How do you view the world? The inhabitants of We Happy Few’s twisted quasi-England see things pretty differently. That is, as long as they’re taking their Joy – a government sanctioned drug that makes everyone happy. It’s safe to say that the real world is somewhat different to how they perceive it though, and following your character’s freshly-found clarity, escaping from this drug-addled place becomes the key to everything.
Set in an alternate 1960’s, you’re trapped in the procedurally generated town of Wellington Wells, with the Early Access build that goes live today seeing you take control of one of the main characters, Arthur Hastings. Hard at work in the Town Hall using a Redactor machine, you’re approving stories for the newspaper and removing any that are deemed too unhappy. However, after seeing a story featuring you and your brother Percy, your mind begins to reel, with memories washing over you.
Amongst the cacophony you hear the words “When life annoys, top off your Joy”, and you reach for the medicine bottle, at which point the game offers you the choice to not take the Joy and remember what happened, or to take it and return to a state of compliant torpor. I opted to remember.
It’s here that you begin to see the primary method of interacting with the world, as changing your viewpoint alters your options and your context sensitive movement, whether it’s to stand up from a chair or to interact with the machine in front of you. After a brief appearance by an intimidating female colleague, and a stint at finding a new power source for your Redactor, you’re then given a further option, to accept or censor the story about you and your brother.
It was at this point that some paranoia set in; do you censor it to ensure nobody thinks you’ve stepped out of line, or to keep your name out of the headlines, or do you accept it in the hope that it provides some kind of revolutionary spark against what seems to be an oppressive regime? I censored it.
Walking the halls of the town hall you discover that your immediate neighbour, Clive Bertwhistle, is after your office – and its view – and is painting you as a subversive in order to get it. Further down the corridor is Prudence Holmes’ office, a woman that hasn’t returned from her summer holiday, leaving the unsettling scene of bowls of rotting fruit beset by flies, alongside an array of welcome back cards. It seems like she’s also stopped taking her Joy.
You then find Hopkin Jones in his office repeatedly crying out that he’ll take his Joy, while a trenchcoat wearing man forcefully injects him. Moments later Hopkin cheerily waves at you through his window, as his assailant swiftly closes the shutters. It simply begs for you to try and learn more.
Following sounds of laughter, you find your other colleagues about to smash open a colourful piñata, and you’re handed a baseball bat in order to take a swing at it. Take a swing you do, but as your Joy wears off the colour drains from the scene, and you find that instead of candy you’ve covered yourself and your colleagues with the blood and entrails of a giant dead rat. They’re tucking in as you begin to retch – and it’s then that they realise you’re a Downer; someone that’s stopped taking their joy. The authorities swiftly arrive, and in a frantic attempt to escape you’re ultimately brought down by a crushing blow from a policeman. It’s up to this point that the recent E3 reveal led us, with many of the same plot beats.
You somehow awaken in a safe house, albeit one featuring a little old lady that’s hung herself, and it’s here that the rest of the game’s core systems are put to use. You have five character status gauges; health, hydration, satiety, fatigue and Joy levels – which you can continue to take in order to fit in – all of which you have to keep a watchful eye on. Fortunately the safe house includes various materials to help you make a start, which highlights your character’s ability to craft useful items such as lock picks and new clothing from elements you pick up.
Venturing out into the streets, you begin to see the extent of the world laid out in front of you. The early access build that’s releasing today features about 50% of the procedurally generated town, and it’s safe to say that it already feels like a solid and unique landscape. Exploring the map sees you locate points of interest, as well as encounters, while much of your time is spent foraging for materials and keeping yourself alive, and I scurried back and forth from the safe house many times during my session. Played from the first person, all of the combat is melee based, with your character being set upon if people think you’re off your Joy. This is mainly caused by performing suspicious deeds such as stealing from homes, or wearing the wrong clothes, or indeed getting into fights.
Beginning this early release of the game, you’re given the option of turning permadeath on and off, as well as Second Wind which puts your character in a dying state when their health reaches zero rather than dying instantly. As with anything, leaving the permadeath on adds a level of fear and caution to everything you do, and here it certainly helps to amplify the game’s unique tone. Of course, if you die you’ll have to start all over again, and there’s shades of Ubisoft’s Zombi coming through in your drive to survive, with the added wrinkle of the world changing as well.
This early look at the game is darkly comedic, and offers a sinister and oppressive atmosphere unlike anything else. The various elements tie into a twisted amalgam of Fallout, Fable and A Clockwork Orange, and it feels even better than that already sounds. If the overarching narrative is as strong as the opening, this could well be one of the first essential games of 2017.