The first and most obvious comparison to be made regarding We Happy Few is undoubtedly one to Bioshock.
While there are a few sensibilities present that echo other games in feel or motif, there is a seriously unsettling feeling around this alternate England that it wouldn’t be surprising to find that somewhere on this mass of land, there was a lighthouse.
It isn’t hard to suppose that there’s an influence at play, though neither does the game style itself a successor or answer to Irrational’s series.
With the game now available in a preview state, across Xbox One, Steam Early Access and GOG Games in Development, We Happy Few is expected to be a conversation point from now until Compulsion Games complete development.
Aside from the tone, it’s the contraptions of the world that mirror the technological progression of that other series, the allusions to an apparent panacea in Joy, and over-nuanced characters that blend pantomime and violence as readily as the all-too-unhinged denizens of Rapture and Columbia.
The machines follow the way of vacuum tubes and pneumatic delivery, mirroring the interface of a microfiche reader. We are not so happily introduced to a magic pill box on the back of learning something more about our main character, and presented with a choice that mightn’t be, then taken on a tour of the background events in even this corner of the game world.
All characters seem to don faces, pop pills that bring out a five-star smile on their face, and generally do a rousing revue reminiscent somewhere between A Clockwork Orange and the partygoers in Eyes Wide Shut. It all gets a little bit bloody as the prologue draws on.
There is so much more at play in this setting than a mimic of Bioshock though, and even the short prologue brings that in well. As a preview (or alpha, if you will), only a small amount of the story is offered, but you will be introduced to the main character, Arthur Hastings.
Arthur begins at his desk, working, where he has the power to approve or redact a newspaper article, changing the historical narrative to suit the powers that be. Yes as we begin, he is that most powerful of autocrats – an Editor.
Once the prologue is over, players are put inside a safehouse in a remote part of the country, that may or may not be an island. This is where the survival and exploration elements of the game come into play, with some problem solving and quests present.
It’s in this where another similarity could be drawn, though less overt, between We Happy Few and Sir, You Are Being Hunted. The notes paired between the two aren’t played from the plot or even the motif apparent in the game, but in the feel that the environment creates.
That game has players exploring a generated english countryside, finding their way around each time to see how they fare. There are definitely elements of the survival genre, of a procedurally generated world, and even in the desolation found in the environment, all apparent in We Happy Few. That isn’t to say this is the source or that anyone at Compulsion Games was influenced, only that this feels comparable.
There’s already some depth in the crafting and exploration, with a lot of unknowns there and areas or quests still to be discovered. You shouldn’t expect the game’s story to move much further as the developers have indicated they expect the overall story will not be part of the Early Access version, and that it’s likely to stay in early access for the next six-to-twelve months.
Of course as an alpha, there are issues here and there, mostly in regards to audio cutting out or some textures seeming unfinished, but nothing that would stop you spending time with We Happy Few. As the second notable game to hit Xbox’s preview releases (the first being Ark: Survival Evolved), it will be curious to see if this becomes a trend, and hopefully improves the chances of games like this completing development.
What story it does already have is enough for now – enough to put the hooks in and give the world its character, without letting players know too much.
Where the game doesn’t have clear story in the exploration section of the game, it instead supplies attractions such as campfires or tiny settlements, and litters the countryside with places to explore and people to speak to – some of which might break the fourth wall.
As the screens show, it’s already looking picturesque in moments, and is embracing its own style. It will be interesting to see how these change as the game continues being developed, but the strong use of colour in environments already brings so much to the atmosphere, whether at night or day.
What else lies ahead for the game over the next two or three months is a matter for wild guesses or insider knowledge, but as far as an eerie England experience, We Happy Few ought to bring some Joy.