After a slightly underwhelming launch into early access, Compulsion has just dropped a major update for We Happy Few.
Plucked from the lines of Shakespeare's Henry V, We Happy Few isn't a rousing re-enactment of the battle of Agincourt, but rather a twisted and politically charged exploration of contemporary themes viewed through the lens of an alternate past.
Straight away you'll notice that it looks fantastic. Stylistically speaking, we're struggling to think of a recent game that has impressed us this much. Ori and the Blind Forest maybe? Dishonored 2 or Overwatch? It's up there in good company if you judge it purely on its striking design. There's visual influence drawn from the Fable series no doubt, but there's something else at work here, the gangly limbs reminding of the animations from the brilliant Monty Python, the sinister faces recalling A Clockwork Orange. Considering reference points like these, you can begin to appreciate just how very British this game is in terms of style, and to an extent, its execution.
The concept centres on a sinister mask wearing population, all of whom pop happy pills called Joy, and who label anyone that doesn't as a Downer. It starts off with a bang, with the player sitting in the shoes of Arthur Hastings and censoring old news paper clippings, making them fit for public consumption, removing any hint of negativity before either approving or rejecting the pages and sending them on their way in capsules via a pneumatic tube system. It's a poignant and polished opening that does a great job of setting the scene and placing you in the world.
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This is undoubtedly the past, but thanks to the stylish reinterpretation of 1960s little England, it also feels exceedingly different. Perhaps part of the skewed vision comes as the result of one culture's heritage being reinterpreted and twisted by observers based in another. We've been exploring '60s-decorated 17th century architecture - the quintessential postcard village - with some areas resplendent and unbearably cheerful, while others lay in ruins, walls crumbling all around.
We've been playing both before and after the release of the Clockwork Update, which has just landed on both PC and Xbox One, bringing with it a raft of changes to all facets of the game. Most notably, your old save won't work and it's time to start again from scratch. We lost a couple of hours of progress, but it was no crying shame, as the tweaks and alterations were much needed and our impression of the game pre-update was that it lacked the substance that its high quality presentation otherwise deserved.
The initial opening is largely untouched, but once you've met the coppers in the subway tunnel at the end of the intro sequence, they've tied up a loose end, and you're greeted by a much improved opening area. It's bigger, less cluttered, and offers a more natural base for Arthur to explore the world above.
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On the surface there's a lot going on. Or at least, it looks like there is. The streets are full of inaccessible buildings, and once we'd realised that this applied to most places, the world started to feel smaller than it actually was. NPCs of varying importance and interest wander the streets, looking either lost, starved, crazed, or a mixture of the three. Most of them don't have much to say, unless your general state of being at that moment in time offends their eyes. For example, as we discovered quite by accident, if you walk around without any clothes on, the locals will try and beat the crap out of you.
You can either run or fight when things turn sour. Plain ol' fisticuffs sees you running out of energy pretty quickly, and the worst you'll do to your opponent is knock them unconscious, whereas if you hit them with a weapon plucked from the world around you (a makeshift club of some kind. for example) then you'll be a murderer in no time at all. People will chase you for trespassing, or killing their friends, but not for very long, and running away isn't particularly challenging, certainly in the more rundown areas.
More difficult is managing your health. Survival dominates the player-driven narrative, and you need to regularly eat and drink to keep yourself tickety boo. If you're desperate you can chomp on the rotten food found/stolen from the world around you, but it won't sustain you for long, and it might make you poorly (which in turn requires you medicate yourself). Sleep's another thing worth keeping on top of, and if you're tired you'll find yourself with less spring in your step.
The system for managing your various objectives in the world feels more streamlined now, but perhaps there's also an element of familiarity helping us on this front, because at first, like the UI in general, it wasn't particularly intuitive and it took a while to get to grips with crafting and resource management. The changes made for the Clockwork Update certainly feel positive, and whereas before it felt like fantastic concept that needed a lot of work (it still does), now it feels like it's headed in the right direction.
There's still much to be done if We Happy Few is going to live up to the promise it undoubtedly holds, but after this month's major update, we're much more positive about its chances of actually becoming the game that we want it to be. A unique premise and distinctive style certainly makes this stand out from the crowd, and if Compulsion can add a mixture of mechanics and narrative elements that match the quality of the setting, then We Happy Few could turn out to be a phenomenal game. It's a big "if" though, because weaving authored experiences into a procedurally-generated world in an enjoyable and engaging way is easier said than done. We look forward to coming back and seeing how they've done when it's content complete.