In 1985, Terry Gilliam wrote and directed my favorite film Brazil, which injects the absurdist comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus into a nightmarish and decidedly unfunny dystopia of George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984. In it, Jonathan Price is Sam Lowry, a “happy in his place” bottom-rung bureaucrat who dreams of flying through the clouds with his dream woman. When she turns out to be a real person trying to fix a wrongful arrest of a neighbor’s husband, Sam’s search for her opens a blind eye towards his complicitness in a system built on torture, authoritarianism, ruthless opportunism, and endless paperwork.
We Happy Few, developed by Compulsion Games, mirrors the Terry Gilliam film in a lot of ways. Arthur Hastings is a stand-in for Sam, and is responsible for censoring news articles on behalf of the government. When he stumbles upon an article about his younger brother, it triggers memories intended to be repressed by Joy, a government produced “happy” pill the use of which is mandated under penalty of exile. After being run out of his job for not taking Joy, Arthur finds himself on the farthest of three islands that make up Wellington Wells, a community located off the coast of mainland Britain where all of the Joy-addled elite and Downers, the wastrels who resist the effects of the drug, are quarantined. Here he experiences the effect of their lost battle against the German army and rubs shoulders with those no longer susceptible to Joy, forcing them to remember “the very bad thing” that the drug was supposed to make them forget.
As I discussed in my preview of the game in June, We Happy Few went through a number of changes since it launched as part of the Xbox Preview program two years ago. What was originally a survival sandbox game was transformed into what felt like a story-driven adventure game with a sprinkling of procedurally-built content. It was easy to initially draw comparisons between it and BioShock because both tossed players into a dangerous, stylized world filled with colorful characters built on the foundations of a thoughtful narrative and intense world building. And so, when I launched my review copy on PC and got past the area I played through in the demo, my expectations were turned on their head once again. The retail release of We Happy Few is an open world, stealth survival game where crafting is just as important as studying patrol routes and finding places to hide.
Wellington Wells is a far more dangerous than Arthur was led to believe (or chose to ignore). These fictional islands are divided into two major districts called the Garden and the Village of Hamlyn. Despite its name, the Garden Districts are where the Downers, those that can no longer function under the influence of Joy, are sent to fend for themselves despite the squalid living conditions and toxic bogs left over from the chemical attacks that brought Britain to its knees and triggered a festering plague. “Order” is kept by a gang of hoodlums, eager to throw and often victimize other citizens for their own selfish needs. Meanwhile, Hamlyn villages are the sanctuaries for the Joy-dependent men and women who strut along rainbow-colored streets, enjoy warm and comfortable homes, and are encouraged to ingest as much drugs as possible lest they draw the eye of roaming Doctors and trigger Downer detectors.
Like the Headboy hoodlums in the Gardens, masked Bobbies patrol the streets day and night to make sure everything is on the up and up. They won’t commit random acts of violence and terrorism, but if they are alerted to the presence of Downers, they will ruthlessly hunt them down. The Garden and Hamlyn villages contribute to a great world building, which is the best thing We Happy Few has going for it. I love the use of Joy as a concept and how deeply it’s been ingrained in the daily lives of the “Wellies.” By gathering notes, post-war flashbacks, talking to quest NPCs, and environmental storytelling, a well-developed picture of a society begins to form, a society so driven by the guilt of something so terrible that they willingly create a form of government so desperate to forget that they’ll lace their food and drink with mind altering psychotropic drugs.
Staying alive and away from scrutinizing eyes are the only ways you’ll reach Britannia Bridge, the primary path out of Wellington Wells and back to the mainland. Stealth plays a large role in story and secondary missions because Arthur almost always has to sneak past Bobbies, Headboy gang members and regular folks that don’t take kindly to his trespassing. Tall grass and discreet air vents are the best way to get around and even study patrol routes because enemies show up through walls whenever you’re crouched. Should these be unavailable to you, glass bottles and other noisemakers can divert the attentions elsewhere. Silent takedowns are always an option for many of the game’s non-critical NPCs that get in your way or need to be removed, though they don’t work on the stronger, more alert Bobbies. In the tradition of Metal Gear Solid, unconscious bodies can be picked up and hidden away or left out to attract other enemies and disrupt their patrol routes. In most circumstances, if someone sees you creeping around where you don’t belong, a meter appears over their head and slowly fills up as long as you’re in their field of vision. If you can escape before it turns red, they’ll investigate a little bit before going back to their business. Otherwise, they will pull out a weapon and give chase, leaving you to decide whether to run or fight. There are no penalties for fighting, beyond having to heal up and potentially facing a large group of foes. Still, with no instant fails to worry about, you’re free to engage in violence without game ending consequences.
