“We Happy Few” is a one that I have been very much looking forward to. The British 60’s style and drug themed gameplay is one that I’ve seen a lot of potential in. So now with the Early Access Gameplay Alpha now out, how does it fare?
The game sees you as placed in a dystopian alternate 1960’s UK were all it not as it seems. The populace is on a police government mandated drug called Joy that hides all the bad feelings and induces euphoria. I have a few theories on how the world got to that point but I’ll save that for a separate thing.
You step into the eyes of Arthur Hastings, a news and history censor. As he works, he finds an old article talking about a scrap metal drive he and his now lost brother did. He remembers words and noises and realises he is in trouble because of something he’s forgotten because of the Joy. This is when you make your first choice. Do you take your Joy, forget about your brother and live on blissfully unknowing of the reality of the world? Or do you throw away the pills and see the world for what it really is? If you take the pills you go to credits. (Well done by the way for putting that in rather then a false choice.) If you chose to dump the pills, you start to tumble down the rabbit hole.
The prologue is one that sets up the nature of the world and gives many hints to how it became what it is. It’s a closed intro so no matter what you do, no matter what you see, you’ll always get the same ending to the intro. Which is being found out as a ‘Downer’ (someone off the pills) and chased into the old London Underground maintenance and sewer tunnels. Although the ending sting leaves it open to a little interpretation as it ends with you being clubbed by Bobbies (British slang for cops if you didn’t know were it came from) and waking up in the tunnels.
Then you go into the game proper. The best way to describe the whole game experience is extremely good, but a little cluttered and disjointed. The main aspect of the game has you in survival game mode. You have hunger, thirst and sleep meters to make sure are filled. But one thing became quickly apparent, I play as an insomniac. When the sleep meter empties, your stamina bar is cut in half. Stamina is used for sprinting, climbing, fighting and everything else that isn’t walking or crafting. Otherwise there is no downside. On the first 2 islands you can not sleep for weeks and it doesn’t matter. You not running from anything like Bobbies and most combat can be avoided if you just go stealth heavy and only rob houses at night. Even in Hamlet (the third island) I wouldn’t sleep and just rob houses at night and do the quest strings in the day and forgo sleeping entirely. Having your stamina bar halved is a punishment for letting the meter empty but it’s not much of a punishment. Maybe they need to add occasional passing out or blinking to make it more of a punishment to go sleepless.
The thirst and hunger meters on the other hand, as soon as they empty you go into what I call ‘dying mode’. Rather then just having your life tick away, you have a set amount of time to eat or drink the meter into the clear or you die. It was a nice touch as healing items are petty easy to get so my health was always mostly full so going hungry had a consequence if it was left unfulfilled. But on the first two islands, food is so easy to come by and there are public water pumps to drink from so the chances you’ll be left short is almost nil. The hunger and thirst meters for most of the early game just ended up being a nuisance that broke flow over being a threat or a hindrance.
One reason why the hunger meter ends being a nuisance is that rotten food is plentiful so there is always something to eat. But when you eat rotten food, you have a high chance to get the food poisoning status effect. It may sound bad but there are two levels to it. The first is just dizziness that blurs the screen and slows down your stamina. But as I said before, having stamina damage is ok on the first two islands as you will barely need it. You can just wait out the poisoning. The second stage puts you into a timer that, if the poisoning is left uncured, you vomit all of your hunger meter away. It may sound bad but you find a fair few cure tablets for the odd time you get major poisoning. Otherwise, just eat rotten food until you end up in the first stage and them wait until it wears off. If you do that, you will never have to fear going hungry at all through your entire playthough.
The first two islands just fell tiresome after a while. Over multiple saves, I just ended up going through the same motions every time I restarted. 1) Drink at the pump outside your hatch, 2) loop the cliffs of the islands to find the bridges and pick up all the red levels, yellow and blue berries for more then enough healing and food items, 3) go looking for either the water pump or the bee tree so I can get to the Garden District and get the power cell for Wellington. I’d just want to blaze through the early quests as fast a possible as when you get to Hamlyn, the game comes alive.
By far the best part of the game is Hamlyn. The only way to get water is to get into people houses for tap water. You either have to steal food or shamble enough money together to buy some. Then there are the Bobbies who, once triggered, can beat you down in only a few hits. And there are the street checkpoints that you can’t go through unless your on Joy. The first two islands are full of people that don’t care about you, bombed houses to climb over and escape chasers, its a miserable, depressing paradise! Hamlyn on the other hand is a place that makes you feel not welcome. You feel not just like your surviving because of the meters, but resisting because you get the oppressed sense that everyone and everything is out to get you. Having to peak around main street corners at night. Have to rob and mug people for food and resources. The happy smiles on the faces of everyone you see and the blasé way they talk about beating people to death make you know that your are different and not welcome.
