We Happy Few puts a new face on survival, but it’s not ready for its close-up yet

Ode to No Joy

When it took the stage at Microsoft’s E3 presentation this year, Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few was easily one of the most intriguing titles of the show, promising a trippy story set in the drug-addled English township of Wellington Wells. As such, I was rather excited to take on the task of previewing the game with a press-access build we received. 

Cut to today, and while I’m not exactly chuffed that We Happy Few is a far different game than the one that I was initially expecting (maybe I should’ve read Ben’s take first), it has been a pleasant surprise, even if it isn’t quite ready for prime time.

To be fair, the game feeling half-done is entirely expected. The current build released to Steam Early Access and the Xbox One Preview Program is missing roughly half of its planned content, including the three-character story mode that caught so much attention at E3.

That in mind, I can’t recommend anyone who was hoping for the next BioShock pick up the game at this point in time. For that matter, the rough edges and very “alpha quality” of this version would be a tough sell for anyone not prepared to play a decidedly unfinished game. This is no thinly disguised premium demo, folks, so keep that in mind before you buy.

Those who do take the plunge, however, get to faff about in one of the most attractive survival games I’ve yet seen, one that’s already setting itself apart thanks to its key twist.

That twist, if you’ve been paying attention, is Joy. It’s a pill that every resident of Wellington Wells has to pop on the regular, in order to stay hopped-up enough to not remember the Very Bad Thing they did in the past, during an apparent German Occupation of England some years back. Your character is a “Downer,” one of the un-happy few that have gone off their meds, and in doing so pose so much of a threat to the status quo that they’re hunted down mercilessly.

Joy is the key to doing what needs to be done in Wellington Wells, as most major activities and quests require you to get out of your Downer ghetto and infiltrate the town proper, where you must act properly baked out of your goddamn skull or else be brutally murdered. The addition of this “social stealth” adds a new, intriguing dimension to otherwise by-the-numbers survival game mechanics, as well as facilitating a mode of play beyond the usual scavenge-and-craft rhythm that — let’s be honest — isn’t all that different from what else is available in any number of survival titles currently available (especially if you’re on PC). 

The downside here is that the unfinished state of the game means that those by-the-numbers survival game mechanics are pretty much the only thing really in the game at the moment, and without the additional hook of the narrative, or the polish needed to make the social stealth elements really shine (currently it’s quite hard to figure out just how the AI sees through your behavior or not, making infiltration a roll of the dice more than a coherent strategy), We Happy Few is a pretty, but tedious and repetitive in anything approaching a long stretch.

For one, the survival aspects, particularly the bog-standard meters to measure hunger, fatigue, and thirst, aren’t balanced too well, yet. At the moment my character loses water and food so quickly that I have to wonder if he’s part-sieve, which puts a damper on most activities. The need to return to your safehouse to sleep also puts more limits on your travel range. Questing in the procedurally generated landscape makes for a lot of aimless wandering, as well, so you’ll waste even more time tracking back and forth looking for the resources you need to craft a needed item.

Of course, that’s to be expected since the game is unfinished, so it doesn’t feel right to pass judgment at this very early stage. And for what it’s worth, what’s there has stuck with me much more than pretty much every other survival game that I’ve tried. The need to blend into social situations through behavior reminds me of the more fun parts about playing DayZ (i.e. trying to get along with dangerous strangers who can murder you at any time), and the promise of the game’s story mode (the gloriously disturbing intro is in the early access build) is enough to get my hopes up for the full release, which is due sometime next year.

Until then, though, it’s best to hold off and wait.

Josh Tolentino
When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh served as Managing Editor for Japanator. Now he mostly writes for Destructoid's buddies at Siliconera, but pops back in on occasion.