When I first saw We Happy Few it caught my attention something fierce. I love these types of sprawling first-person games with their interesting and unique worlds that practically beg you to explore their heavily immersive atmospheric environments until you've unearthed all they have to offer. I've spent countless hours playing titles like Bioshock, Prey, Deus Ex and others of their ilk so when I see a game in the same vein, I make playing them a priority over the rest of my backlog. We Happy Few is set in a retro-futuristic dystopian Britain where most of the populace is under the mandatory influence of a mood enhancing/memory loss inducing hallucinogenic drug called Joy. As fun as that sounds, it's an Orwellian-style measure put in place by the government after the war with Germany to keep citizens under sedation so they don't realize just how bad they have it. After spending around 20 hours with the game, I could have used about ten bottles of Joy myself. By the end of this review, you'll see why.
To better understand where I'm coming from, I first need to explain to you how Joy works in the game. While you're under its influence, everything is sunshine and roses. The birds are chirping away and the streets are paved with rainbows. Everyone looks happy as they gaily roam about the streets, splashing in the occasional puddle with childish glee. Then the drugs wear off and the world comes crashing down around you. This is a fairly accurate description of how I feel about We Happy Few. When everything works as it should, it is a wonderful game. The problem is, things don’t often work as they should and the game is a buggy mess. One example is when I came across a man on a hill in the middle of a field throwing rocks. The quest prompted me to go stop him so I walked up to him to talk, but the hilltop was designated as a private area which in turn provoked every single NPC in the area to maul me to death. One of the worst game-breaking bugs I’ve ever encountered happens when you go to upgrade a workbench at a certain point later in the game. Once the bench begins to upgrade, the entire Xbox went into a hard shutdown and I received a heat warning prompt after restarting. I legitimately believed my Xbox One was dying until I replicated the glitch five times in a row and then again on a separate day. Needless to say, I was not impressed.
It’s a shame, really, because there are some things that We Happy Few does very well. The setting is fantastic and reminiscent of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, with hints of the 2002 movie Equilibrium. Britain and the residents of the fictional city Wellington Wells are in dire straits. Food and resources are scarce and the entire population is hopped up on a dangerous drug called Joy to control their mood and mess with their memory while the government censors all news that may be unpleasant for people to read. People who don’t take their Joy are called “Downers” and are either chased out of the city to live in the destroyed ruins of houses dotting the outskirts; else they’re murdered in the streets by the citizens and tall imposing Bobbies in their creepy white masks. Our very British protagonist, Arthur Hastings, finds himself in this very same predicament after he has a memory of his brother and decides to stop taking his Joy. After a disgusting scene with his coworkers eating a rat, he is promptly found out and is chased out of the city. While it starts off great, the narrative stumbles and falters about halfway through. At first, there is some solid storytelling with Arthur having fragmented flashbacks of an incident with him and his brother and a train, but these start to feel stale and repetitive about ten hours in. It feels like being drip-fed details of an interesting story that never fully comes into fruition.
While the overarching narrative sadly turned out to be a dud, the cast of oddball characters and sometimes absurd events that take place over the course of your adventure are interesting and gave me plenty of incentive to keep playing. I’ve had to disguise myself as a government-approved popstar who accidentally electrocuted himself in the bathtub when I broke into his house to meet him, in order to gain entrance to a church contest of Simon Says where the penalty for failing is getting a severe electroshock just so I could win a fancy set of medals. So yeah, I’ve seen some crazy shit. Arthur (the main protagonist) is the very picture of meekness and the combination of good character writing and voice acting shows this beautifully. The way he laments about the savage ways of the world when he is forced to defend himself from an enemy or the way he whimpers “it’s better this way” as he chokes an unwary enemy into unconsciousness drives home the point that he is not a violent man and he loathes that things have come to this. It makes for a nice change of pace from the usual sort of titles where you can kill a hundred people and it has no effect whatsoever on the protagonist.
Exploring the fictional world of Wellington Wells showcases just how beautiful the graphics can be, from its lush green countryside and absurdly colorful city thoroughfares to the villages full of ruined, derelict houses and shabby-looking vagrants. Anyone who has played titles like Fallout and Elder Scrolls should be familiar with the grind of searching every nook and cranny for crafting materials and other loot, hoarding them like obsessive pack rats. We Happy Few has you has you doing the same in the name of its crafting and survival systems. You will have to look after Arthur’s human needs such as food, sleep, and drink as you journey around Wellington Wells. These gameplay systems are nothing special: it has all been done before in bigger, badder games. If you just want to play the game without worrying about managing hunger, fatigue and whatnot, you can actually turn it off when starting a new game.
Occasionally there will be multiple ways of dealing with the situations and quests you’ll run into. You can force yourself through when all else fails (it usually does) or you can try your hand at stealth. Luckily for you, Arthur also has a knack for blending in with the crowd. Wearing an outfit appropriate for the area you are in often allows you unfettered access without the worry of being beaten to a pulp. Once you get farther into the game, you’ll have to start worrying about managing your Joy meter. Taking Joy allows you to pass through Joy detectors without alerting the locals and turning them hostile. There are also creepy doctors who can sniff out people who don’t take their Joy. The problem is maintaining a balance of Joy in your system because once it runs out, you crash and look like trash, alerting anyone who sees you in that state. Taking too much is just as bad. Overdosing causes you to have an episode of memory loss, which more or less has the same effect as crashing. You can go a good chunk of the game without taking Joy, but whenever you’re in the big cities dealing with it is a must.
A good chunk of the quests grants you skill points upon completion. You can then spend them on one of Arthur’s skill sets for new skills and perks. This is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game. For my playthrough, I focused on health increases and skills that helped me blend in better with the annoying citizens. When in the cities, you have to watch out for just about everything. There are machines that suss you out when you aren’t on Joy; Bobbies patrolling the streets; and citizens that will start attacking you for suspicious behavior like crouching or running. In addition, there is a curfew after dark and Bobbies will attack you on site. It makes operating in the city very difficult, but luckily there are some extremely useful perks to be learned that allow you to more or less act freely. If you ever find yourself playing this game, learn those perks ASAP!
In the end, We Happy Few is quite the paradox to me. It is an odd concoction of great game design and shoddy mechanics. It is a wonderful game but laid low by its many flaws. Every now and then a bright glimpse of what could be shines through but is ultimately quashed by the realities of its current state. I can honestly say that I looked forward to playing it every time I booted it up, but after about 15 hours when the plot failed to properly materialize in a meaningful way and the myriad of technical issues, I decided to put an abrupt end to my journey in Wellington Wells.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 5/10
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