I had two goals. First, I needed to get some honey so I could pay the guy with an unhealthy obsession with bees at the toll booth. Then, I needed to find both an energy cell and a constable’s badge to escape from Wellington Wells’ slum district.
Finding honey in this village would be tough. Set after an unexplained calamity, the people of the procedurally-generated Wellington Wells drug themselves up with “Joy”, letting them live happy and care-free in an absolutely terrible world. Those who don’t take their Joy and are suffering from the withdrawal, known as “downers”, are cast out and sent to islands full of crumbling buildings and plague, which is where I’ve ended up.
Eventually I found the bees, except they aren’t too hot on the idea of me strolling up to nab a bit of their honeycomb. I’d need protection, and fortunately I have the blueprint for a suit that would make me completely immune to their stings. I’d just need to rummage around for some more supplies before I can craft it. That shouldn’t be too difficult, right?
Fast forward to me hiding under a downer’s bed. A big part of We Happy Few is about keeping up appearances, be it incoherently rambling to the downers or pretending everything is fine and dandy to the drugged-up citizens. When keeping inconspicuous is the plan, tripping over a tin-can alarm and stealing a sowing kit from right under the owner’s nose wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had.
And so here I am under the bed, panicking as my hunger and thirst meters slowly tick down to zero
And so here I am under the bed, panicking as my hunger and thirst meters slowly tick down to zero. Once the coast is clear, I leg it out of the house and snarf down a few rotten mushrooms and chug some water. I’ve now got food poisoning and am having to stop every few seconds to throw up, but that’s fine because I’ve been able to make my bee-proof suit. I’ve got me some honey to grab.
I cautiously inch towards the honeycomb, ready to run away should the suit somehow fail. I slowly, slowly peel the comb out of the tree, and just as I’ve finished I hear a whole load of rather miffed downers. Honey is a rare commodity in the slums, and they’ll stop at nothing to get it. I pull out a flimsy stick to use as a weapon, and manage to beat back a pack of residents before making my escape.
I pop a Joy pill and the world lights up
The next day or so in-game go off without a hitch. I give Bee-Man his honey to allow me to cross the bridge, and I get my first look at the other end of Wellington Wells’ society: the Constables. While downers have stopped taking their Joy, the Constables are still as high as a kite. As long as you behave and act pleasant around them, they’ll idly chat with you through their creepy forced smile masks. But I’m still seen as a downer due to my clothes, and so can’t get close enough to swipe the badge I need. Raggedy-chic might be all the rage with the underclass, but Joy-dosed citizens don’t dig it that much.
After some more scrounging, I manage to patch up a suit enough to make me pass as Joy’d up. Just to be absolutely sure, I pop a Joy pill and the world lights up: rainbows fill the sky, cheerful music wafts through the air, and I have a spring in my step. I’m off my head on drugs, but it’s fine because I can waltz on past the group of Constables. I even steal one of their drinks and give it back to them as a gift to make sure they know I’m happy.
Badge in hand, I saunter back to where I came from… except I’m getting funny looks from the downers. I fit in fine with the Constables, but skipping along like a Care Bear on coke makes the downers incredibly angry. Unfortunately, I also haven’t slept in a while and so my ability to happily skip away from the friendly, murderous villagers is severely impaired. They catch up with me, and before I can do anything about it I have been murdered to death.
We Happy Few features permadeath, so my attempt at escaping Wellington Wells came to an end there and then. My next try was an entirely different experience where I had to find the blueprints and tools needed to fix a water pump system rather than bribe Mr. Bees.
Even in its early access state, We Happy Few is an incredibly engaging game. While there are plenty of comparisons to be made to BioShock due to their alternate history drug-fuelled failed-utopia settings, they don’t go much further than that. While BioShock is a straight-up FPS, We Happy Few plays out much more like an adventure game. Each attempt is an interwoven network of different tasks and goals, and in the four or five attempts I’ve made so far, each have been something new.
Wellington Wells is oozing with backstory, and it feels like what’s given to you through the dialogue is only the tip of the iceberg. The early access build doesn’t include any immediate story past the introduction, but there’s a lot of incidental dialogue and abandoned newspapers to hunt out that give glimpses into a deeply troubled world. It feels almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone: you’re never given quite enough information to get a hold on the situation, and that makes it all the more engrossing.
My biggest concern right now is the permadeath. While it works for games like Sir You Are Being Hunted (which We Happy Few almost feels like a spiritual successor to in a lot of ways), We Happy Few is too based on its narrative for it to really work. Sure, the method of escape plays out differently on each new life, but the dialogue, and that lengthy intro we saw at E3 (which can fortunately be skipped in the new game menu), stay the same every time. The story eventually gets side-lined when you’ve seen it for the 86th time, which is a shame.
Permadeath can be disabled, but that in turn means the choices that have been made in-game feel without consequence. We Happy Few feels like its caught between wanting to tell a BioShock-scale story and its roguelike structure, and I’m not convinced it works to the full benefit of either.
It’s early days for the game, with the full launch not planned until 2017, but I am incredibly positive about We Happy Few having now played it. Having to plow through the story on each try gets frustrating. I swear to god, if I have to hear about that god damn piñata one more time I am going to have to up my dosage of Joy to near-lethal levels.
None-the-less, I really want to uncover exactly what happened to Wellington Wells and tackle the challenges it throws at me as I play and re-play it. Can’t wait to see how early access progresses.
An early access build of the game was supplied by the developer for the purposes of this preview. LPVG’s close friend Jim Sterling provides voice acting for the game in an area inaccessible in the current build, however he was not directly involved in development of the game.