Since We Happy Few was removed from Early Access earlier this year, it's undergone a major transformation from a survival game with touches of story to a linear, story-driven game with touches of survival game mechanics. After spending an hour with the latest version of We Happy Few, I worry the changes are still not enough. Its alt-history take on 1960s England is so stylish and well-realized, especially with all the new characters and quiet set pieces, that the remaining survival game systems feel like leftovers from their own alternate history.
Small town life
I wade through the tall grass of the slums, a community left to its own devices on the outskirts of the fictional English city of Wellington Wells, where a society lives on hallucinogenic drugs in an alt-history take on the outcome of World War 2. But out here, if I'm caught wearing a nice suit or taking Joy (the drugs), the locals will chase me down with sharp sticks and poke me to death. I actually have to tear my clothes up via a crafting menu to placate them. The ruling class isn't a kind one, I'm thinking.
One abandoned, dilapidating home—they all look this way out here—glows in the low evening light. Inside I find toys piled on rotting mattresses. Three floors of shrines, and no sign of life. The kids are gone, it seems, likely in a camp or school dozens of miles away. Another home, this one without light, is somewhat intact. I find letters to the editor on each floor expressing disgust with an increasing presence of authoritarianism, the state of affairs of this empty village clearly the product of a militarized force tightening their grip. On the third floor I find the authors hanging from the rafters.
We Happy Few is overflowing with these quiet (and grim) storytelling touches now, filling in the history of its world while characterizing the small people and big powers at play. The three playable characters are fully voiced, and regularly comment (a bit too often) on how they're feeling or what they see. Floating gold masks are hidden in some areas, and when you approach a small black and white vignette plays out from the lead character's perspective as a child near the end of World War 2. The Germans win in this timeline, but don't expect the usual Nazi bad guys.
Think of the new structure of We Happy Few like this: what was initially a roguelike set in procedurally generated survival game biomes is now a linear adventure game strung out along a series of connected, procedurally generated biomes.
The slums is one such area, a sprawling meadow with overgrown houses nearing collapse, and a few corners of the area populated by locals. The suit-haters didn't mind me much, but an outpost in the northwest corner carries far more threatening occupants. Surrounded by a spiked wooden fence, I need to infiltrate the outpost and steal some supplies in order to get help from a fellow among the suit-haters. If I find his old war medals, he's promised to help me get closer to Wellington Wells.
I sneak around the back of the outpost only for a guard to take me by surprise. I wake up in the fighting pit, a crowd of bandits that look something like spiked-everything Mad Maxers with an insistence for nice haircuts and clean trousers. A gate separates me from Danny Defoe, who I recognize far too long after he recognizes me. Apparently, before things went to shit, he plagiarized something my character, a former reporter, had written and I told on the guy. He has some grievances to air, and I have some forgiveness to find.
I'm offered two tools to complete my task, and the same goes for Defoe: a club wrapped tightly with soft cloth or a very pointy stick. I grab the pillow club and Defoe grabs the spear. I must've been a real dick back when. I club him unconscious, which is an involuntary brand of forgiveness, I suppose. More attackers arrive to subdue me, but I beat them into tiny, crumpled piles of forgiveness too. Luckily, the combat is simple—maybe too simple. You can block, swing, charge up a heavy swing, and kick opponents to break their block.
The stamina meter governs how much swinging and blocking and sprinting you're capable of before needing to back off and recharge, which itself is governed by your character's well-being. If you're too hungry, tired, or injured, your max stamina will shrink. Combat is easy to pick up, but just as clumsy and shallow as it is in Skyrim—at least early on.
None of it's a problem until I finish off the remaining thugs and attempt an escape. I'm starting to get hungry and all I have is dozens of rotten carrots. What a wonder that the guards can't smell the fermenting garbage collecting in my pants. To get out I'll need to sneak by some guards in the dark, damp tunnels of the old bunker using basic stealth rules: don't be too loud, avoid light and vision cones, and throw objects to distract guards. The AI is pretty basic, so my escape is a breeze, up until I get too confident. Sneak up on a baddie and you can choke them out, though be careful or you'll generate too much noise. I perform this mistake once I get to the surface, and three guards attack me right away. I've managed to keep my pillow bludgeon intact and build my own pointy stick, so with enough patience and poking I murder them with ease. Weapons will break after enough use, so stealth will likely be the only option in cases where I'm strapped for supplies.
Now I'm back out in the open meadow of the village ruins again, but without food and no idea where to find any. I figure my character would forage in empty houses and near verdant collections of vegetation, and it pays off. Eventually I find old jerky (not rotten) near a dying fire, thankful my aimless fetch quest is over. Back to exploring, hopefully without hunger as a constant irritation.
Survival systems like hunger, thirst, and sleep deprivation still exist, but they're not directly connected to your health. Ignoring these systems for the entire game is possible, and none of them will kill you, but they'll significantly debuff your max stamina and stamina recovery.
Digging through drawers and corpses to find scraps of food and salvage were my least favorite parts of Bioshock, and it's no more exciting in We Happy Few. Finding crafting items and food act as small tethers to unexplored areas, but the bespoke environments and embedded stories should be incentive enough. I'd rather look up at the people hanging in the rafters (gruesome as it sounds) than give the desk below them priority, and I'd rather feel more directly threatened by the world and the people in it than through abstract hunger systems and item scarcity.
Thematically, We Happy Few's new incarnation approaches the character and quality of a Bioshock or Dishonored while playing like the inverse. In those games, you're a lithe, powerful hero. In We Happy Few, you play as a helpless nobody. I'm happy to be a nobody, I just wish there was a way to express your helplessness and struggle to survive that was as fun or complex as chaining plasmids is in Bioshock or combining abilities is in Dishonored.
As it stands, We Happy Few borrows simple, mundane crafting systems from full-on survival games to express your fragility and desperation in an oppressive world. At least most of the survival elements will be customizable, or totally eliminated by playing on easy. But with so many survival games leaving Early Access that frame hunger, thirst, sleep, and so on around the same chore-like checklisting, I'd rather see We Happy Few try something completely new that didn't distract from such an intriguing world.