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We Happy Few is a Brave New Survival Sim with Rapturous Overtones | Preview

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From the trailer showing off the intro to We Happy Few during Microsoft’s press conference at E3 this year, you would think that the alt-history survival game from Compulsion Games looked a lot like an anglicized version of BioShock–a bizarre and unnerving survival horror, with influences ranging from Huxley to Orwell, to classic British TV series “The Prisoner.”

However, although We Happy Few certainly takes its cues from classic dystopian literature and films, it’s not quite the game that the tightly scripted intro suggests that it is.

The opening repeats what was shown in the E3 demo, taking players to an alternative 1960s Britain under the thrall of a mood altering drug called Joy, pushed by an Orwellian government to help the populace forget “the very bad thing that happened.” If you think of the nightmarish visage of a society where the only thing on TV is The Good Life, you won’t go far wrong.

In the fictional town of Wellington Wells, you start the game playing as Arthur, a government censor working to protect the populace from anything that would make them unhappy or help them remember. During another busy day in the office redacting, an odd thing happens. His usually bright surroundings begin to dim and the world around him becomes almost grey. The usually chipper atmosphere of the place suddenly begins to feel somewhat unnerving. Something isn’t right and he wonders whether it’s his pills that’s causing this. At this point, he decides to stop taking his meds, and after a horrific incident involving an office party and a piñata, all hell breaks loose and Arthur is forced to go on the run.

After this fantastic opener, Arthur awakes to find himself in an underground safe house hidden in the sewers of a run-down ghetto in an area of the town where the citizens that have stopped taking their Joy. It’s at this point that We Happy Few’s true nature is revealed. It isn’t a carefully scripted, linear action adventure in a similar mold to BioShock at all.

In reality, it’s a survival sim set in procedurally generated areas. You have objectives (the ultimate aim being to escape from Wellington Wells), and will stumble across side quests known as encounters, but during moment to moment play there is just as much focus on scavenging for supplies, crafting tools, and weapons, and trying to stave off hunger, thirst, and exhaustion as there is on completing objectives and pushing the story forward.

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As such, you’ll spend a lot of the early game just trying to keep yourself fed, rested, and watered, keeping in relatively close proximity to your safehouse in order to get a good night’s sleep.

The starting area is a desolate bombed-out hamlet, left to decay complete with weed-filled garden squares, cracked pavements, and muttering Downers (citizens off their meds) guarding their few meager possessions or ranting about god knows what.

Problem is, the survival aspects of the game are no fun at all. Your water, food, and sleep gauges deplete at a ridiculous rate and it’s entirely possible to die of hunger or thirst, and when either meter is completely depleted the screen becomes so blurry and disorientating you may as well just wait for the inevitable. This forces you to keep focused on the boring day to day stuff and that gets in the way of engaging with the best part of the experience – We Happy Few’s distinctive and unnerving world.

The game’s stealth systems are decidedly hit-and-miss with citizens are either completely ignoring you or going absolutely mental at the drop of a hat, while combat sees you trying to fend off groups of crazed citizenry with pointy sticks, cricket bats and, if you’re unlucky enough to come across a Bobbie, a bloody great truncheon.

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Luckily, you can toggle permadeath (I would recommend turning it off) as well as enable a second-wind feature when you’re close to death (keep it on), because you don’t deftly counter blows like you would in something like Condemned, so much as flail wildly in the direction of the mob and hope for the best. This results in you dying a hell of a lot, though maybe trying to take on mobs with little more than a winning smile and a stick is a bad idea in a world where everyone seems to want you dead as soon as they realize that you’re different in some way.

However, after a couple of hours in Wellington Wells, We Happy Few begins to develop a slightly better sense of pace, as main missions, like crossing the bridge to escape back to the more affluent areas of the town, inevitably lead you to uncovering a series of side quests and smaller objectives that in turn make the main objective just that little bit easier–rewarding you with blueprints and materials to build better gear, to help you blend into society better, or make an effective escape when it all inevitably goes wrong.

