We Happy Few’s premise is let down by the game it encapsulates

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We Happy Few hasn’t changed much since I last played it. Last year I got access to what felt like an early but progressive build of the open-world survival game, but playing the new version (made available on Early Access across both Xbox One and PC), I realise that We Happy Few has a long road ahead of it. Not because its central ideas of escaping a twisted, topsy turvey town is in any way boring, but rather that the game elements that glues it all together feels severely underdeveloped.

Despite the game being announced years ago, We Happy Few got the mainstream exposure its been longing for at Xbox’s conference earlier this year at E3. Its cinematic opening does a great job of selling the setting of Wellington Wells and its drugged inhabitants. In Wellington, you’re not allowed to be sad, depressed or a “downer” of any kind. Thoughts like those are frowned upon by those walking around with ghost white faces and stretched out smiles – and more often than not met with violent resistance.

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Your character, Arthur – the first in what will be a cast of three – is the first victim of this segregation that you encounter. After a brief but effective prologue showing the true ramifications of being on (and subsequently going off) the game’s psychedelic happy drug “Joy”, Arthur is plunged into a Wellie’s worst nightmare. Ousted as a downer, you’re forced out of town, taking refuge in an underground bunker in the rundown, left to die outskirts of a city of dreamed up rainbows and ignorant citizens.

This is where the current build really kicks off, and it’s sadly where We Happy Few takes its first familiar missteps. Last year I forgave the roughness of its survival elements, which have you balancing health and stamina just as equally as hunger, thirst and tiredness. All of these affect how effective you are at facets like interacting with other citizens, getting around and, most importantly, fighting. You’ll often be forced into situations where violence is the only answer, as the depressed faces looming around you don’t take kindly to your trespassing.

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Combat is a simple affair, with one trigger assigned to blocking and another to attacking. Various melee and ranged weapons ranging from flimsily cricket bats to ordinary rocks can be used with varying effects, and often best when you’re simply going one on one with another Wellie. Attract many more and the flight option becomes more alluring than fight, which at least keeps some underlying tension to it all.

The issue is that We Happy Few relies far too heavily on other aspects of gameplay that draw its attention away from more exciting aspects like combat (and, even more grievously, simple exploration). Its confusing array of status meters and resource juggling make for a game that right now feels more like babysitting than fun. I was constantly reminded that I was either too tired or hungry to continue, as the days and nights dissolved together far to quickly for comprehension. The speed at which the game progresses now feels too fast for some aspects and brings others to a grinding halt. Walking around worrying about my next mushroom fix from a nearby trash can takes my attention away from the world Compulsion Games is trying so painstakingly trying to build, which is the real crime here.

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Because stripped away of its overbearing survival mechanics, We Happy Few presents one of the most entrancing settings in a modern game lately. The segregated world of Wellington Wells offers up micro tales that are already fascinating to lose yourself in, as you take your own path down a rabbit hole of intriguing deciding on which side of society you lie. The sometimes off-putting dialogue aside, the more directed quests help expose you to the weird corners of Wellington’s society, even if the Early Access version offers a limited view of the whimsical life across the bridge.

But the way We Happy Few already dabbles with ideas of depression-focused separation is what truly piqued my interest. Peeling away the hyperbolic nature in which this is presented reveals an underlying narrative that resonated with me. The idea of society casting aside those who would seek to dispel the idea of living in ignorance of psychologically taxing depressiveness is one that too many people have to deal with day-to-day. It’s presented in a black and white fashion, but even then does so with a hint of subtlety that makes you think about its deep rooted cultural references over its inspired (and captivating) aesthetic.

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If there was a singular moment that captured this though, it was that of a tale of two lovers. A simple quest that had me coming back to a location night after night, I sat and listened to an exchange between two downers trying to find their way in a misshapen world. Their tale of almost forbidden love in the face of being outcast from the drug-fuelled society they’ve only ever known was strange at first, but tugged on a string of hope. It’s not the formally lain bricks or colourful charm of Wellington Wells that was alluring, but rather breaking free of its shackles that allowed these two souls to come to realise that they were right for each other.

Despite its seemingly violent ending, this tale alone convinced me of the promise We Happy Few and its setting have to offer if fully realised. If Compulsion Games manages to find a way to harmonize that with the game’s currently lacking mechanics, We Happy Few has the chance to deliver on what its engrossing prologue teases. It can take as long as it likes, because something special like this needs the time to bake.

Last Updated: August 5, 2016

Alessandro Barbosa

You can all call me Sandy until I figure out how to edit this thing, which is probably never. Sandy not good enough? Call me xXx_J0k3R_360degreeN0Sc0pe_xXx. Also, Geoff's a bastard.

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