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We Happy Few / 3rd of August 2016

I think it’s fair to say that there has been a great deal of hype leading up to this first hands on with Propulsion Games’ highly vaunted, Orwellian, drug-fuelled fantasy romp, We Happy Few, and based on the alpha build that was made available on early access, it would appear that that publicity has been almost entirely unwarranted. Why? Well, there are a plethora of reasons to be honest, its wholly inconsistent tone being a bit of a bug bear, not to mention its shoddy dialogue, voice acting and ill-conceived survival mechanics. Ultimately, it’s proven itself to be a bitter pill to swallow, but on the upside, there’s still a very long way to go.

For those that remember the last trailer touted by Microsoft, We Happy Few appeared to offer a taut, alternate 1960s London with a drug addled, emotionally manipulated populace, patrolled by a force of lanky, twisted looking bobbies. In it, the game’s protagonist, Arthur Hastings, whilst sitting at his desk censoring newspaper articles, stumbles upon a piece of news relating to a part of his past normally suppressed by the narcotic, Joy, that controls the emotional state of the user. Here, it presents the player with a choice, continue to live in perpetual mundanity (there isn’t really a choice, taking more Joy sees the game end there), or refuse to take the drug and roll with the punches, which come all-too fast afterwards, from seedy looking, wellington wearing wardens, to a piñata party that doesn’t result in a shower of sugary goodness and ultimately expulsion from the theatrically blissful section of society. At this point in the alpha, all is effectively as it should be, save for the characterless mutterings of Arthur himself, the world is how we all want it to be, bleak and aesthetically brilliant, whilst the perhaps all-too brief opening introduces some of the game’s most basic movement and combat controls. After this, however, the game takes a rather unexpected turn.
Instead of remaining as a linear, narrative driven experience, We Happy Few, changes into a procedurally generated open world set primarily within a dreary section of its world wherein the downers (those who refuse their medication) are dumped. These poor, demented souls wander aimlessly around muttering nonsensical dialogue to themselves (granted Compulsion have admitted that the build they’ve shown is very early and most of the content is either missing or effectively filled with placeholder assets) which effectively leaves us within something that feels akin to a shoddy tip of the hat to George Lucas’ THX 1138. It may be early on, but nothing seems to fit, lines of dialogue from both the protagonist and those he encounters clash horribly, the myriad tasks and crafting options that can be discovered along the way are poorly explained and its survival mechanics are simply infuriating.

The world here is split into several sections, with the player’s subterranean hideaway safely tucked away at its core, allowing for access to each area whilst still providing a handy refuge to craft items and sleep. The player’s progress is inhibited by survival mechanics that force them to eat, sleep and drink in order to stay alive. Food can bring its own problems as finding fresh produce is obviously a tad problematic, some of the goods that the player is forced to consume are past their best and can also induce illness, there are medications that can be taken to stave off sickness before it evolves into something more life threatening. The biggest problem with these obtrusive concepts is that they simply don’t feel integral to the experience, but instead appear as though they have just been tacked on at the last minute, and to be honest, when your game features permadeath (it can be switched off), this is unlikely to bolster a gaming experience already foundering under the colossal weight of its terrible combat system.
Pissing off the game’s inhabitants – this itself is just pot-luck – sees them launch themselves at you, and sometimes in numbers too, starting a bout of combat. The fighting system is somewhat reminiscent of Bethesda’s shoddy, Elder Scrolls mechanics, with the player left little option but to mash the attack button and hope that all goes to plan. In its defence, it does at least offer more than just attack/defend, there is a third move, a push which appears to be unblockable, much like the kick attack from Techland’s Dead Island games, but be warned, it does use a remarkable amount of stamina to pull off, and ultimately, keeping an eye on one’s health and stamina meters really is about as deep as the combat gets here.

Inconsistency seems to be the order of the day, in combat and beyond, which is especially detrimental to what could prove to be a stellar stealth system that sees the player forced to use narcotics to take the protagonist to an elevated sense of joy in order to blend in with the locals who will otherwise see through Arthur’s façade. These drugs can inhibit the player’s ability to complete tasks, whilst taking too much can see Arthur simply become one of the sheep again, bringing the game to an untimely conclusion. Given how early on We Happy Few is in its development cycle, it’s difficult to assess just much it’s likely to change over time, but its inconsistent AI, visual style and tone are areas that simply must be addressed to bring these elements in line with its fairly successful opening and charismatic, figurehead creation, Uncle Jack, Compulsion Games’ answer to 1984’s Big Brother. The addition of a tighter narrative structure will undoubtedly help correct the majority of this early build’s glaring flaws, but it we’ll simply have to wait and see what Compulsion Games end up doing with this promising concept. Oh and more thing, is the Summer Isle Brewing Company a cheeky wee nod to Robin Hardy’s subversive horror classic, The Wicker Man? I certainly hope so, it’d be nice to at least end on a high.
James Paton
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