Available On: Steam Early Access
Release Date: 2017
What if you had to survive in a BioShock-esque world without all those fancy plasmids and guns? Instead you’re armed with rotten food, pointy sticks, and one very special drug.
We Happy Few began life with a successful Kickstarter campaign before hitting Steam Early Access this Summer. The game combines survival-crafting into a unique setting rarely explored in gaming – the drug-fueled, post-war 1960s. This initial Early Access version features most of the gameplay sans story, and with only the one playable protagonist.
Another Fabulous Day in Wellington Wells
In this world’s alternate history, World War 2 went very, very badly for England. The Nazis successfully invaded and destroyed much of the country, leaving its population frightened and destitute. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying life right?
One little happy pill called Joy, and all your real world problems simply melt away. The people in the island city of Wellington Wells may harbor some deep secrets, but most of its drug-addled citizens don’t seem to care. Except for you.
The exciting events in the prologue were shown in that intriguing trailer during E3. Arthur Hastings, a newspaper clerk tasked with redacting stories, comes across an event that triggers a panic attack. He decides not to take his Joy, the magical drug that keeps the population of Wellington Wells happy and conforming.
Things go pretty badly for Arthur as he discovers the horrible things that Joy has hid from him. The action begins with Arthur waking up in the Wellington Wells underground, which acts as a safe house during your dangerous journey to escaping the city.
Hiding in Plain Sight
We Happy Few tasks you with surviving in a world gone mad from grief, and hallucinating through drugs. The city itself is procedurally generated, making each playthrough different. Wellington Wells is then divided into several increasingly difficult zones that house their own unique events, characters, and locations.
Arthur starts in the Garden District, home to the Wastrels. The Wastrels, or Downers as they’re called by the Joy-users, are off the drug and have no illusions about their miserable lives. There’s very little law and order, and few dangers, making it a good starter zone. You can walk openly amongst the shambling, crying dregs to loot mailboxes and paw through half-destroyed houses. But some houses are still lived-in, and Arthur can get caught by its residents.
We Happy Few employs permadeath, making each hostile encounter incredibly dangerous. The only weapons you have are mundane melee items you can craft or find, like shovels or cricket bats. Stealth and speed are your best friends. The city streets and houses are full of places to hide – including your underground safe house than pops up in each zone.
Sneaking around is pretty tough to do in an urban environment. We Happy Few solves this brilliantly by letting you hide in plain sight. It’s not even necessary until you get to the later city zones, where its masked, drug-hazed citizens look like they wandered off the set of BioShock.
Doing anything remotely suspicious will start to provoke their ire, but you can respond by cheerily waving, reading a newspaper at a bench, or popping your Joy.
Taking Joy didn’t quite have the visual transformative effect I was hoping for, but everything does get a whole lot brighter. Your character strides with nary a care and you see rainbows in the sky. Joy is a precious resource that can save you from dire situations. In the later sections of the city, doctors can sniff out if you’re off your Joy, adding yet another alarm system you have to avoid.
You also have to contend with the constant threat of thirst and hunger. Most food you find is rotten, which can lead to food poisoning that needs to be treated. Various effects like illness and alcohol cause your screen to blur and your character to stumble. They also translate to passive effects like reduced stamina. Finding books scattered around the city can grant you permanent passive buffs like being able to sleep less or being more stealthy.
Valley of the Dolls
Crafting is your major problem-solving tool. You can make healing balms and first-aid kits, throwing weapons, better armor, and trap-disarming tools. Finding blueprints and unlocking new recipes is a major reward, either by finding them or completing various quests.
Since the city is different each time you play, you’ll see different side quests and events (though many repeated during my several playthroughs).
A loony “secret agent” and his army of dolls tasks you with rescuing one of his own from a puppet theater, then exploring a creepy house you can only access at night while on Joy. Other events have you stopping a crazed runner, finding a raincoat for an old lady, or discovering a sinister (and darkly humorous) ritual on a hilltop at night. These special events add a lot of replayability and their rewards are often worth the risk – at least in the early game when you have much less to lose.
Unfortunately that amazing prologue is quickly forgotten as none of these events have anything to do with Arthur’s personal story of loss. The developers have admitted that this Early Access version of We Happy Few contains none of the proposed story events that will be included in the final game. The final version will also include more playable protagonists, more city zones, and a proper final ending.
I ran into several bugs. Some visual glitches occurred around the city, like grass floating in the air. That one hilltop ritual mission was missing all of its people. When I interacted with the central event, voices responded as if they were there. The game never crashed or had any major issues. The Unreal engine makes the environments and day/night lighting look fantastic, though character models are often repeated.
Inventory management is also a bit of a pain. Playing grid-Tetris in order to squeeze in an important item is annoying, particularly as the world doesn’t pause while you’re manually sorting or crafting. I also would’ve loved a mini-map as I was constantly having to open the full map menu to get my bearings throughout the same-y streets – though that may be an intentional challenge.
Survival-crafting games are a dime a dozen, but We Happy Few’s real joy is its immersive world and how it plays with conformity and hallucinatory drugs. The voice acting, music, and art style, down to clothing and interior decorating, strongly evoke that 1960s look and feel. The basic gameplay of scavenging and hiding is fun, tense, and well-balanced. But those looking for more story, content, and polish may want to wait until We Happy Few is fully released sometime next year.