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Preview: We Happy Few

The highly anticipated indie darling We Happy Few recently went into early access, offering PC and Xbox players the chance to buy their way into an alpha build of the game and give feedback to the developers. Yours truly has thrown himself into the procedurally generated world of Wellington Wells to report to you on the game’s progress.
The game begins with you playing as Arthur, a government employee charged with redacting content deemed too unsavory for the newspapers. Arthur is the only character available during the alpha, but the full game will have three playable characters. Arthur lives in the fictional island city of Wellington Wells, part of a dystopian 1960s England. The citizens of Wellington Wells have all but eliminated misanthropy through the use of a drug called Joy. Arthur himself says it best: “When life annoys, top up your Joy!” Joy makes you feel positively giddy despite your circumstances, and by extension, blinds you to any unpleasant truths that might be before your eyes. Everyone is required by law to take their Joy. Those who do not  are labeled “Downers,” and are either are forced to take their Joy or are cast out of the city to live in the Wastes, a barren area outside of the city populated by Wastrels, social outcasts who have been driven half-mad.

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You play through a short prologue section (the same one played during the Microsoft Conference at this year’s E3). There’s a story gap in between the end of the playable part of the prologue and where we resume, but essentially after refusing to take his Joy, Arthur escapes the city and flees to the Wastes. You awaken in a safehouse in the sewers of the island, and are set to your main task: getting the heck off this crazy island. From here, the game drops the majority of its narrative reins, with most of the story coming from posters and TV broadcasts. The game opens up completely, leaving you to either head for the quest markers or wander through the world, which according to Compulsion Games is about 50% of the world that will be in the final game.
Though We Happy Few is clearly heavily influenced by Bioshock, this game places a much heavier emphasis on crafting and survival. You’ll need to manage your hunger, thirst, and sleep in addition to your health. When I first started the game your status bars would fall at an annoyingly speedy rate, but since the game is continuously being updated, they have since slowed to an entirely manageable level.The game goes beyond the basic survival mechanics by also making you deal with a variety of status effects. Become exhausted, and you’ll have less stamina, which means less sprinting and less consecutive hits in combat before you have to stop for a breath. Eat some rotten food, and you risk contracting food poisoning, which slows your character and makes you prone to vomiting. You’ll need to take a nexamide pill to cure yourself before it gets worse. The game starts you off with a few resources in your safehouse, but for the most part you’ll have to make a habit of searching for anything that can help you stay alive. I, like many, loot everything in sight out of habit, but the game adds a welcome layer of desperation while I’m searching bodies for rotten apples and metal bits.

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Since you have all these status effects to manage and essentially start off with some water and a bottle of grape juice, crafting is a HUGE part of the game. Weapons, lockpicks, better clothes, etc. I put together two rocks to make one better, sharper rock. A rock in a league of its own. You’ll have to do this with most things that you want. If you need it and it isn’t literally a piece of cloth, then you probably have to make it yourself. Since one needs both survival materials and crafting materials, the majority of my time with the game was spent looking for the items I needed to craft the items that I really needed to progress the main questline.
If you want to survive in Wellington Wells, you’ll also need to avoid unwanted attention. This means that you have to try to blend in to whatever area you’re in. If you’re in the Wastes, then the tattered suit that you start with fits in well, and your actions can be more erratic. In the more civilized parts of the island, however, you’ll need well-kept clothes and to act like you belong if you don’t want to picked out as a Downer. If you are discovered (or are led into a trap), you can either run, or make use of the combat system. Right now that consists of the patented swinging and blocking method, either with your fists or whatever makeshift weapons you pick up or craft. You’re not a powerhouse We Happy Few, so combat isn’t always the best option. You have a stamina bar that drains as you attack, and you won’t be able to strike again until you let the bar refill a bit. Taking hits, in addition to causing you to lose health, can also cause status effects like bleeding, which you’ll need items like bandages to get rid of. As it stands, combat feels a bit floaty like you’re not actually making contact, but I’m confident that it’ll feel better in the final game.

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Between the nonsense ramblings of the Wastrels, the need to scavenge for sustenance, and the fact that you need to blend in to your surroundings lest you risk discover, We Happy Few tries its best to maintain an eerie atmosphere. It does well, making use of despair scrawled along walls and the sight of those who’ve chosen to end their existence on this dreary island. Still, I can’t help but feel like the lack of story is taking away from being immersed in the experience. Without the setting and motivation I might as well be playing any other survival game. When I first started playing the game, there was almost a complete lack of direction, so I just kind of walked around. Like I said, the game is continuously being updated, so now there are more quests and markers and such, but it still feels like I’m missing out on a bit. I obviously can’t fault a game in alpha for being story-light, but if you’re really looking forward to digging into We Happy Few‘s story, then it may be best to wait until the game’s release so you can get the full experience (since unlike most Early Access games, we know this one will actually leave Early Access).

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We Happy Few is still in alpha, so take all of the above with however many grains of salt that you need. Still, the bones of a special, unique game are all here. I’m not getting the tight Bioshock-esque experience that I was expecting, but instead, I’m getting elements from that mixed with a survival game and boiled in a stew of 1960s drug-induced dystopia. I’m really looking forward to how the game continues to develop, and I expect that once the final product is delivered, we’re all going to be very happy indeed.

By Francis King Jr

Marketing and Government student at the College of William & Mary. Video Games and Movies writer. Enjoys Jesus, writing, and all things geek.

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