One of the first things I did in We Happy Few — which launches today as an early access game on Xbox One, Steam, and GOG — was eat an apple. My character needed food, and it was the only option I had. It also happened to be rotten, and eating it caused the game’s world to warp in a disturbing, nauseating fashion. I wasn’t hungry anymore, but I now had food poisoning — but like in much of We Happy Few, the solution was drugs. Take the right pill and everything is better.
We Happy Few is a survival game set in a retrofuturistic, alternate reality English town called Wellington Wells, a place that’s cute and dystopic in equal parts. Think quaint 1960s English village meets a Fallout-inspired urban decay; ruined homes sit nicely alongside colorful gardens. You may remember the game from the excellent trailer at E3 in June, which showed a character who spends his days combing through old newspapers in order to redact unhappy stories that might upset the general population. Every so often he pops a pill. Eventually he realizes that those drugs he’s been taking — called “joy” — are some kind of hallucinogen, that hide a dark, oppressive world under layers of cheer and charm.
The version of We Happy Few that’s out today — which is unfinished, but will be continually updated until the full release next year — lets you play through that same sequence featured in the trailer, but doesn’t go beyond that story-wise. You won’t be gaining many new insights into the world or how it got that way. Instead, the focus is on the survival portion of the experience. Once you finish that sequence you’re thrust into Wellington Wells without much in the way of guidance. You start out in a safe house that has a few supplies — some bandages, bits of metal that can be turned into a lock pick — but from there you’re on your own.
Like most survival games, We Happy Few forces you to keep track of a myriad of factors in order to keep yourself alive. You need to eat food and drink water, as well as find places to sleep when you’re tired. If you get sick, you can either wait for some time to pass — resulting in the hallucinogenic experience I had — or take a pill to sort yourself out. You also have health, of course, which goes down if the other residents of Wellington Wells attack you. And they probably will, because in order to get all of the things you need — food, medicine, scraps you can cobble into weapons — you’ll need to do a lot of scrounging and stealing. It’s a grim place that forces you to do whatever is necessary to survive, whether that’s eating rotten food or robbing a stranger in hopes of finding what you need. You can also just sit down on a bench and read the paper if you really want to.
Wellington Wells is a procedurally generated town — that is, it’s different each time you play — and at present it’s mostly filled with grumpy townsfolk who like to swear and ask for things, but will generally leave you alone if you don’t bother them. (Developer Compulsion Games says that the city “will continue to expand as development progresses.”) And while the current version of the game doesn’t have a proper narrative in place, you’ll still have a number of missions and quests to take on if you want. Some of these are small, like finding pills to help a man who can’t stop vomiting, or taking the risk to open a locked box that is clearly a trap. Others are much larger — I’m still in the process of trying to gather the right parts to repair what seems to be a bridge out of town.
These are all mostly fun, if simple, and there’s a nice tension between trying to explore as much as possible while also making sure that you don’t die of thirst or get too tired to properly function. It’s especially tense if you turn on permanent death, meaning you’ll have to start the game over from scratch if you die. There are also some great dynamic moments; at one point I got into a fistfight with a stranger because I was taking too long filling my canteen at a water pump (at least I think that’s why he punched me). In essence the early access version of the game shows that most of the nuts and bolts are in place — systems like combat work just fine, and the crafting appears to have a good amount of depth. But it also highlights just how important narrative will be for the final product. Without the impetus of learning more about this bizarre, fascinating world, I found myself getting bored after a few hours. Just staying alive wasn’t enough of a hook, and I quickly ran out of interesting things to do.
Of course, there’s plenty of time to add all of that in, as We Happy Few isn’t expected to be complete until some time next year. This early version is mostly just a taste — it gives you an idea of the world, and what exactly you’ll be doing while you’re in it. What’s available at present may not be enough to keep you busy for long, but it shows the game is on the right track, and it’s a solid foundation to build on with future updates.
And if you get bored, you can always pop a few joy and see what happens.