SANTA MONICA, California—It took a few years, but We Happy Few is finally shaping up to play as well as it originally looked.
The 3D adventure game has thus far taken a strange publicity route, as its splashy 2016 reveal was followed by a bizarre early access game launch. Gamers were sold on something that looked like a trippy, story-filled fusion of Bioshock and Brave New World, but the paid, playable version was instead a procedurally generated sneak-and-fight sandbox.
“The problem was, you don’t want to play half-baked story after half-baked story in the early-access process,” Compulsion Games Creative Director Guillaume Provost explained at an E3 preview event. Rather than string early access players along with unfinished plot morsels, the studio chose to give eager players a look at the game’s mechanics first.
“[Compulsion] went quiet eight months ago,” Provost added, after hearing fans’ unanimous request: “We want story.”
The fruits of Complusion’s labor were laid bare in a 45-minute demo that made a few things apparent. First and most importantly, We Happy Few now has an apparently coherent campaign mode. What’s more, the story and its delivery are firmly in Bioshock-loving territory, and that shamelessness is what redeems the whole package.
The story portion that debuted at Ars’ pre-E3 event was admittedly a little hard to follow, owing to its placement roughly 15 minutes after the game’s tone-setting intro. I played as British protagonist Arthur in an alternate-history England of the 1960s, and my avatar had just stopped taking a government-mandated mood stabilizer called “Joy” as I began searching for my lost brother. Honestly, this demo’s slightly disorienting, “where am I?” feeling seemed to be part of the point: we as players were regaining plot consciousness at the same time as Arthur. It didn’t take much suspension of disbelief to fall in line with how the game fed bits of story.
We Happy Few‘s Bioshock comparisons became immediately apparent as story details were meted out in hidden, hand-written letters and environmental details. But the demo’s opening portion serves as a firm reminder that the Bioshock series wasn’t merely successful due to story bits being tucked into a 3D world. Rather, WHF includes an opening series of war-shattered towns and compounds that combine visual and architectural design to goad players into peeling back layers of a story. Books use words to make you turn a page, while WHF uses a mix of open architecture and subtly paced, subtly directed content to fill you in on what’s what.
In one of the most striking parts of the demo, I found myself in the former home of someone who had clearly gotten off his or her mind-altering meds. This tragic scene was eventually marked by scribblings all over the wall, reading in all-caps: “I REMEMBER, OH GOD, I REMEMBER.” Other letters and mementos scattered around the shattered building hinted at this game’s alternate version of post-World War II events, and these details were expanded upon as I moved further through the demo. In a few instances, a combination of psychedelic imagery and apparent hallucinations hinted at the game world’s alternate history—like when hanging bodies briefly appeared in a valley while Arthur remarked upon British life after World War II.
We Happy Few‘s new “20-hour” campaign appears to hinge largely on the various ways a culture moves on in the wake of a tragedy, though it’s hard to say whether its gameplay mechanics will tie directly into this messaging. The portion I played was familiar first-person sneak-and-fight stuff, especially as I learned how to crouch-walk, toss distracting objects, and choke apparent baddies from behind. The game’s incomplete pause menus showed how to augment Arthur’s abilities and craft new weapons, accessories, and items—and you’ll want to thoroughly pick through WHF‘s nooks and crannies to find useful materials and blueprints (which is one way the demo organically guided me through its best show-don’t-tell story beats).
WHF‘s opening map is smothered with purple-and-blue skies, foliage-overgrown buildings, and an intriguing variety of opulence, wreckage, and elaborate buildings both above- and below-ground. Honestly, it all looks and plays like a Bioshock fan tribute, and that’s high praise. But that praise is particularly specific, and it also leaves WHF vulnerable to any possible breaks in story logic or character development. If the game doesn’t pull out any further gameplay mechanics or Joy-fueled tweaks, then the story will be the hill that Compulsion lives or dies on.
So far, at least, this new demo makes clear that Compulsion has at least crafted such a hill—and we’re now eager to climb it once the game launches in “summer 2018” on Windows PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
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