WE HAPPY FEW Review – Not So Brave New World
Published by Gearbox Publishing
Available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC
Rated M for Mature
Compulsion Games, you’ve put me in an awkward position. I like indie games with new ideas. I especially like it when the little guy gets the spotlight in a big way. When Microsoft showcased We Happy Few at E3 2016, I was overjoyed that some small company I had never heard of was getting center stage. The uniquely colorful dystopian setting, white masked smiling faces pursuing like a horde of vicious dogs, and “fitting in for survival” theme promised a new kind of horror I had never even imagined. It was a premise good enough to successfully sail through a $200,000 Kickstarter campaign and into the headlines of E3 articles the world round. But the game has grown, morphed, mutated, and bloated from an interesting sandbox experiment to a monsterous amalgam of disjointed ideas complete with a $60 price tag. Did No Man’s Sky teach us nothing?
For those of you unfamiliar, We Happy Few is a dystopian stealth/survival horror game where the enemy is society. From the voice on the TV wishing you a jolly good morning to the state sponsored drug “Joy” designed to keep everyone happy, forgetful, and sterile, every aspect of this alternate Britain is crafted to iron out all negativity and free thought. The enemies trying to kill you aren’t shambling monstrosities or chanting cultists, but normal men and women brainwashed to the point where anything outside their idea of “normal” is met with violent revulsion. Rather than lining up perfect headshots or hiding in cupboards, your method of survival is blending in. Wear the right clothes, don’t jump about, say hello to your neighbors, and above all else never forget to take your Joy.
At least, that’s what We Happy Few is in theory. In practice, it’s a confusing mess of mechanics too disjointed to support the weight of its own ambition. As a bit of backstory, the game was originally designed to be an open world sandbox. Dropping into a procedurally generated Wellington Wells, you’d have to figure out how to eat, sleep, drink, and survive long enough to make it to the next island. Each island fell somewhere on the hierarchy of Wellington, with the “downer” wastrels in the dilapidated gardens and the more affluent citizens living in increasingly more normal conditions. As you reach the more prestigious communities, the quality of loot increases in proportion to the peril you face from authorities and the judgment of your fellow citizens.
What the game has become is something quite different. A singleplayer narrative experience, We Happy Few tells its tale in three acts. Each act focuses on a different character and their own struggle to escape Wellington Well’s oppressive narcocracy. First up is Arthur, a repressed British man on a quest to save the brother he abandoned over a decade ago. Next is Sally, who must juggle her obligations as a drug supplier to the police and keeping her baby Gwen a secret. Finally is Ollie, who is crazy. But the fun kind of crazy where you get to throw a lot of molotovs and smash skulls.
The story aspect is definitely where We Happy Few shines. Each character’s motivation is well understood, and the inevitable revelations of their own culpability in things is enough to keep you from skipping the cutscenes. The stories intertwine in unexpected ways, and at several points, a quest will reveal itself as having longer reaching consequences across another character’s story. A few times the characters meet up, and as you play you realize the dialogue changes based on who you are controlling. This is far from sloppy writing or editing mistakes, instead showing how each character’s perception is unintentionally coloring their situation. It’s a very creative and mature way to tell a story, putting faith in the player to notice nuance in a way most video games just don’t do.
These major story moments and the quests leading up to them are the highlights of We Happy Few. There were a number of set piece moments that either had me on the edge of my seat or laughing loud enough to startle my cat. Even some of the sidequests ask you to complete unforgettably macabre or rediculous tasks. One particular quest involving a lost package of meat should appeal to even the most morbid of murder fans. If the game were just these all strung together, We Happy Few would be a tight, enjoyable, if somewhat short experience.
Unfortunately, these short snippets of tightly designed action are just a sliver of We Happy Few’s playtime. Most of the rest of your time will be spent completing bland pointless fetch quests, rummaging through garbage for supplies you’ll rarely use, and picking an unfathomable amount of locks. If I had the foresight to record my playthrough, I’d bet that a good 40% of the footage would be me holding “V” to jimmy open a crate or unlock some cabinet.
This is usually where I’d make some speculation about what went wrong in the development process, but fortuitously I happen to know exactly what went wrong. I actually got to play We Happy Few back when it was in Alpha. The mechanics were loose, bugs abounding, but fundamental concepts fluid and cohesive. I was eager to see how it would expand and develop like many similar survival/crafting games have. It was later announced that, given the increased attention and funding the game had received, the title would be retooled as a singleplayer linear narrative experience. So imagine my surprise when, during my journey through the final version of We Happy Few, I found some of the same quests I ran into two years ago when the title was in Alpha.
