Remember the initial buzz surrounding We Happy Few when it was revealed at E3 a few years back? Chatter in the days that followed seemed to unanimously praise the atmosphere and set dressing of the unnervingly cheerful world. Many even compared it to Bioshock, perhaps unfairly — they didn't invent dystopian fiction, after all. Still, it was a highlight of the on-stage show for many. Then the game hit Xbox's early access program, Game Preview, and the difference between what we saw and what we played was stark, to say the least. What looked to be a linear, story-driven thriller was, in fact, a survival game, possessing all the mechanics one would expect, and not much story content at all — or polish for that matter.
Flash forward two years and I had personally not revisited my Game Preview copy of We Happy Few in the time since it first launched. But as Microsoft announced on stage last week their acquisition of Compulsion Games, I was motivated to see what they continued to see in the game and studio. I got to play an hour of what turns out is We Happy Few after a major facelift. That feels appropriate, doesn't it?
Early in my demo I asked the narrative director if I was misremembering or if it was actually vastly different. He confirmed it had been given a huge makeover and what I was comparing in my head was the original build made by seven people and the current build made by 40. The survival elements are still intact but they no longer demand as much attention. The earliest build put a lot of pressure on players to contend with vitals. You'll still manage not just health but hunger and sleep, however they seemed almost scripted, like hunger and sleep would be uninvolved except for the more open exploration moments. It should be noted that I'm not sure if it really works this way. It merely seemed to, but I could be wrong.
Visually the game looks nicer now too. The open world of the slums on the outside of Wellington Wells (a not at all creepy name for a town) are meant to depict the downtrodden lives of those who have been cast out of their drugged-up, phony society, but there was an extra layer to the ugliness brought on by the game's simple and bland textures and colors. Now the world looks ugly in the intended ways.
The best parts of this new-look We Happy Few are the structure and pacing of the experience. As before the game had you often running around large open areas fighting to overcome the roguelite elements that many didn't anticipate, now it looks much more like what one would expect. Much of my demo had me following a set path, the story playing out beat by beat, with stealth, melee combat, and crafting mixed in regularly. There was also a plethora of notes and documents left behind for me to read, helping flesh out the game's greatest asset: its setting. Ironically, it's now more like BioShock than ever before given all these changes. Some more open sections were present too, but at least in this demo they weren't meant to be the focus.
Put on a happy face.
The story still follows Arthur as he fights to remember his brother and resist taking his literal happy pills, Joy. Now he comes across more characters on his journey, in a narrative with much better pacing — before the game really lacked any pacing — and it feels like he has an actual objective other than the game's directive to just survive as best you can.
For those looking for just a more polished open-world survival game, We Happy Few seems to no longer be that. It's more polished, but along the way it became something different. But I think it's safe to say most people wanted it to be what it now looks like, a story-driven dystopian tale in a world oozing with character and atmosphere. Compulsion has assured interested players that the game will still see a multiplatform release on August 10th.
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