Disclosure: An Xbox One Game Preview code was provided by the publisher for this article. We Happy Few is currently unfinished and has been released as part of the Xbox One Game Preview programme. As such, the game is not eligible for a scored review, and this article is a general overview of the game's current state. A full review will be available once a final build of the game is released.
At E3 2016, the We Happy Few demonstration during the Xbox press conference was one of the highlights. 1960s Britain has become a Huxleyan nightmare where everyone habitually takes a drug called Joy? It's a fantastic pitch, and I couldn't help but be disappointed when it was pointed out that the gameplay side of We Happy Few was a procedurally generated survival game. My gut reaction that anything other than a narrative-focused game would waste the world's potential and that a procedurally generated game could never deliver that. However, Compulsion Games did a great job with Contrast, their previous release, so I hoped that these fears were misplaced. Sadly, now that the game has received an alpha release, it seems that they were not.
The game opens with the same prologue as the E3 demo, shown in the video above. This section of the game is fantastic - opening on a machine called the "Redactor" instantly sets the tone of the world, and hints at the nature of the world. The player's first choice happens almost immediately: Take Joy? That the player can choose to take the drug, remain blissfully ignorant, and have the game end there is a really smart piece of story telling. Wandering around this prologue area hints at the true problems with the world, and there is a really good use of FMV showing a 'reassuring' video projected onto the side of the building.
It may be short, but this prologue is extremely well-crafted and is an effective introduction to the world of We Happy Few. It sets the mind racing with questions about the nature of what is going on: why am I redacting old newspapers?, who's in charge?, why is not taking Joy so bad?, why rely on an oral drug instead of a more reliable delivery method?, what happened to make the world like this?, what are we trying to censor and forget? are all questions that flooded into my mind during this segment. There's a multitude of ways that the story could unfold, and I could easily see the We Happy Few universe spanning multiple games. Moreover, the art style is extremely striking, and manages to maintain the vaguely unsettling vibe without falling into the uncanny valley.
However, once this introduction is over, the player is dropped into the wider world (the lack of explanation for this is acceptable given the early state of the game) and the real gameplay is introduced. For me, it can be summed up in one word: tedious. It's the some of survival game that has been all too common in recent years - scavenge scrap from the world, unlock crafting recipes, and manage food/thirst/sleep etc. meters. It's reminiscent of the looting and crafting mechanics in Fallout 4, but only after the combat and story have been stripped to the bare minimum.
The transition from the fairly tightly scripted prologue to a open world that feels very empty is extremely jarring. I'm certainly curious to see how it evolves into the final product, but as of now the prologue and the rest of the game feel completely disconnected, almost as if the prologue is from a different game altogether. For clarity's sake, I'll point out that I'm not accusing Compulsion Games of being misleading - they have been upfront from the start that this is a survival game through and through - but the clash between the two is undeniable in its present state.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with the current gameplay is how 'needy' the character seems. At times, it feel like I could barely take two paces before being faced with a "You are tired/hungry/thirsty" notification. To their credit, Compulsion Games have recognised this issue, and have stated that survival needs will be toned down. This will go a long way towards making the game more enjoyable, but it does not address the core issue I have with the design of We Happy Few: the gameplay and the narrative actively work against each other.
For example, to progress through the game, I needed to cross a certain bridge and to do so I needed to find a power cell. A map marker was added to my map, but an exhaustive search of that area reveal no leads. At that point, I'm basically at the mercy of the random generation - Did it spawn a power cell somewhere in this world? Can I find it? And perhaps more importantly, can I find it before the rest of the game becomes completely boring? The problem is that I want to see the story beats, but the survival gameplay between them is completely unremarkable. The crafting system is nothing new, and the combat feels terrible. I can block or I can strike... and that seems to be about it. Again, the game is extremely early, so it's likely this will improve as time goes on (and I certainly intend to revisit the game on its full release), but in its current state it feels very much like a prototype.
The one twist of the gameplay may be the use of the Joy drug. It can be found in the world, and taking it adds a new meter to the interface and the character states "that feels way too good". However, the game never really made it clear what that could be used for; I tried it multiple times, and only really noticed subtle changes to how the world looks. In the situations I used it, it never seemed to change the gameplay, nor did the game hint at where/when it should be taken.
I don't want to make too big of a issue out of this (it's to be expected in alpha software), but the technical side of the game isn't perfect. The FOV slider is a welcome addition on console, but increasing it tanks the frame rate and breaks some animations. There is a delay before item descriptions appear in the inventory, making it tedious to discover what an item is for. The subtitles are tiny, and were pretty much unreadable on my display. These sort of issues are not unusual in unfinished games, but at the end of the day this is a paid release, and the purchaser must decide if these issues are acceptable. Personally, I think the 'early access' concept has produced some great games, but We Happy Few may be just a little too early.
Overall We Happy Few is a hard game to recommend in its current state. I'm certainly interested to watch its development, and it could turn into a solid game, but the current build does it no favours. Fans of survival games may see it differently (these sort of games rarely hold my attention for long), but Compulsion Games have designed a fascinating world, and I'm sadden to see it coupled with such lacklustre gameplay. I hope they pull it off, and that the final game becomes one of the few survival games to grab me, but it's very much a case of wait and see at this point. I really do wonder if the game would have been better served by waiting until the gameplay was more polished before releasing it to the public.
NPC quote: "Where does the fog come from? That's the answer to everything I bet" Just wait until midnight...