Back in 2016, Compulsion Games showcased the first five minutes of gameplay for We Happy Few featuring a highly cinematic narrative focus and a subsequent tense chase sequence. Backed by over 7,000 people on Kickstarter, the initial alpha release of the game was met with harsh criticism, as the game focused heavily on survival mechanics and procedurally generated environmental design. Since then, the development team grew in size along with Gearbox Publishing the once indie title. More recently, it was announced that Microsoft had purchased the studio; however, We Happy Few is available across multiple platforms (Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4).
One reason for the game’s popularity at industry events was due to the lively stylized caricatures and colorful environments. Pop a Joy, a required hallucinogenic “happy” drug and stroll along the rainbow-colored streets without a care in the world (avoid overdosing). Taking place in an alternate timeline for the 1960’s, across a set number of islands in the United Kingdom. Each island represents a very different “holm” or island in a river. Surrounding to the German army in the 40’s (an alternate outcome of World War II), all children under the age of 13 were packed on to trains and taken by the invaders on the threat of further destruction and fear of an army saturated with heavily armored tanks. Joy was developed to help establish a utopian society, where one can forget the terrible things they have done in the past, and view the world through rose-tinted glasses.
We Happy Few features three different playable characters, each one having their own particular set of skills and expertise, as well as tragic backstory and reasons to escape from Wellington Wells. Arthur Hastings, who you get to control first, serves as a redactor, censoring news articles that may stir up feelings from the past or disrupt the flow of society. However, when he comes across a photograph of his brother, you are presented with the choice of taking your medication of becoming a downer; anyone that refuses to no longer take their Joy. Those that don’t become isolated from society and risk being beaten to death by the local bobbies (police officers) that patrol the streets and random other citizens wearing white masks hiding their appearance. Outside of being a pro at swinging melee weapons, such as metal pipes, rifles, shovels, and even an umbrella, Arthur can quickly run away from danger to compose himself or conceal his position. Each of the islands requires you to conform to its style; otherwise you risk irritating the locals, which will eventually attack you on site. Who would have guessed that a kinky rubber cat outfit wouldn’t be suitable when strolling through the town center.
Sally Boyle serves as the second protagonist, which you will meet while playing through Arthur’s story, with Ollie Starkey acting as the final and third playable protagonist, who you also interact with through Arthur’s narrative. Arthur’s portion comprises the highest percentage of the game, which could take anywhere from 10-15 hours to complete, depending if you spend the time to complete side quests along the way. Both Sally’s and Ollie’s story is much shorter, but if you wish to see everything the story mode in We Happy Few has to offer, you can easily spend 20-30 hours with the game. Considering all of the town layouts and streets are procedurally generated, my experience may not match exactly to your own. One point, in particular, took much longer to reach than I expected, and was mostly due to the town only having a single path to the objective, that required you to travel a long way without being seen. By the end of the game, you’ll feel highly invested in each of the characters’ struggles.
I was unprepared for the sheer amount of stealth focused sequence in We Happy Few. Almost all of the encounters with Arthur try and guide you through a path of being an unseen menace; choking out individuals from behind, tossing bottles for distractions, etc. If you are discovered, the game’s lacking combat system, can’t keep up with having multiple foes attacking simultaneously. Any time I was seen and had to deal with four or more enemies, it was a sure thing that I would be reloading from my previous save point unless I get really lucky. The mechanics feel like a cross between Bioshock and Dishonored, but not as smooth or polished. Attacks can be strung together to form combos, but the key to your survival is blocking and shoving. Blocking is an obvious choice not to get hit, but pushing enemies allows you to break through their block, but be warned enemies will try and do the same to you. Occasionally you will come across ranged attacks, such as bombs or rocks, which are frustrating to deal with. Even if a grenade hits both you and another enemy nearby, the friendly fire damage is minimal, yet you’ll most likely require bandages to stop yourself from bleeding out.
Instead of removing the survival mechanics that were criticized in the earlier builds, they have been toned down, at least in the default settings. Arthur must quench both his hunger and thirst or risk being debuffed or penalized, decreasing the amount of stamina available, making combat much harder to manage. Rotten food can assist in stopping you from going hungry, but be sure you have medication to treat any illness suffered from eating the disgusting and nasty food. The hard difficulty setting severely limits your combat potential, however, you can not die directly due to these mechanics. You’ll also have to manage your sleep and how much Joy you ingest to avoid overdosing. The other two characters each have their own requirement, and Ollie’s, in particular, I found most amusing. Trying to manage his medication shots, while frustrating, was hilarious to see him shouting at random individuals, inciting violence. On the normal difficulty, I found each of the mechanics to be quite enjoyable, although the game does feature a custom difficulty setting lets you customize any of these options to your liking.
With their own set of skills to unlock as you progress through the game, each character has its own set of unique abilities but also has many that are shared between the three characters. Depending on your play style, you may opt to improve your stealth skills or your direct combat focused options. Others can increase your maximum health, or increase the number of things you can carry, both of which were highly important during my playthrough. I can’t help myself. With crafting so deeply ingrained into the experience, I went around picking up every scrap of cloth, and bits of metal I could scavenge. With these, I was able to craft new weapons, healing balms, bandages, outfits, etc. Most weapons, at least early on, will break after a using them for a set amount of time, however, once you craft indestructible items, or use the pre-order umbrella, you will probably never have to put up another weapon. Not only does this save time, but also frees up your weight capacity for additional crafting components.
We Happy Few isn’t without technical issues that pop up throughout your experience, at least at launch. While I have not had to deal with anything game breaking, but it was common to see items or even other characters floating above the ground or clipping through pieces of the environment. Patrolling AI tend to run into (or through) each other, and transition from a slow walk to full sprint for seemingly no reason. The most significant offense is the flashback sequences that provide you with valuable insight into Arthur’s past. These monotone events of the past are quite unstable, making it hard to figure out what is happening when the screen always freezes or stutters. The frame rate, even on an Xbox One X, takes a nosedive at times as well, in both open environments and in tight corridors with or without other characters on-screen. On the plus side, the voice acting and the script is phenomenal.
We Happy Few combines survival mechanics with a deep and thoroughly enjoyable narrative, but technical hiccups hamper the experience. There was a bit too much reliance on stealth, giving a one-dimensional gameplay sensation, but thankfully you don’t have to confront to that type of approach (although things are harder if you don’t). Side missions help give life to the charming and witty characters you’ll come across but are entirely optional if you want to play through the main narrative. The technical shortcomings and terrible frame rate are disappointing, along with some annoying missions, but with a deep and thrilling story, I was able to look the other way on some of the glaring issues, as none that I encountered were game breaking in any way. It is just a shame that Compulsion Games didn't remove the boring open world sequences and focused even further on tightening up the narrative experience.Note: We Happy Few was reviewed on Xbox One. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.