We Happy Few (Review)

It’s been almost three years when I had first seen We Happy Few, the dystopian adventure from Compulsion Games. Since its first appearance on Xbox Game Preview, the game underwent a lot of changes, found itself a publisher in Gearbox Software and the developers were snapped up by Microsoft. The game finally shipped late last year so I’ve been curious to see how it turned out.

Set in an alternate history 1960s England where Germany won World War 2, you start out as Arthur Hastings who is busily redacting articles in his office when a flashback brings back long forgotten memories. It’s also from here that you’re introduced to the drug Joy which is used to control the population by making them forget the past it’s use quickly takes on a sinister tone when you first stop taking your pills. At that point the real game begins as you need to make your way safely through the town of Wellington Wells using your wits, fists and anything else you can scrap together on the way. The populace are not always on your side either – someone who is no longer on the drug is identified as a “Downer” and you’ll soon have both the police and your fellow citizens set upon you. Similar results can happen by wearing the wrong clothes or acting erratically… it’s all about fitting in and avoiding suspicion.

Take your Joy and it will all be fine…

Getting through the town is not simply a case of walking from one side to the other and you’ll have to complete a few objectives to get there. One of the earliest quests you encounter requires you to returns an NPC’s medals and find a power source to open a gate to the next area and most of Arthur’s story line follows that kind of path. Additional quests come up as you play but aren’t all necessary for finishing the game. Completed quests award you with skill points that can be used to boost your character’s abilities. Some are simple such as improving your overall health but others can be game changers such as avoiding the normal consequences of being seen by police during the night time curfew.

Crafting has a big role in the game with you having to collect materials to make weapons, healing items and tools. Not everything you can do is revealed right away but the game does give you important recipes as you need them and you can find others in your travels too. Early on you’ll also get access to a stash in certain locations that will help you make the most of your collecting and keep items for later use. It’s quite easy to burn through a stock of valuable items (ie. healing balm) so having as much crafting materials on hand as possible is very helpful. Unlike most games food and water don’t heal you but they do prevent your character from suffering penalties for not eating (if that makes sense) so having that in reserve too is handy.

With all that you have at your disposal the one thing you don’t have a lot of in the beginning is Joy itself. You’ll need to use it often to fit into many of the busy locations and avoid discovery but you can’t easily carry stock of it apart from Joy tainted water in canteens. Being aware of Joy dispensers on the map is recommended as are locations where you can safely rest and access water. As you progress further in the game this does change (as does your reliance on it) but initially it can be unnecessarily hard to manage. Rest is essential too as you can’t simply top up your Joy levels as you can actually overdose and suffer the consequences of that. Having your character vomit in the street is not going to help you blend in.

Visually the game is quite good. Walking through the outdoor environments from the fields to the cottages and buildings makes me think this could almost be a Fable game. It could do with a bit more variety at times though as there’s a lot of duplicate dwellings you’ll encounter with some appearing to be obstacles more than anything. It can be easy to spot those you can interact with as the rest lack overall detail. It’s not always noticeable out in the open but once you are in the more populated areas it starts to be more noticeable. The transitions from your drug induced haze and reality are quite effective in expressing the changes between your highs and lows and really sell Joy’s impact. Characters are distinctive with the general populace looking skinny and weak with their smaller bodies and large heads but the police are a different matter and much more intimidating face to face. I also like how your own character animations change depending on whether you are on Joy or not… there’s a lot of gratuitous arm swinging when you’re drugged up.

One of my first NPC encounters.

Combat is mostly first person melee and it’s fine enough but it also seems to me very few games get that right. The weapons you accumulate or build during your travels rarely last long so keeping a stock of extras in your inventory is necessary but also means you quickly fill up your space and become overloaded. There are projectile weapons that you have access to and some such as bottles get a lot of use for distracting enemies but they might not feel like being viable options. My first use of the explosive “Banger” resulted in me blowing myself up… twice.

Additional modes in the game allow some replay value where you can attempt to tackle the game with permadeath active or increased difficulty that pushes the survival aspects (food, water, health) – both of these were originally intended to be core to the game back in the preview but were later dialed back to being game play options. There’s also a mode where you can take on the role of one of the police and face off against Downers in waves though it feels like more of a distraction than anything.

There’s many parts of a good game packed in here but they don’t all hold together as well as I’d hoped. The setting is quite inventive and the mechanics of trying to fit into this controlled society are neat too but maybe I had set my expectations too high from the preview. The story mode definitely has some memorable moments right from the opening but there’s often not much in between to fill the gaps. As it stands now it feels like a little more generic in play than the look might indicate. I’m also frustrated seeing that even now there’s some substantial bugs and design issues in the game. There’s been times when the enemy pathfinding breaks right before your eyes and ruins the immersion as you stand watching an enemy spin in circles or get stuck on a bush. The difficulty spikes coinciding with the location changes can catch players out – suddenly having to factor in your Joy intake in a busy area with a restrictive timer is likely to catch you out initially. This aspect of the game’s mechanics could have done with a more gradual transition though I’m not sure how that could be done within the current map.

Fitting in is not as easy as it might seem.

Though I don’t have any issues in agreeing that the game is a little half-baked, with it seeming to not fully commit to either its original design or the more structured campaign, I can’t help but like it as I get into it further and unlock additional stuff to help me on my quest. And that makes it all the more frustrating because it was ALMOST there! More time to polish and we could be having a much more positive conversation about the game. If you’re willing to persevere you may be surprised with what you’ll find here.

We Happy Few is out now on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Reviewed on an Xbox One X via Game Pass.

2 replies »

  1. This always seemed like an interesting concept, but every time I hear from someone who has actually played it, it sounds like two disparate games trying to coexist in a single platform and not quite succeeding. We have the narrative-centric, dystopian adventure aspect that always brings stuff like BioShock to mind, and then we have crafting and survival components, which I always tend to associate with more freeform, non-linear, non-narrative games.

    Not having played it, my impressions are that they probably made the right call in toning down the latter aspects, but it still sounds like it has a little bit of an identity crisis. Still, that sort of thing can often make for really interesting, memorable experiences!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you nailed it better than I… you can still see the old version of the game creeping out of the new for better or worse. Regardless of that I think I can see why Microsoft would be interested in the studio… there’s a Bioshock meets Fable thing going on here that has a lot of potential.

      Liked by 1 person

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