Right from the moment the game’s quirky music and British-ism laced dialogue kick in, it’s indisputable that We Happy Few is trying to strike a very specific note. Both in terms of tone and style. Whether it gets all the way there, is the more nebulous question.
Like the Bioshock games it has drawn comparison to from the moment it was first announced, Compulsion Games' We Happy Few is an open-ended dystopian first-person action-adventure that forces players to make confronting choices in a world gone bad, mad and sad - all at the same time.
Unfortunately, an over-reliance on the game’s unique hook of a setting ultimately ends up in the whole affair feeling like a superficial diversion. We Happy Few has a lot of flavor and a fair few interesting mechanics sprinkled throughout it but it’s all very shallow. Heavy on style, light on substance. It feels like a padded-out pitch more than it does a fully-matured thing of its own.
When the light is cast just right and the shadows align, We Happy Few can look and feel like the subversive, systems-driven romp that it desperately wants to be. But most of the time, it just doesn’t quite pull off this trick.
And, honestly, I wish it would.
We Happy Few is set in an alternative version of 1960s Britain, where the country lost the second World War to Germany and collapsed into a state of both societal and psychological ruin. Tormented by the past, the citizenship of Wellington Wells find solace in hallucinogenic bliss via a drug called Joy. Anyone who doesn’t play along with this fantasy find themselves vilified and exiled in short order.
Which is exactly what happens to you at the start of We Happy Few. In the game’s main story mode, you’ll initially play as a government “redactor”, responsible for ensuring only positive news makes it to the front page, by the name of Arthur Hastings. Progress through the game unlocks additional characters, each with their own set of story missions and unique strengths and weaknesses.
Playing as Arthur is where the bulk of the core experience here lies, so this review is mainly going to focus on this part of the game. Plus we don’t want to give away who the additional character are, since they could be considered spoilers for where the plot goes.
As Arthur, your goal is to get out Wellington Wells and uncover a set of suppressed memories. The experience is then broken out between you traversing the world, pursuing said story missions, discovering and resolving side missions and managing the hazards of everyday life in the game’s dystopian setting.
Whether you’re exploring the game’s cobblestone metropolises or the overgrown wilderness that lurks on the fringes, We Happy Few is a game about navigating conformity. Waltzing down main street dressed in rags - or while off your joy - will likely get you chased down and attacked by Wellington Wells’ police force, called ‘Bobbies’. Venturing into the poorer districts of the game’s open world dressed to the nines will see you garner a similarly-hostile reaction.
The social fabric in We Happy Few is a patchwork quilt and if the game’s NPCs discover you don’t fit in, you’ll probably want to get out. Fast. In this version of history, compliance isn’t just mandatory. It’s practically a religion.
Beyond this dynamic, there’s also a bunch of survival game elements in We Happy Few you’ll have to contend with. Unfortunately, many of these feel like holdovers from the game’s roots as a procedurally-generated survival game and altogether out-of-sync with its newfound narrative aspirations.
In addition to balancing your characters’ need for food, water and fatigue levels, you’ll also have to manage your Joy-intake. Take too much Joy too fast and you’ll get sick. However, go off your Joy entirely and you’ll suffer withdrawal symptoms that can quickly draw the wrong kind of attention.
When that happens, you can either run away and escape via one of the world’s safe houses or stand and fight. There’s combat in We Happy Few but it’s repetitive and clumsy enough that it’s only really fun in short bursts. That said, somewhat-refreshingly, there are no guns in the game. It’s pretty much entirely melee combat, which does lend it a different tenor to immersive sims like Bioshock and Prey.
Kink in the Machine
We Happy Few is a weird patchwork quilt of a game. The first-person perspective and alternate history setting makes for easy comparisons to things like Bioshock and Prey. Meanwhile, the procedurally-generated world layout and crafting systems echo things like Minecraft, ARK: Survival Evolved and No Man’s Sky. And while this diverse formula does result in an experience that feels like its own thing, it doesn’t always come across as particularly cohesive.
Sometimes, the notes align into a resonant chord. However, a lot of the time, We Happy Few just comes off as this jumbled mess that doesn’t play all that well and falls far short of its own lofty ambitions.
The dialogue in We Happy Few is often clunky, and the voice-acting egregiously over-the-top. Furthermore, once you’ve spent a few hours with the game’s various social systems, it becomes trivially easy to min-max and/or manipulate them. The story missions often feel like cheap gimmicks and once you’ve walked down the same street in Wellington Wells for the twelve time in a row, the whole underlying illusion of the game’s world begins to fall apart at the seams.
Further hurting the experience here is the general bugginess. Often-times, quest events fail to trigger, leaving you scratching your head as to what’s gone wrong. Other times, the game literally left me trapped on a bench. There are plenty of great games held together by the software equivalent of duct-tape. But there aren’t that many great games where the duct-tape is quite this visible.
Still, there’s something to it. Buried by the messy combat, messy stealth sequence and messy story, there’s a distinct vibe here that’s both utterly compelling and exclusive to We Happy Few.
And it feels like that has to count for something.
The Bottom Line
We Happy Few is ambitious - and the fact that Microsoft acquired Compulsive Games over that ambition is likely a sign of good things to come.
However, measured on its own merits, We Happy Few is a rotten and misshapen mess of a game disguised beneath an overly-charismatic smile. It apes the aesthetics of better games but leaves itself left hollow in the pursuit. That's not to say there's no fun to be found here. But those looking for the gaming's next big immersive sim should steer clear.
We Happy Few is available now on PC and Xbox One.