My initial time spent with We Happy Few’s early access build, left me optimistic about the release version of the game, despite a few pangs of disappointment that lingered on.
After getting the chance to play through the final game, I can safely say, for the most part, We Happy Few is a fairly competent game, full of good ideas that in some instances, have come out prematurely, resulting in an experience that just feels a little all over the place.
Starting the game as Arthur, one of the three available story characters, I found his opening section gripping and genuinely interesting, however, things somewhat fell apart, after I gained access to the outside world above.
The game begins within Arthur’s office, in which he is responsible for censoring the news as he sees fit, or rather, in a way that conforms to the creepy dystopian world of We Happy Few. The core concept of We Happy Few centers around the use of a hallucinogenic drug, called Joy. Joy essentially holds the decaying mobile fabric of the dystopian and alternate post-WWII 1960’s Britan together, while also making everyone who takes it, completely insane but somehow, manageable.
Arthur soon chooses to stop taking the drug, only to realize how deranged and screwed up the world around him really is. The game endearingly calls people like Arthur, Downers, a term coined for those who refuse or go off Joy, for prolonged periods of time. As a Downer, players must aide Arthur in escaping the hellscape that is his everyday surroundings.
The opening sequence does a great job of conveying the unsettling feeling of something not quite being right, punctuated by an office party piñata bashing that instead of containing sweet, sweet candy, houses a rather large and very dead-looking, rat. Of course, Arthur’s coworker’s who like most of the other inhabitants of the world, are hopped up on Joy, consume the rat with the enthusiasm of a pack of rabid children at a birthday party.
Arthur’s (understandable) apprehension in wanting to partake triggers alarms in his coworkers, who quickly label him as a Downer, forcing him to find any means of escape. From here, players are tasked with making their way out of the office, through a very gamey but charming sewer section, that introduces players to the basics of combat and stealth.
Escaping the sewers gives players access to the semi world open, in which players are free to explore, engage in side quests, or continue on with the main campaign — regrettably, this also marks the point in which We Happy Few loses its focus and in some instances, stops being fun.
The concept of We Happy Few’s open-world sounds fine on paper, large expansive areas, broken down into different districts, littered with quests, places to loot and characters to interact with, however, in practice, the game feels sluggish, uninteresting and tedious. The biggest problem stems in seemingly everything in the game requiring some sort of crafting good or key item, in order to progress. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, yet, finding X amount of the required goods, gets old almost immediately. A good example of this is can be found in of the connecting passages to another area in the game.
For example: a makeshift barricade that players can encounter, requires the player to procure some honey, which happens to be the toll required to pass. Why honey? I guess it was easy to think of gameplay mechanics around it, and due it lending itself to the crazy and unsettling atmosphere, the game strives to maintain.
Honey can be procured from several spots on the map, however, the areas are guarded by bees, which require the use of a craftable padded suit. The ingredients for the padded suit require several pieces of linen, some cloth and 2 sewing kits, items that should be fun to obtain or at the very least, easy. Although, not particularly challenging, getting the required items proved to be incredibly dull and tedious.
Most items can be found by looting nearby houses, postal boxes and trash bins. Looting houses, in particular, triggers passersby or residents of the home to grow suspicious and even attack the player. The game does try to encourage some form of stealth but during my playthrough, I found it nearly impossible to maintain a state of incognito, as just being near other NPCs, even when dressed in the proper attire, would cause unwarranted attention.
More efficiently, I found it much easier to just cut through wave after of the brain-dead AI, bludgeoning them to death through We Happy Few’s uninspired melee combat. Making matters worse, the seemingly random nature of finding the required items from looting, made the entire process feel even more tedious and boring, especially when having to walk around the often barren fields between pockets of residents or dwellings. Thankfully, items can be purchased with in-game currency from vending machines strewn about the game world, which alleviated things a tad.
Perhaps due to the procedurally generated open world which by nature, introduces a random element, I found most activities, such as side quests in the game, tedious and uninteresting, at least in terms of finding loot. Thankfully, interesting story elements sprinkled throughout helped alleviate some of the tedium.
The main gripe with side quests are twofold, firstly, We Happy Few gives little in the means of direction, which often left me scrambling around the map, trying to figure out the correct trigger to initiate the next step in any given quest, which often got frustrating due to having to move around vast areas of the level.
My second, a much more grievous offense comes in the form of dying, or permanently failing a quest by accidentally killing a key NPC — We Happy Few’s unpredictable and clunky feeling AI who tend to die a lot or get in the way, even when incognito, made it rather difficult to complete certain quests, as the game would save over or force me to reset (losing a ton of progress) in case of accidental death or mishap.
The strong single player stories of the three characters’ help outshine the sometimes cumbersome feeling gameplay, but unfortunately the same can’t be said about the side quests. Although some characters, such as Uncle Jack, who is prevalent in the main campaign, do make an appearance from time to time, the busywork in between interesting exposition makes most side ventures feel unnecessary.
Although I found the combat to be rather simple and even in some instances, repetitive, We Happy Few did manage to introduce a few interesting concepts into the mix. When it came to craftable items and special skills, beyond Ollie, the Scotish explosives specialist, most fights are just easier to deal with through melee combat, rather than a reliance on each of the three character’s unique abilities.
Sally, my favourite character out of three, made me really appreciate the way We Happy Few manages to create such diverse yet interconnected characters. Unlike Arthur, who is basically your emblematic example of the UK’s “Keep Calm and Carry on” mantra, and Ollie, who embraces the polar opposite, in being a rough but endearing older man, Sally comes off as much more of an enigma. At first, she seems to be a character that has conformed to the drug-fueled lifestyle prevalent in We Happy Few, but things begin to show their true colours, rather quickly, something that should be best left for players to discover on their own time.
Currently, the best aspect of We Happy Few, aside from its interesting story characters, comes in the form of its strong visual identity and clever writing. Set in post-WWII, the 1960’s comes alive in We Happy Few’s bright colour palette and use of graphic design, reminiscent of prominent designers of the era, such as Saul Bass, while lending itself to the almost overly pleasant, fake-feeling facade that mirrors the characters themselves that inhabit the game world.
I loved exploring the world and the characters within it. Even just listening in on NPC’s as they talk was a treat. The genuinely crazy sounding banter of the characters that litter the streets, coupled with Arthur and companies own, distinctively British (and Scottish) wit, make the game truly feel alive and full of character, almost masking the poor gameplay that lies just beneath the surface.
Ultimately, We Happy Few feels likes an over-ambitious title, a game that happens to have a great concept, strong writing and a unique aesthetic. Marred by uninteresting combat, an unnecessary open-world and just a general lack of polish in some areas that detract from the otherwise well-realized world.