Impressions: We Happy Few delivers a compelling survival experience in a world of infinite possibility

We Happy Few has finally hit early access on multiple platforms, and although it's undeniably still in the early stages of development, this particular drug-addled survival experience is one of the most promising games of 2016. I spent hours exploring the British town of Wellington Wells – scraping out an existence alongside downers and prophets alike, crafting weapons from sticks and rocks, and shattering precious shovels alongside the skulls of hapless enemies while trying to trade honey for access to another plague ridden section of town. In short, having a wonderful time as the mysterious world of Wellington unfolded before my eyes.

Yet in all my exploration, through quests and deaths, flowers and starvation, I barely even scratched the surface of what We Happy Few has to offer. And considering the game is still in the early stages of development, I can't wait to see what Compulsion Games adds over the next several months before the game's final release.

A Better Depression With Joy

By now many of you have already heard the primary motivation behind We Happy Few's characters. “Joy” is a drug that the current establishment is using to control the populace’s emotions, putting them in a perfectly happy frame of mind, and blotting out the horrors and realities of their lives after an unknown event renders the world under the thumb of a murderous primary authority. Joy is love, Joy is life. But stop taking your Joy and you become a downer, suddenly able to see and understand the Orwellian state of affairs all around you, which inevitably drives you insane. Or maybe that's the withdrawal symptoms…or just the way you are. The details are a bit sketchy on that note.

For now you step into the shoes of Arthur Hastings, a recently turned downer that must learn to survive and hide his Joyless existence as he explores the outer reaches of Wellington before making his way back into the city itself, and eventually finding his way to freedom. Supposedly. I wasn't able to, but that doesn't mean it won't some day be possible.

The challenge is in the rather brutal survival system that forces the player to cram questionable food into Arthur’s gullet that's either safe, rotten, or packed with enough Joy to give a Crocodile a smile, along with water and various other pills that do the same thing. You'll need to eat, sleep, avoid the plague, and drink plenty of bubbly if you want to avoid being spotted as a downer, or if you're just interested in that little ol' thing called survival.

Helping you along the way are a steady stream of items scavenged throughout the game's world that you can craft into a variety of useful gadgets and gizmos - from your humble pointy stick, to jimmy bars, and even the occasional tear gas spewing mechanical duck.

Make Your Own Escape

Being dropped into Wellington's world is a lot like being dropped into a garden maze, one that changes every time you start a new game, and that's full of mad hatters mocking you and at times beating you to death for refusing to take part in their tea party.

It's a dangerous world, and Compulsion Games isn't the type to gently guide the player through the narrative. You'll need to carefully search out the story, piece it together from bits and pieces of newspaper articles, letters, and the angry shouting of radio casters ranting away over your struggles. The closest thing you'll have to a safety net is the choice of whether to enable perma-death or not (hats off to those that do, but be prepared to restart often as you learn the ropes).

Simultaneously, Compulsion Games expects you to learn this world before you can become a part of it. You'll encounter hundreds of strange and unique situations, and often the only way to learn the right way and the wrong way is after numerous variations of trial and error.

Five seconds after I succeeded in leaving the first island by paying a toll taken in honey (and the blood of the bandits that tried to nab it from me), I came across a small cross and a body at the entrance to the city. The signs spelled out very clearly that I shouldn't touch the corpse, that I should beware of the plague, and that the hallucinogenic mushrooms I now had a small and hopefully useful pile of in my inventory would kill anyone that ate them.

Naturally, I ignored every bit of advice plastered across all the signs and immediately went about checking the pockets of the deceased, ignoring the small cries of Arthur begging the dead for forgiveness. I had needs, I needed to eat, and I needed supplies to keep building pointy sticks so I could defend myself from both the other downers as well as the guards that walloped me in the head minutes after I began the game.

For my troubles, I was immediately rewarded with another of the small mushrooms (plucked from the mouth of the diseased corpse) and my own deliciously angry plague-ridden infection. I'm not proud of what I did next. In my panic, I assumed that the plague was going to kill me immediately, so I plopped the hallucinogenic mushroom in Arthur's mouth, hoping that the warnings about the mushrooms were some kind of context clue hinting that it would somehow save my life and cure the status effect.

I'm fairly certain at this point I heard Compulsion Games’ whispering laugh echo in the distance. It's not clear which of my poor choices killed me first, but seconds later Arthur collapsed to the ground dead as a stone (or “off on Holiday” as the newspaper prefers to call it). We Happy Few isn't messing around, and the developers expect you to apply common sense as well as uncommon insanity to any problem you encounter in Wellington Wells.

Luckily I was playing in baby mode, allowing my character to restore back to a previous checkpoint, which in this case was where I was still plague ridden but had apparently yet to eat the poisonous and seemingly deadly mushroom.

A Brave New World

As it stands right now, most of the game's mechanics are perfectly functional, from crafting and melee combat, to stealth and quests. Even the massively diverse, procedurally generated world seems to work right out of the box, although not without its fair share of bugs. But that’s definitely to be expected in such an early alpha version of the game. 

Enemies that throw rocks are severely overpowered, tossing them like machine guns at times, and occasionally getting stuck just out of reach in the environment so that you're helpless to avoid the hail of stony death as you attempt to drag your bloody corpse away. You'll no doubt find a bug here and there with a quest that's impossible to complete, and every once in a while you'll find yourself stuck in a chunk of environmental clutter and forced to spam the jump and sprint buttons until the ruined building releases its tight grip on your knickers.

Despite this, exploring We Happy Few's dystopian world is fun in a way that few games manage to deliver. Even after several hours dying, starving, and occasionally murdering on the streets of Wellington, I'm still interested in going back, in attempting to drag my plague-ridden version of Arthur a little deeper into this society. That's invigorating in a gaming world so oversaturated with first person shooters and competitive multiplayer games that the average RPG can't elbow enough room into the spotlight to take a breath, much less say a few words. We Happy Few raps everyone stoutly across the head with a cane, and demands your attention and your time like it's the only natural solution in the world.

For an early access game, We Happy Few is off to an extremely promising start, and can only get better as Compulsion Games continues to iron out the flaws and make something truly unique.