We Happy Few is a survival game set in an alternate 1960s Britain. Citizens of Wellington Wells take a drug called Joy to forget, to function. The game wears its BioShock influences on its puke-encrusted sleeve, but in its current state, it’s still got a ways to go before it can live up to its lofty potential.
I’ve spent a few hours with the game’s Steam Early Access version, and I think there’s room for it to evolve into something equal parts intriguing and foreboding. It’s just not quite there yet.
The main side effect of Joy, you see, appears to be making people into creepy-ass clowns. These clowns, however, are not like the Platonic Ideal of clowns. These clowns are deadly serious. The makeup-masked masses are so interested in order, control, and forgetting a nebulous Terrible Thing From Their Past that they’ll toss out anyone who goes off their drugs.
That’s how the game begins after a brief story-driven intro: with you left for dead in a ghetto of “Downers,” drug-less deviants whose fragile psyches are long past the point of unravelling. They wander the streets in a stupor, spitting out bile-soaked bits of nonsense and occasionally engaging in other activities like eating, drinking, and murder.
At the moment, there’s not much to do beyond wander, survive, and complete a handful of quests. Many of the quests aren’t entirely intuitive (a somewhat clunky map system doesn’t help), so wandering and survival take centre stage. If you’ve played a survival game before, you know the drill: you’ve gotta make sure you’re well-fed, hydrated, and rested. Meters slowly tick down for each.
It all works fine, but to be honest it’s kinda tedious. As it stands, the interesting things about We Happy Few are its world, characters, and the deeper mysteries underlying them. Having to stop and slurp a bowl of rancid stew or go off your planned path to pump some more water into canisters feels like a distraction. It’s rarely challenging or exciting. It’s just a thing you have to do if you want to keep doing the things that are actually fun.
Occasionally your need to sleep can land you in an enjoyable sort of hot water—for instance when you’re about to collapse from exhaustion and decide to nap in somebody else’s bed, only to wake surrounded by a violent mob chanting, “THIS ISN’T A BED AND BREAKFAST”—but I’m not sold on these survival systems. Not yet. Right now they feel like extra weight on an experience that could be smoother, more direct.
That said, other elements of We Happy Few show promise. The world is, in part, procedurally generated—which does make it pretty repetitive in places—but discovering ruined houses and other landmarks littered with scraps of story is compelling. Some of the quests—like one where you’ve gotta figure out how to take down a man who runs around town fretting about how he’s late for an important date—are darkly humorous.
Interacting with other characters has the potential to be really cool. Your fellow Downers are not, by default, violent. Right now, it’s pretty easy to suss out the sorts of things that will make them start trying to bust your noggin like rotten cabbage with a cricket bat, but there’s still a tension to each encounter. With a bit more unpredictability, I could see it working similarly to Ken Levine’s original pitch for BioShock Infinite; you walk into a room, and you have no idea where you stand with anybody. Maybe they just want some friendly (if not entirely tied to this plane of reality) chit-chat, or maybe they want your head to, like, store their maggot collection inside of.
Unsurprisingly, We Happy Few’s Early Accession version also has some glitches. In many ways it’s quite polished for an Early Access teaser, but I still encountered moments where my character wouldn’t stop spouting the same line over and over, or characters got angry at each other/me for no apparent reason, or I couldn’t complete quests because the game decided I didn’t have an item that was definitely in my inventory.
To top it all off, excellent opening segment aside, the story’s not really in the game yet. Don’t get me wrong: between a bevy of quests and multiple islands to move between, the game already has quite a bit of Content (TM). It’s just not coming together in an exciting way yet. I’ve played for three hours, and I’m already bored. At the moment, I can see the bones of something excellent in We Happy Few. But it’s just a skeleton. It needs meat, gristle, and blood.