We Happy Few's early access release ended up being a strange reflection of the game itself; life imitating art, so to speak. Compulsion's systems-driven first-person adventure is built around a society addicted to Joy, a substance that forces happiness on the population. We see smiles on faces, but there's something sinister lurking behind each gaze that catches your eye. On the other hand, the game as it was when we last played it had a charming facade and some interesting mechanics, but it felt lacking in key areas, soulless despite all that style and charm. Compulsion hadn't found the fun. Now, after some time out of the firing line of public development thanks to the support of Gearbox Software, it's looking like the game is back on track.
The opening of the original, where leading man Arthur sat in his chic office redacting newspaper articles, is such a strong introduction. It sold us on the faux 1960s setting and brilliantly started us on our journey through this twisted, absurd world. Then things dropped off, and that early promise never really found its feet, despite the interesting ideas that were rolling around in this procedurally generated distortion of rural British society. After having played the game recently in London as part of a pre-E3 showcase event, we were pleased to discover that We Happy Fewhas come along way since last we played it.
There's now a completely new and totally overhauled introduction to the game. We skipped the intro of old and went straight to the section that takes place thereafter. In this new section, instead of exploring an underground base and then popping up into a procedurally generated environment above ground, we started playing through a more purposeful and linear sequence of events that saw us learning how to fight in an arena before discovering the joys of stealth as we infiltrated an old train station.
There's also a much greater emphasis on environmental storytelling this time around, with things that were hinted at in the small print before now writ large on the walls. This is England, certainly, unmistakably even, but this is also an England living under the heel of the Nazi regime. When it comes to winning world wars, in Compulsion's vision of the past, England and Germany are all square, and that's not good news for the Brits. We see numerous references to the events that took place between the war and now, and NPCs outright tell us their stories (we had to rescue someone's war medals during the tutorialised intro, for example) as Compulsion doubles down on narrative.
The story isn't just written on the walls, as there are now short scenes that are unlocked by masks found here and there, explicitly telling us the story of Arthur and his brother Percy. These short scenes are dominated by voice acting and could have been more visually stimulating, but it's still a marked improvement on what was there before in terms of drawing you into events. Eventually, Arthur's story will make way for another (there are three protagonists in all), although events and characters' paths will intersect and different actions will reverberate across multiple story arcs, with actions perceived differently depending on your current perspective.
Elsewhere we were impressed by the improvements made to the stealth mechanics, as now you can see the footprints of NPC patrols, even when they're out of sight. You can distract guards with bottles, Sam Fisher style, and plan your actions based on their movements too. Similarly, vision cones (expressed here as torches fastened to helmets) let us know when patrolling guards are looking in darkened areas. There are even bushes that the player can use to conceal themselves, adding further tactical options to the player's repertoire of sneaky tricks.
We also noted a tidier, more accessible UI, which isn't perhaps as flashy as some of the other changes we mentioned before, but it was a much-needed quality of life improvement that seemingly makes things easier to navigate. We didn't play the early access game extensively, so we can't comment on every subtle change, but on the whole, it did feel a touch more intuitive. That said, it's still quite busy, and perhaps more could be done to streamline things further.
When it comes to early access games, we tend to see slow but incremental changes, and that being the case our reacquaintance with We Happy Few was quite surprising, such is the scale of the overhaul. The last time we wrote about the game we noted that things were getting better following the Clockwork Update, but there was still a question mark hanging over things. Now, however, the studio seems to have taken a more significant step in the right direction. That said, while things have improved there is still a way to go; during our demo we saw a fair few bugs, navigation wasn't always smooth sailing (to be fair, these are the kind of issues you'd expect to see in an early demo), and while the character design was interesting, there didn't seem to be enough variation between NPCs and that could have a detrimental effect on the overall atmosphere. Still, the significant revisions we've just seen suggest an adventure more to our tastes. We Happy Few once again has our attention, and considering our earlier concerns that the game wouldn't come close to fulfiling its potential, that's quite a turnaround.