We Happy Few isn’t the game the developer is selling

Early Access Preview: Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few has promise, but not necessarily what was shown in the early trailers.

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We Happy Few isn’t the game the developer is selling

I’ve had We Happy Few in my Steam ‘Wishlist’ for… well, pretty much since it was announced and available. Over the weekend, my impatience got the better of me and I finally bought it. Kind of like balking at the price of apps on a smartphone you paid hundreds of dollars for, I’ve noticed there’s a strange dissonance when it comes to buying into Early Access games and perceived value (and not just from me; read some of the Steam comments on Early Access games that discuss the cost).

In my mind, any Early Access game that I’m interested in that’s under $20USD is fair game for a random purchase, but when the price goes beyond that, it’s either wait for a sale or go through the agonising process of trying to justify what’s essentially a glorified pre-purchase. We Happy Few is $29.99USD, and while that’s not a lot in comparison to the pledge of what the final game will (hopefully) deliver, it’s not a no-brainer purchase like it was for The Forest ($14.99USD) or even Northgard ($19.99USD).

Of those Early Access games, I’ve sunk dozens of hours into The Forest, a handful of hours into Northgard (even though it really only has a bare-bolts proof-of-concept skirmish mode at the moment), but only a couple into We Happy Few (at this stage). Maybe that’s because, outside of a familiar opening from the E3 2016 gameplay trailer, We Happy Few plays like a different beast than what’s been shown, to date.

What I was buying into when I liked what I saw of We Happy Few was an action-stealth game, of sorts, that required hiding in plain sight (Hitman style) amid a world filled with drugged-up citizens eager to stomp in the head of a non-Joy-imbuing so-called Downer. (Joy is the name of the upper drug everyone’s forced to pop in polite society.) Basically, anti-Equilibrium without the Gun Kata. While that does appear to be a component of We Happy Few, there’s a bigger picture at play: We Happy Few is a gorram survival game.

For me, the opening played out pretty much like it did in that E3 2016 gameplay trailer, with a couple of little explorative flourishes that didn’t really seem to add much. That’s likely because, like early versions of The Forest or Northgard in its current state, We Happy Few doesn’t offer a campaign outside of that opening proof-of-concept tease. Even this opening was reportedly added as a way of adding context to the start of its procedurally generated open-world taste (or, at least, part of it was added).

On my first attempt, I foolishly left permadeath enabled (it’s on by default), which meant it wasn’t long before I was restarting my game. In that first go, I fell into the most obvious trap—no, seriously, my character even said it was a trap but I did it anyway—and was bludgeoned to death by a quartet of Downers. Cue the inevitable restart.

So for the second attempt, I disabled permadeath, but the thing is I haven’t really run into any situations that have made me feel as threatened as I was during my initial play-through. Obviously, the best thing about a permadeath mechanic is that it adds a fantastic sense of tension for any situation that involves risk. Sure, that means out-and-out fisticuffs in We Happy Few, but it also means stepping foot in people’s properties, no matter how dilapidated they might be, in that starting Downer section of the game’s open world.

Some NPCs are friendly enough to let you waltz in for an awkward chat, while others will start to act aggressively as soon as you cross the threshold. If you really want to piss them off, a great trick is to start robbing them while they’re watching you. They’ll be after you with fists, sticks, or whatever other bludgeoning implements are nearby. You can fight back, though, and a well-timed block will help negate incoming damage.

Given We Happy Few is a survival game first and foremost (at least in terms of what’s currently on offer; the campaign might change that), there’s a lot of character management at play. You need to keep your character fed, hydrated, rested and healthy in that usual unrealistic survival-game kind of way that makes your character feel like a dignified cat in terms of the frequency requirements of basic needs. Eating, drinking and resting is easy enough, but staying healthy is a bit of a trick. There’s a crafting system, too, which is tied to an inventory with limited slots.

It didn’t take long for my loot-hoarding tendencies to be punished with a full inventory, but I’m not yet at a stage where I know which stuff to ditch and which stuff to keep. After all, when there’s a crafting system, even the filthiest bit of collectable garbage might prove useful later on. On top of this, the map knowledge I’d gleaned from my first play-through was all for naught on attempt number two because that whole fancy ‘procedurally generated’ part meant locations and mission objectives had changed.

There are bridges back into the happier Joy-filled lands, but each has a different challenge for getting past the gate. During my first attempt, I found one that simply wanted honey. Seems easy enough. Except that wasn’t an option for the two bridges I found on my second (and current) play-through. Their requirements are more intricate, like any good open-world game that plays out like a Matryoshka doll in terms of hidden surprises that are found along the way of completing a seemingly straightforward task.

For instance, one bridge wanted me to ‘simply’ insert a charged energy cell. That should be easy, especially considering I had already found an empty cell that just needed charging. But the solution to this puzzle, paradoxically, seemed to be on the other side of the bridge. Fair enough. On to the other bridge!

This one required a pump, but to build the pump I first had to find the blueprints (at least, I think that’s how it works), then I had to collect the parts. To collect the parts, I had to craft a crowbar to break into a specific building of interest, and to make the crowbar, well, you guessed it: I had to collect the appropriate parts. Then there’s the reality that a crafted crowbar won’t fit into a full inventory, so that was another challenge, and on top of that, my crowbar broke after a few practical uses (against boards, not heads).

There’s definitely enough intrigue at play in We Happy Few to make me want to play more, though I’ll likely wait for the final release or, at the very least, the Early Access campaign. Given it’s an Early Access title, We Happy Few has its fair share of bugs: nothing game-destroying, mind you, but enough little technical woes to constantly chip away at otherwise interesting immersion. They’re not enough to tarnish the potential of what’s on offer, it’s just strange that, at least in terms of Early Access, the We Happy Few that’s being sold in the mainstream trailers is different from the game you can play right now.

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