Eventually, you’ll make your way to the parts of Wellington Wells where the everyday citizens dwell, off their faces on Joy, leering masks on their faces and an unnerving spring in their step; they’re just even more crazed than the Downers and just as threatening, always happy to beat you to death if they realize you’re off your Joy. Spending any time out at night will put you firmly in the sights of the local constabulary and trying to avoid a poisonous smog which hangs in the air.

At present, there’s something that just feels a little off about We Happy Few. Despite having a brilliant sense of style with striking character designs, fantastic lighting and nailing that 60s vibe, feeling like an odd mix of The Prisoner and classic Doctor Who, it still feels a bit workman-like in its execution, with some workman-like textures, plenty of pop-in, and an opening zone that can best be described as drab. While the procedural nature of the map makes it feel somewhat repetitive at times, it’s clear that the game could be something really special, but it’s not quite there yet.

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Likewise, the gameplay doesn’t quite hook you as well as it could. After being teased with a brilliant introduction to the world of Wellington Wells, there’s no other story elements in the current build to keep you invested (though these have been promised in the final release). That being said, what little is there just makes you wish there was more. The permanent grimaces, and constant televisual and radio reports, form an unnerving presenter known as Uncle Jack are a clear highlight, but I couldn’t help but feel that a fantastic setting is being wasted.

However, a lot can still happen between now and We Happy Few’s final release.  Arthur is only one of several protagonists that Compulsion have promised in the final build, each with their own stories and motivations, so you’ll be able to view and explore Wellington Wells from several distinct perspectives. As it stands though, even Arthur’s tale feels unfinished. This preview is more of a chance to test the mechanics and take in the scenery than a finished slice of the final product.

In its current state, We Happy Few is a bit of a mixed bag. In one moment tense, exciting, and brilliant, but in the next dull, repetitive, and a bit of a chore.

But being in Early Access, We Happy Few still has plenty of time to develop and evolve. If Compulsion refine the stealth-action gameplay, improve the combat, and make the survival aspects of the game less punishing (or completely optional), allowing the fantastic setting and stories to shine through, We Happy Few could be something special indeed.

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Co-op Gaming Shines at EGX Rezzed With We Were Here Together, Phogs!, and Cake Bash

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Co-op gaming

Over the years, jolly co-op gaming has been in decline, especially from AAA developers. Several recent games have been standouts, such as A Way Out, Strange Brigade, and the Far Cry series, though the latest pioneers of co-op gaming will likely come from the indie community.

While exploring EGX Rezzed, the atmosphere was filled with a sense of mutual enjoyment as gamers came together to play a plethora of team-building games. Among these games were some of my personal highlights including We Were Here Together, Cake Bash, and Phogs!

We Were Here Together

We Were Here Together is the latest co-op adventure puzzle game by independent studio Total Mayhem Games.

The title continues on from two previously released projects, We Were Here and We Were Here Too, with the former available on Steam for free. Set amidst a frozen landscape, the first two games centred on exploring a mysterious castle while solving puzzles as part of a two-person team. Players were separated throughout the playthrough until the final moments, which featured a touching scene where the puzzling pals would eventually meet to conquer the remaining conundrums.

We Were Here Together immediately shakes things up by starting the game with both players working together in the same environment. The EGX demo starts off outside of the castle grounds in an expedition outpost where two explorers suddenly receive a distress call from somewhere in the frozen wastes. Players must work together to decipher an incoming transmission and correctly pinpoint the distress beacon.

The location itself is the answer to a series of puzzles, requiring both people to work together. A great example of teamwork is one player adjusting an outside satellite while the other stays inside to alter the radio’s frequency until a voice can be heard. This is where the creative ingenuity from the developers comes into play as solutions are different for each playthrough. The puzzles themselves remain the same, but, by using the same example as before, the voice may only be heard on a different frequency. Similar situations where the outcome changes include changing co-ordinates and figuring out which key may fit a particular door.

