If We Happy Few wasn’t on your radar before June, its showing at E3 during the Xbox portion of the show almost certainly put it there. The sinister smiling first-person game introduced an intriguing dystopia where anything but sheer uninterrupted happiness would get you cast out of town, or worse. To achieve this sort of picturesque facade, the powers that be in Wellington Wells ensure its whole community is hopped up on Joy, a mood altering hallucinogen that replaces the decrepit reality of the world with sunshine and rainbows akin to a kindergartner’s fever dream. The premise is simply awesome, and the trailer seemed to deliver on the game’s promises. While the full game is not yet out, We Happy Few is available in a pre-alpha state as part of Xbox One’s Game Preview program. I had a chance to stroll through this faux happy town to see how it’s coming along. Unlike the drugged citizens of Wellington Wells, I was able to see through the veneer of the ruling body ensuring me all is well. The game needs a lot of work, but there’s still plenty to smile about.
At the onset I was met with a message reminding me that Compulsion Games, the studio behind WHF, will be constantly working to improve the game. Not all content, including the game’s playable area and multi-character story content, are available to play in this preview version. The first thing you must know about WHF if you’re eager to play is that it’s not really anything like the trailer. That’s probably disappointing to some, but it’s made stranger when you consider that the trailer takes from the opening gameplay moments directly, and still everything following those scenes are very different from what you may have anticipated. It’s a bit of a mislead, but it also serves to help the game earn its own merits. To date, the BioShock comparisons have been unrelenting. I’ve never felt that was fair. BioShock didn’t invent dystopia, but the fact that WHF doesn’t play as a typical linear first-person action game means it takes a sharp turn away from those comparisons once you’ve seen more than the promo material.
Instead, WHF is a survival game, closer to Minecraft or Don’t Starve than BioShock or Dishonored. As you escape Wellington Wells for being a “downer”, someone who has the audacity to reject their Joy, you awaken in a safehouse outside the protected walls of town. The lockers and supplies inside the room can be revisited whenever you’d like, and should be too, as there’s plenty of inventory management to be done. You’ll need to watch your vitals like fatigue, thirst, and hunger, and of course overall health. Right now these vitals drain at a rate that feels too quick. This is something that can be tweaked as the game continues to develop, but it’s unclear if Compulsion thinks they’ve found a sweet spot and maybe isn’t interested in altering those rates.
The outskirts of town are full of other rejects who either refused Joy or overdosed on it or had some other negative reaction that just wasn’t cheerful enough to remain a citizen of Wellington Wells. Along with them are an abundance of quests, none of which take more precedence than getting back into town. Many of the sidequests feel like standard fetches that games have abused for years now, but they did provide the benefit of getting me familiar with the confusing menus, sub-menus, and UI. These things, like the vitals’ change rates, need some work.
The most disappointing of all aspects of the game so far are the visuals. Character models for NPCs are overused much too often and the world, while meant to be ugly to depict the game’s subject matter, achieve that ugliness via some low quality textures and a grayness to the world that isn’t interesting, just unappealing. The promo material for the game looks much better than what is actually on display right now.
All of this sort of stuff can and hopefully will be attended to before WHF hits stores, and if it does, I rest assured it’ll be worth return trip. The main appeal of the game is the world-building. I played for several hours wanting to see more of the town. I saw stories emerge through quests and impromptu moments alike. The premise is truly a winner, it just needs to work out a lot of the rough spots. It almost seems unfair to preview a game that knows it isn’t nearly ready yet, but at the same time the studio is allowing people to buy it in its current state, and they’re even hoping to create a dialogue so that the final version is worth our time. The world seen in and around Wellington Wells is a depressing Orwellian narrative, and that has inherent appeal to plenty of people like myself. If Compulsion Games can improve its many mediocre facets as they stand now, gamers should have lots to smile about when We Happy Few releases.