Now, this shouldn’t be hard to understand, but open world sandbox crafting survival mechanics do not mesh with a tight, driven, narrative experience. When all I want is to find out what happened to my lost brother or why the whole world has gone mad, stopping for thirty minutes to run across the countryside and collect three engines from broken down cars breaks the flow. When the game was originally formulated, the only real objective was to collect the tools required to get to the next island. There were several ways to do this, usually requiring some kind of rare item like a power core or some Joy pills. The exploration served a purpose, gathering up enough materials to make the trek to the next area and survive.
When your only objective is to manage your food, water, and the quality of your tools, a certain style of quests makes sense. One particular quest asked me to eavesdrop in on two lovers night after night to learn their story. This makes sense when you are spending multiple days in a zone slowly scrounging and crafting your way to the next tier of equipment. It’s a nightly pitstop on your rounds of scavenging and mischief-making. It makes absolutely no sense when your entire objective is to speed through shit as quickly as possible just to get to the next goddamn interesting bit.
Now, maybe I’m just being a misery-mutt. Maybe I should just be enjoying the unique take on stealth/survival We Happy Few has to offer. Well, I would, but We Happy Few doesn’t really buy into its own idea. All of that acting civilized, blending in, following the rules? There are skills you can buy that just bypasses that. Tired of having to walk instead of run? Buy the skill that lets you run in public. Tired of having to sneak around at night? There’s a skill that lets you walk around at night. Even if there weren’t, escaping the pursuing hordes is piss easy. Just find an alleyway, pop into a trashcan, and wait a minute for everyone to forget you were ever there. As long as you’re running, the enemies will never catch you. Seriously, I never even once came close to getting taken down by a horde of angry neighbors, and I was murdering cops in broad daylight.
What’s more, most of the actual challenge of the game amounts to just busy work. As the game tries to focus on exploration, most of the obstacles you face will be in the form of some kind of barrier. Joy detecting alarms, locked doors/windows, stubbornly closed gates, and electric traps just to name a few. These are pretty common in stealth games, and generally require you to do some clever thinking to weasel your way around them. In We Happy Few, you just have to make sure you have the right tool in your inventory. These tools are mostly single-use, so the challenge should come from managing your resources to make sure you have enough. Unfortunately, with even just the most minimal exploration you should be swimming in enough lockpicks and shortspikes to make your way through a whole menagerie of locked doors and alarms. I was actually dumping my extra tools in the vault just to have enough space in my inventory for more random crap.
As for the combat, it’s serviceable at best. You have your light attack, heavy attack, block, and block-breaking push. There are various status effects, none of which matter once you realize that grenades are easy to make. Make yourself a solid melee weapon for when there aren’t a lot of guys, and for any fights of three or more just run in circles until they are all bunched up and throw a grenade. I literally got through the whole game with this strategy, and only ever died when I fell off a cliff.
The sad thing is, the remnants of promise that We Happy Few once had are still visible through the veil of what it has become. Certain quests, such as one that took place in a strange cult house, were genuinely well designed. Rooms were plotted with multiple pathways through, and clever observation yielded plenty of secret goodies for the intrepid explorer. If they had built on this, designing more unique room variants with covert hideaways and beefed up the crafting, the game could have been amazing. I see a game deep within here where I enjoy hunting for dud German bombs so that I can collect enough TNT to make an industrial safecracker. Alas, just like the denizens of Wellington Wells, it seems that Compulsion games have taken too much Joy and forgotten what We Happy Few was supposed to be all about.
I would like to clarify that much of my harshness is due to the $60 pricetag. I haven’t even yet mentioned the bugs, but on three different occasions quests were simply incompletable because the game just stopped working. I couldn’t run it for more than a few hours before the textures would stop loading, and if I left it paused for a half hour to take a nice relaxing meditation shit then the game would barely work upon my return. Am I supposed to just accept this because Ubisoft does it?
I ultimately feel bad about dumping on We Happy Few. Between the story, quirky characters, and a genuinely unique setting, the people at Compulsion Games have a wonderful IP on their hands. But at some point, they gave up on the original premise to make something more closely resembling a $60 game. The problem is, they didn’t clear away the foundation. They just built upon it, and just like the streets of Wellington Wells, it’s a hodgepodge of duct tape and twigs just waiting to fall apart. I hope the game sells well because I want to see what these great creative minds can do. As for We Happy Few, I can only recommend it at a steep discount.
We Happy Few‘s charm and unique premise almost filled me with enough Joy to blind me to its numerous blemishes. Call me a Downer all you want, but the game spreads itself far too thin. If they had instead focused on fewer core mechanics and improving the open world gameplay, we could have had something really amazing on our hands. As it is, its just okay.