Taking crazy pills: We Happy Few preview

“Happy people have no history.” – Leo Tolstoy

This chilling quote opens the We Happy Few demo and immediately sets the tone for what is shaping up to be one of the most shocking and narratively brutal games I’ve seen in years. We Happy Few tells a twisted tale of conspiracy and illusion; things in this world aren’t as they seem, and We Happy Few is a fascinating story about how far people will go for false happiness. If my brief hands-on time with the E3 demo is any indication, this is just the beginning of a thread that I can’t wait to unravel.

The demo begins with the same opening sequence seen during Microsoft’s E3 presentation. Set in an alternate, dystopian 1964 England in which World War II has been lost, players are cast as a man named Arthur who, after stumbling upon an old newspaper article about his deceased brother, secretly decides to go off his meds in search of the truth. Known as ‘Joy’, these pills help to create an illusion of happiness in this society, but it’s only after prolonged absence from the drug that Arthur sees how grim the actual world around him is. After cracking open a piñata – which turns out to actually be a dead rat – causes him to vomit, Arthur is labeled as a ‘Downer’ and finds himself on the run, out to find the answers behind the false lifestyle in front of him while trying to survive from the brainwashed townspeople of Wellington Wells.

Have you taken your Joy today?

Have you taken your Joy today?

The gameplay demo picks up hours later when Arthur awakens in a bunker. These underground chambers will act as safe houses and provide Arthur with opportunity to recuperate between visits to town. Having moments of peace to regather yourself will be vital to progression. We Happy Few plays as a roguelike, giving the game a random element alongside all of the micromanagement that usually accompanies the genre. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion and joy must all be maintained throughout the game to keep Arthur in healthy physical and mental condition. Keeping even one of these properties above or below its optimal level can cause detrimental gameplay effects, such as weaker strength for fighting and running, and juggling all of these properties feels like it’s going to be a daunting task that adds great weight and consequence to We Happy Fews’ decisions.

Stepping outside of the bunker and into Wellington Wells reveals the tragic and dilapidated state that this society finds itself in. Buildings are falling apart, filth and litter line the streets, and Joy checkpoints can be found every few blocks, causing hurdles for players who can’t maintain a proper level of medication.

The sad state of Wellington Wells.

The sad state of Wellington Wells.

But the real kicker is going to be navigating the streets without drawing the attention of townspeople. Arthur can approach the ragged and drugged out people of Wellington Wells, and even engage in conversation with them, but maintaining a façade as one of them will be crucial to keeping your cover. Actions such as looting bodies or wandering into restricted areas will turn all nearby citizens hostile, leaving the player to fight or flee. Even the clothes you wear in certain sections of town can reveal you, making the level of commitment to We Happy Fews’ ability to hide in plain sight quite deep.

As far as combat goes, while I only got into one major brawl during the demo, it already seems clear that fighting is going to feel like a last resort, and should seemingly be avoided at all costs. Throwing punches is as easy as pulling the triggers on your controller, but even a fight against four violent townspeople left me significantly worse for wear, despite picking up a fallen enemy’s destructible lead pipe mid-fight. Maintaining vitals is already going to be difficult, but a single ill-timed skirmish could cause your whole gameplay session to collapse.

Combat should be avoided whenever possible.

Combat should be avoided whenever possible.

There’s still so much more to We Happy Few that I’m anxious to discover. What exactly happened to Arthur’s brother, Percy? Are there other Downers out there who can assist in Arthur’s quest? And what caused this awful hallucination to spiral out of control? If this early demo is any indication, We Happy Few is going to be a thrilling narrative adventure that I’m dying to know more about. A fascinating concept, creepy settings, and difficult, randomized gameplay are just a few of the appealing qualities that I can’t wait to discover more of.

We Happy Few will be available on Steam Early Access and the Xbox Game Preview programs starting July 26th. For more on We Happy Few, as well as all of our E3 coverage, check back to Gaming Trend.

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