Wellington Wells, 1964: The small British town resides in an alternative timeline where the German Empire won World War II, occupying Great Britain. The residents of this town had to do something unspeakable during the occupation, and to mask the memories, they take a drug called Joy. The drug helps them forget, but also skews their moral compass.
Sounds very Bioshock-like, doesn’t it? That's the same way I felt when I first saw We Happy Few’s Kickstarter campaign video: The Orwellian setting in a seemingly idyllic town, occupied by residents that are very much under the influence of something twisted, brought back the eerie feelings I had venturing through Rapture.
In the Xbox Game Preview version of We Happy Few, the game does not divulge any more of the storyline, merely giving you a teaser as the protagonist Arthur Smith, a newspaper clerk whose role is to redact articles that are negative. Missing a dosage of Joy, he is labelled a Downer, escapes the authorities, and hides in an underground bunker, which is where the game begins.
The alpha version puts the gameplay mechanic center stage rather than the story. Playing like a first person version of Don't Starve, the town is procedurally generated to give a unique experience with each playthrough. As Arthur, your objective is to escape the wastrel part of town, filled with residents who are immune to the effects of the Joy drug.
The map is split into four areas: Lud’s Holm and Raven Holm, where the effects of joy are prevalent, St Georges Holm and Garden Districts, both of which are housed by residents who were kicked out of Joy town. There are about 40-odd main and side quests, from unlocking each of the four areas, repairing the broken water pump, to catching “Crazy Legs”, the local man who is always running late for an event, eliciting memories of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, a subtle nod to another psychedelic tale.
Along with objectives, you also need to juggle Arthur's needs: health, thirst, fatigue, hunger, and other side effects such as infections and food poisoning. You can collect items to mitigate these effects, such as leaves from a plant to concoct a medical balm, or scrounging food from people's homes to keep you nourished.
Although the story is what drew me to the game, the mechanics are what made the preview enjoyable. Juggling Arthur's conditions while fighting angry residents is multi-tasking hell, but a unique perspective on a familiar mechanic. Throughout my preview gameplay, I was forever collecting herbs, water, food and crafting tools, weapons and medicines to stay alive for another day.
The residents, although mostly harmless, can be creepy. The marionette look they possess, with the dead look in their eyes, is downright unsettling. At one point, I ventured into a part of town called the Cult of Jack, where houses are enclosed by boarded-up fences, and the residents worship a TV atop a trash pile. The community gave me a Wicker Man vibe, and the assault they collectively brought onto me when they caught me was downright overwhelming.
The opening credits do show a disclaimer that this game is currently in its alpha state, meaning approximately 50% of the game is on show, and not without technical issues. I did experience minor technical glitches, such as NPCs stuck on walls and minor clipping.
The biggest gripes I have with the preview are the aiming movement and accuracy: Compared to other first person games, the aiming is slightly lethargic, with a small delay after I move the right stick and Arthur’s turning. The accuracy in combat also needs addressing, as I found on many occasions pointing the crosshair on someone to attack, only to miss completely because of a momentary stall in the graphics department. An indicator of where an attack comes from would also be handy, as I often found myself surrounded by foes, with no idea who to prioritise in a fight.
We Happy Few caught my attention at its Kickstarter reveal, more so for its A Clockwork Orange, dystopian storyline than the mechanics. Showing off its gameplay in the alpha made the game enjoyable, and withholding the story until the final release makes me want to uncover Wellington Wells’ secrets even more. Addressing the aiming issues would help, as I suspect the other, more minor glitches will dissipate come the final release.
We Happy Few is currently available for Xbox’s Game Preview, and Early Access on PC.