Even amongst all the terrifying grins fixed on everyone’s faces, the ruined expanses populated by plague-ridden outcasts and the totalitarian overtones of its nightmarish retrofuturistic 1960s world, it’s the over-the-top British-ness that’s the most disconcerting aspect of We Happy Few. Perhaps being a Brit and seeing the ubiquitous mantra of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ brought to life via a Terry Gilliam-esque dystopia gives the curious genre hybrid from Compulsion Games a painful familiarity to it, but this is a setting that should provoke the minds of many.
In an alternate history where the German Empire invades and occupies Britain, most of the inhabitants on the isolated island city of Wellington Wells believe they are living a blissful existence thanks to the psychedelic drug Joy. This mandatory prescription paints their lives in a vivid technicolour, where everyone is treated like a friendly neighbour and there’s unbridled glee to be found in the dullest conversation topics or kicking about in a shallow puddle of rainwater.
Yet, nothing is actually quite so cheery. The streets of these more affluent areas are patrolled by police (called Bobbies, of course) who are looking to reprimand the “Downers” – individuals who have clearly not taken their meds. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of these districts, those who choose to live a life cold turkey are lucky if they even find anything close to a bird leg to eat or a half-crumpled home to live in. These are certainly not loving their life in the rain. And overseeing this all is the dictatorial Uncle Jack, who asserts control behind a facade of promoting happiness for all in his omnipotent broadcasts.
Your first introduction to this world is through Arthur, a blubbering and doltish newspaper censor who is snapped out of his routine when he happens upon a clipping about his lost brother Percival. This awakening pushes him to abandon taking his Joy medication, begin to see the world around him for the utter disaster it truly is until he ends up as a fugitive looking for his escape.
Take your medicine
After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, We Happy Few has gone through a number of changes from Early Access release to reach the finished product. Most drastically, the focus has shifted, as the game drifts further away from a survival roguelike and more into a narrative-RPG. Seeing that progression it feels like Compulsion made the right choice as there’s no doubt that’s where the game’s strengths lie. Playing as Arthur, Sally or Ollie across the game’s three acts, it’s their struggles to be free of such an oppressive society that shine through.
Take Arthur, who begins in the deprived Garden District with nothing but the suit on his back and a desire to find his brother. For that, he’ll have to travel the entirety of Wellington Wells, an arduous journey that’ll show just how bleak things have become for all involved. Some of these people can be helped along the way, too, popping up as points of interest on your map to fill up your quest log with all manner of complex objectives or menial tasks.
The former of these play out similar to mini-missions you’d expect from an Arkane game like Dishonored or Prey. Small, sandbox areas that allow you to take a stealthier approach or go in swinging with a melee weapon. Either method you choose, it’s pretty straightforward stuff: a lot of choking out enemies from behind and lockpicking your way through doors if you go quiet, or a three-button mashing between hit, block and shove if you’re looking for a fight.
We Happy Few does try to mix things up a bit with a skill tree that lets you specialise each character a little. Points you earn from completing missions can be spent here to acquire a few useful abilities, though it’s a vague suggestion of depth as a great deal feel like they are just there to fill the space on the screen. Your basic moveset, plus a handful of items, are all you really need.
The feeling I lost today
Even though We Happy Few has leant further towards that RPG side, the remnants of those survival roots from Early Access still linger. You’ll have to manage your fatigue, hunger and thirst, though instead of dying if any of these parameters fall, you’ll suffer minor impairments to some of your skills and abilities on standard difficulties. Maybe you won’t be able to run as far or as fast, but it’s easily fixed by snacking on some grub or chugging down some water.
Poke your head around a little and you’ll be able to find this sustenance in all manner of crates, cupboard and corpses to loot. Very soon you’ll also have an overflowing inventory of other bits and bobs you’ve gathered, which can also be put to better use when crafted into your basic run of healing items, lockpicks and weaponry.
More interestingly, you can also make clothing for your character, which is another vital part of helping them blend into their surroundings to not raise suspicion. The Wastrels in the impoverished districts, for example, will not take kindly to someone strutting around in fancy clothes, while other specialist clothing can get you in certain areas without raising the alarm. It sort of works, but can feel wasted in some more open areas where you can just run through unseen.
There’s no joy here
Another missed opportunity is how the game plays with Joy: the drug which law-abiding residents of Wellington Wells chug by the bottle to keep them happy. Sometimes you’ll be forced to take a pill yourself in order to pass through an area safely but, outside of your first encounter with the drug, there are few examples where taking one feels like a necessary evil.
It’s a shame that the effects are minimal too, as the game gains little more than an extra level of uncomfortable brightness once it kicks in. There are periods where you crash when the effects wear off, or become debilitated if you take too much, but you can pass the time hiding in a corner until you return to normal. The way your arms merrily swing forward in a confident swagger while under the influence of Joy is a fun little touch, however.
Still, Joy even lacks impact when you consider one of the game’s most terrifying dangers: the Doctors. These trench coat wearing menaces lurch about the streets with painfully wide grins looking to sniff out anyone who isn’t dosed up. Get caught and they’ll introduce a circular saw to your bowels. Or you can just…run past them?
Is We Happy Few Any Good?
We Happy Few is a peculiar game. An odd, mixed bag of an experience. As a game, it feels severely flawed, with superfluous mechanics that don’t marry with the rest of the experience. Crafting and gathering are simply there, sometimes just offering nothing more than an annoying roadblock to your next objective. Combat and stealth, meanwhile, are both about as bog-standard as they come.
Nevertheless, Wellington Wells is an utterly fascinating setting – whether you’re slumming it across the abandoned wastelands of the Garden District with fellow Wastrels or cautiously creeping through the rainbow roads of Hamlyn Village hoping no one will catch you trespassing. It’s bold and adventurous world design that should undoubtedly be praised. If story and atmosphere can carry a game for you, then you should be able to look past the weaknesses elsewhere to enjoy this quirky and distinctive adventure.