Roughly one-third of the game will be set in a shared environment while latter parts will take place back inside the castle in a traditional, separated format. Two paths are laid out later for the players to choose between, providing avenues for replayability. The changing solutions also add to the replay value as it prevents veteran gamers from going back and telling their new partner the answers.

The moments where players are physically apart highlight one of the unique features of the game: the radios. Both characters are equipped with walkie-talkies so players can communicate with each other. Radios are a brilliant immersion tool as the mechanic works exactly as a two-way radio should, with the wielder having to hold down a button to speak and release to hear the other. The radio mechanic is optional, though, as players can simply use a third-party chat. However, the added difficulty and roleplaying add an extra element to an already rather tricky title.

We Were Here Together is a fun shared experience that proves a challenge for even the most seasoned puzzle solvers. The release date and price of the project are unknown at present, but the game will be available on Steam.

Cake Bash

During EGX Rezzed 2019, the Coatsink team had a glorious display full of plush animals, colourful scenery, and even a rather large and comfortable dog bed.

I was lucky enough to go hands-on with Phogs! and play a few rounds of Cake Bash with PR and Events Manager Jack Sanderson. Both games proved to be a real treat to participants, with Cake Bash serving a much-needed helping of raucous fun in a series of mini-games.

Not unlike many beloved party games—such as Mario PartyCake Bash is an up-to-four-player competitive game featuring several rounds of friendship-ending challenges. The design of the title instantly stands out with an adorable and vivid visual style that brings a certain charm to the characters and settings.

Before each round, players choose a character from a selection of delicious desserts as their combatant. During the demo, only two game modes were available, the first of which required players to gather falling pieces of fruit and throw them inside a giant meringue. A single point is awarded for successfully tossing a piece of fruit into the bowl. However, a rare golden fruit, worth ten points, will appear every so often. Competitors must be wary of descending fiery boulders that can briefly daze any dessert. These boulders can also be picked up and lobbed at rivals. Not only can enemies launch these rocks at one another, but they can also punch and beat each other to force someone to drop their fruit.

The second mode available was a race to gather the most jellies to become the tastiest treat. Player avatars run around an arena, gathering multi-coloured jelly beans to cover their chosen dessert, and the sweet with the most treats at the end wins. While the first game mode mainly had the individual focusing on their own points, this round directly pits people against each other as limited jellies can be found, and players can steal them by whacking opponents.

While the game looks stunning, gamers will have to wait until 2020 to get their hands on Cake Bash. The late release has allowed for an increase in scope and additional modes for players to sink their teeth into.

Phogs!

The other title playable at the event was an equally adorable project called Phogs! The game can be played solo or with a friend, as the player controls one or both halves of a two-headed dog. The two heads can be moved independently and are able to stretch, bark, and bite.

Phogs! is set in a dream-like environment where the ground is made up of soft duvet sets and pillows, while the skies are filled with tranquil clouds gently floating in the distance. The level designs are built in a way that eases the player into the various mechanics, offering something new or demonstrating different ways to solve puzzles. Early enigmas would require both sides of the dog to work in unison to pull an object or levers simultaneously. Later levels would add a glowing orb that can be used to remove dark shadowy walls or illuminate pathways to walk across. Even the orbs are based around the idea of working as a team as one side of the dog bites onto the light ball with the other opening their mouth to act as a torch.

The charming personality of the game really shines in the various character designs and their functions within the levels. One of the final missions of the demo featured a sleeping giant that dreamed of bridges in floating thought bubbles. Players could then use the camera perspective to align the dream bridge with a section of a missing platform to cross. Other cutesy critters include wailing alarm clocks that can disturb the giants, preventing them from dreaming up a way to progress. The clocks can be led to nearby beds where they will quickly start to drift off and stop ringing.

Despite the levels being fairly linear, additional tasks can be completed to gain collectable dog biscuits. These tasks often require the dog to present characters with a particular item, for example, bringing a storybook to an owl.

The whole experience with Coatsink was a delight, both games offering a mix of controller-clenching competition and jolly cooperation. Like Cake Bash, Phogs! will also be arriving in 2020 on PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One.


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