Hands-On Preview: We Happy Few – Brave New Psychedelic World

on May 1, 2016 12:00 PM

After emerging from an underground shelter with a bed and supplies, Compulsion Games’ We Happy Few thrusts players into a world that’s both disarmingly colorful and vibrant, and at the same time unnerving, making players tense in their struggle to survive the psychedelic streets of Wellington Wells.

We first had an opportunity to check out the game at last year’s PAX East and enjoyed its drugged-out trip so much, we went back to check out the game once more and see what a year’s difference has done. Luckily, one year later, Wellington Wells is still just as creepy as it is charming, but with plenty of new additions and changes that will certainly make We Happy Few a title to look out for later this year.

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Of course, that was helped by the game’s booth at PAX East (and one of my favorites of the convention), as I walked into an eery, minimal white-walled booth adorned with masks worn by the drugged-out citizens of Wellington Wells, naked mannequins, and bowls of colorful candies that not only creeped me out, but perfectly fit with the style and themes of the game. We Happy Few lures players in with a colorful, picturesque world of vibrant cheer and charm, but pretty quickly it starts to reveal something far uglier underneath all the sunshine and happiness.

We Happy Few is primarily a survival game, where players awaken from underneath the town of Wellington Wells and seek a way to escape its drug-addled citizens and oppressive walls. Set in a retro-futuristic version of London, We Happy Few takes the mechanics of survival games (e.g., having to manage your character’s thirst, hunger, and other stats) with a vibrant, psychedelic flavor of the 1960’s, with the developers having mentioned influences in last year’s demo from pieces like 1984Brave New World, and even some flair taken from Austin Powers.

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Once having left the confines of their underground bunker, players will have to explore the streets (and beyond) in Wellington Wells to find supplies like food, water, weapons, and equipment to not only defend themselves against its crazed citizens, but to survive as long as possible to find an escape route. Of course, finding and getting said supplies often comes down to having to scrounge and steal from the homes of Wellington Wells’ citizens, creating a balancing act in tension between playing nice with the townies and getting them quite upset at your thievery.

The crux of the gameplay in We Happy Few comes down to managing your own resources, stats, and supplies while also finding ways to survive inside Wellington Wells and its deranged citizens. From there, the game gives plenty of options for players to go their own way. Last year, I tried brute forcing my way by getting aggressive against citizens (leading to my death), where this time around I find much greater success by taking a stealthier approach and being less inclined towards combat.

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However, its roots with books like 1984 and Brave New World go way deeper than just looks, as the game also heavily encourages “conformity” and players to find ways to “blend in” with the citizens of Wellington Wells, rather than instigate conflicts with them. Everything from how you act to how you look influences how the citizens will react toward you. In the case of my demo, I found that out quickly when entering a more affluent part of Wellington Wells. At the suggestion of a Compulsion games staff member, by switching into a nice suit (rather than my torn-up outfit that I was previously wearing) I immediately got the citizens off my radar a bit longer, instead of being swarmed by an angry mob like I had previously.

Though there are a lot of familiar elements that some may find from other games in the current craze of the “survival” genre (such as crafting and managing hunger/thirst), We Happy Few wraps those elements up with its alluring visual themes and aesthetic that feels ripped right from a 1960s ad or a TV commercial. Somehow, We Happy Few has a compelling mix of charm, humor, and creepiness with its bright, vivid colors and the unrelenting feeling that you’re always being watched. I wouldn’t necessarily consider it “scary” in the same way as I did with something like Outlast II during my time at PAX East, but I could certainly feel the tension of the Wellington Wells citizens always watching, and it made me both quick to react and feel a palpable sense of dread that I had to do things quickly, and quietly, to avoid detection.

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Compared to my demo at last year’s event, the current build at PAX East certainly gave more of an impression behind the underlying story that players will touch on in We Happy Few. What we saw in the demo was brief – basically a fetch quest in having to defend a specific NPC and return him to safety from a pack of drug-addled fiends – it at least gave some impression that We Happy Few will definitely have some narrative behind it, even with its main gameplay hooks being its survival elements (mixed with procedurally-generated environments that make up Wellington Wells).

In just a year’s time between demos, a lot has changed in my time with We Happy Few. Yet, re-visiting Wellington Wells, nothing has altered what made me so invested in trying out the game and wanting to explore it once more at this year’s PAX East. With its twisted and weird (but really inspired) setting and mechanics, We Happy Few is just about one of the most delightfully bizarre titles that I’ve had the chance to play during an event. Though it’s clear the game is still pretty early on (with a beta set to debut this summer), I clearly haven’t popped enough happy pills inside Wellington Wells and can’t wait to get my hands on more with We Happy Few.

We Happy Few is currently in development for Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux – a beta period for the game is expected to debut in June 2016.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.
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