a huge amount of scope for development - from the pills for any problem, to the withdrawal effects of coming down off joy, to the distinctly grey area over how much better off those on joy really are compared to those who’ve fallen by the wayside. It’s a harsh reality that’s come about off the back of a desire to forget not only each person’s individual past, but also ‘A Very Bad Thing’ that’s scarred the whole town’s history, all the while punctuated by the haunting live action narrative of Uncle Jack (Wellington Wells’ own ‘Big Brother’) throughout.
Unlike many similar titles, We Happy Few also gives you a clear sense of purpose - whilst you’re discovering more about the world around you, your end goal is clear: escape. This (along with those damned survival meters) helps keep you motivated and thus lends to momentum and direction. At the same time, the game is very lax on tutorials, which I personally liked; it felt natural given Arthur himself only recently coming off his drugs and himself struggling with fragments of memory and gradual revelations about the world around him. None of the mechanics are complicated enough to leave you lost for long, but the world feels unfamiliar and threatening, and rightly so - Wellington Wells is an unforgiving place, you will be beaten to the ground, you will contract the plague, you will force feed yourself drugs, you will die, and you will subsequently be teased by newspaper propaganda describing how your character has gone on a lovely holiday following ‘overenthusiastic blood donation’.
It’s very much an Early Access title - the game is as much in need of a good lick of paint as Wellington Wells itself - and Compulsion Games’ elite team have their work cut out to get the game in a place where there’s enough content to keep gamers engaged for longer than a few hours. They’re promising a huge amount to come; not only Arthur’s own narrative and improvements to the core game but even additional playable characters, via interlinking storylines. The charm, character, aesthetic and foundations of something promising are there and we can only hope the relatively long Early Access period (6-12 months) gives them sufficient time to bring the game to a place where it’s more than the sum of its parts. Until then, for most people it’s probably best to wait and experience the finished product - it’s a nuanced world, told through fragments of information and interactions with those around you and that living story still has a lot of growing pains to work through.
Stay tuned to The Midnight Gamer for all the latest and greatest from the video gaming world. We Happy Few is currently available in Steam Early Access, Xbox Live Preview, and other mid-development distribution platforms, developed and published by Compulsion Games, and is set to release on PC, Xbox One, Mac & Linux, with a final release date TBC (but our money’s on Q1 2017).