At night, you have stick to the backstreets. You’ll get seen a few times by the patrolling Bobbies but you can see it coming so you have a chance to get a head start in running or standing your ground. But the main streets in the day are another matter. As long as you don’t stop walking you will lose sight of the suspicious before they plant you as a Downer so it’s largely safe. It can be a pain when your following the map but it adds to the your not welcome vibe. But in those few moments in the day when you do get found out when you didn’t mean to, the moment when every smiling face turns to you a pulls out a weapon, its terrifying.
Even during quests, you know that you are out numbered and out powered on that island which can lead to a fair few panics. One that will stick with me was when I was raiding the House of Curious Behaviors for stuff at 1AM. On the top floor I saw the Golden Rod and claimed it as mine. Every alarm in a block radius went off. I only just turned to the door to run and a Bobbie kicked in the door. The only other out was the window. On the second floor. Dodged a baton swing, jumped and fell two stories, planted face first to the pavement with a thud and a splat that felt visceral between to more Bobbies. In the space of a few seconds I went from stealing a place blind to running for my life through the backstreets having alerted every Bobbie in a block radius. That is when the game comes alive. But everything else to get to that point is either a chore, busy work or the game just killing you for no reason other then just trying to add needless difficulty.
One area that adds substantial but needless challenge is through the plague status effect. Much like the food poisoning, if you eat a particular mushroom or touch a person who’s eaten it, or just go venturing to long into run-off water you will get the plague. Getting the plague is usually a death sentence as it can only be cured with a cure that is rare to find and hard to make otherwise. It is also possible to catch the plague on the first island were you start, when all of the core ingredients to make the cure or find one ready made only happens on the second island. What adds insult to injury is that the way you can catch the plague on the first island is through a quest. So you can go looking for things to do, find a quest, do that and catch a deadly plague you can’t currently cure unknowingly. As soon as you catch the plague, you have either two days or two sleep cycles to be cured or you die. No madder the other meters or your health. You just die. This is where we come to my biggest irritant with the game so far, permadeath.
I’m not against permadeath. Games like XCOM use it as punishment for unit mismanagement. Games like Rust use it as an equaliser for long term players and new ones. Even ones like Rogue Legacy use it as a way to create new layers of difficulty and complexity. For We Happy Few, I couldn’t wait to turn it off. I liked the addition of ‘second wind’, the dying mode that I mentioned when I talked about hunger and thirst earlier. But the idea of permadeath in a story heavy game I find bewildering. When you can get plague when you have no chance to cured it is a dick move that only means that I will totally ignore quests because it could just end up with the game killing me out of spite. The other end of the spectrum is getting to the gates of the final room and being blind-sided to a game over and total restart. One side just creates repetition, which if you remember puts you back into the weakest part of the game which is the slow and already sequence-able first two islands. The other is you getting to a possible 99% completion and being reset to 0%. Both of those situations would just make me frustrated, either in an bored way or just angry. When permadeath was off, when ever I died I was just deducted random items and was put back to the safe house. Death has to be a punishment but it has to be structured and understandable. Going the Bioshock 1 way of just waking up in a tube after you’ve slipped death a fiver is too lenient but being dropped to a game over adventuring into unknown territory in a story adventure is too harsh. Even the game that inspired the introduction of the mechanic (Dark Souls) only stunted your upgrades and progression and let you on you way. Even in other survival games like Rust, you respawn in a field in your nuddies but if you run quick enough you get back what you lost. I just think that permadeath should not be on by default. It’s fun as a challenge but if all you want to do is just adventure in the world and be engrossed into the world and see all that you can see as the world is amazingly put together, worrying about starting over because you peered to long at building or were working out how to complete a quest gets in the way. Death can still be a punishment even outside of permadeath but it has to be a fine balance of loss with resetting. Maybe death could be being reset to when you last slept at your safe house in a load/save way. That might be something to add as at the moment there is only one save file space. I wouldn’t mind have a couple of spaces to save in so I could have an ‘adventuring save’ were I just wander the lands for 100% and to see all things. Then have another save on permadeath were I’m the mesmerised rat in the tunnels hiding from the Pipers bone white baton.
I like being in the world that We Happy Few presents. Then it presents it with a unique combination of game mechanics while taking a lot of inspiration from cult classics like The Prisoner and Orwellian fiction, which I adore. But the start is just too slow so ends up being repetitive and having permadeath on by default just seems overly cruel in a story based game. Considering that, this is one of the most fascinating and most interesting games I’ve so far this year. It’s already one of my most favourite games.
As it’s in ‘Early Access’ and only an Alpha at this point, I didn’t talk much about the bugs and glitches. But as I played it for (going by Steam stats) over 40 hours already, over two computers (one more built for gaming then the other) it is safe to say that every single aspect of the game has bugged out at least once when I was playing. I even ran into a fair few game breaking bugs that means that I couldn’t finish the game. But I do hope that they get patched over time. I do recommend this game but I only really can recommend it in its finished form. At the moment its a buggy, unpolished jumble of a game but the world and presentation gives so much hope that this game is going to be fantastic upon full release. I can’t wholly recommend buying it now as but I highly recommend adding it to your wish lists as a future must buy.