Combat is nothing particularly special and feels designed to be intentionally simple. One butting swings the melee weapons you find or craft and another blocks attacks from enemies. There’s a shove maneuver that can break someone’s guard and gain some distance, and a perk to buy that lets you charge an attack for a more powerful hit. Most combat encounters involve you and one other enemy but if anyone catches you getting into a scrap in public, others come to their aid. In Hamlyn villages, the barrier holding people’s rage at bay is paper thin and if they see you sprinting, jumping, or climbing, they will alert the constables. Whatever the scenario, there will be moments where you have to fight and that means not dying. We Happy Few is packed with several difficulty modes that mitigate how hard combat is. If Arthur is beaten enough to where his health his emptied out, he’ll enter a “dying” state that will eventually kill him if he doesn’t heal up. It’s kind of a “hey, for reals, you’d better find a safe space to hide and heal up now” message. Status effects, like bleeding and food poisoning, can have adverse effects on player health that often need to be treated before healing can be performed.
On death, the game reloads you close-ish to where you fell. This is where things get a little confusing. Unless you’ve got Permadeath turned on, dying isn’t all that ruinous. I found that even though I died, mission critical items were still in my inventory. The game doesn’t really reload you to a checkpoint because there are no checkpoints, just arbitrary places where you’ll respawn. Running away from a fight is always an option. Gain enough distance from enemies and they’ll eventually give up and go back to what they were doing. Because there’s no “wanted” system in place to make NPCs exhibit any lingering animosity, Arthur can freely walk past those who attacked him and act like nothing happened. This highlights just how dumb the AI can be. I experienced numerous situations where people behaved strangely. After alerting the Bobbies to my misdeeds, I had one of them run past me like I didn’t even exist. He ran all the way down the street and turned a corner, never to be seen again. In another mission, I was set up with a forced encounter with street toughs in a thin alley. After the cutscene ended, the goons turned around and fled to the far end of the alley and just stood there doing nothing. The world may be against you though it is easily fooled.
We Happy Few has you managing Arthur’s health and well-being on a level that can best be described as micromanagement. Arthur’s continued existence depends on keeping him fed, quenched, rested, and healthy from infections and food poisoning. When Joy is introduced, taking too much of it trigger withdraw, overdosing, and memory loss, all of which affects your stamina, combat, and crafting abilities. See your doctor if it lasts longer than four hours. And to get even more granular, Arthur needs appropriate clothing to explore the Gardens and Villages unmolested. Should you wander into Hamlyn wearing rags, you’ll easily capture attention of the Bobbies and anyone who thinks you’re harshing their buzz. Not all character management is bad. Skill points earned from reaching story milestones and completing quests can be spent on a skill tree offering perks across stealth, survival, and combat. These will improve Arthur's combat abilities, make him stealthier, and blend into the environment better. Here’s a tip: get the perk that lets you sprint and jump and crawl without drawing attention. It’ll help you in Hamlyn locations immensely.
Another area of the game as important as stealth and character management is crafting. Useful items and gear can be found almost anywhere but if you’re really going to survive the dangers of Wellington Wells, you’re going to have to rummage through every trash can, toilet, mailbox, dresser and safe to stock up on components and ingredients to create usable items from new clothes to healing aids. You’ll be fighting over-encumbrance, but it’s wise to have as many components on hand to make items because you never know when you’ll need them. It’s faster than turning around and locating the nearest hatch, a secret underground safe zone Arthur can rest, store gear, and fast travel to and from other hatches. You can’t rely on the game to provide for you during missions, like pointing you towards a gas mask when a mission calls for you to walk through a large, toxic gas cloud. If you spend the time to explore, you’ll find blueprints that give you recipes for new and better weapons, healing items, and gear. Hamlyn Villages offer a lot more exotic and high-end crafting materials, though you’ll have to be careful because they’re a lot harder to gather unnoticed.
There is so much going here that it’s enough to make your head spin. And the end result is a weird mishmash of different gameplay elements that sometimes has a hard time staying in on their feet. The thing is, I really want to like We Happy Few - almost desperately so. I like the role Joy plays and when it finally gets introduced several hours into the story, it has cool gameplay implications and neat visual effects. As an idea, Wellington Wells is a fascinating place that drips with British politeness and affectations, which is funny as they are placed against the backdrop of a society hanging on by a thread. I especially loved how Compulsion uses the Joy drug as a concept, not just a game mechanic. Once you make your way into the Hamlyn Villages, you see how perverse Joy is and the different ways it is forced on people. It’s laced in the drinking water, and Mood Booths let you get your fix while on the go. Air systems pump a gaseous form of Joy into meeting rooms and other gathering spaces, and nefarious, trenchcoat wearing Doctors roam the streets, looking for people off their Joy so they can forcefully inject them with it. The depth with which Joy has rooted itself as a necessary thing in Wellington Wells gives so much character and means for everyone to forget the heinous act they committed to appease the German army.
As an open world map in a video game, however, it can be a frightfully monotonous place. Furthermore, every time I would find something that I really got into, the gameplay had a tendency of getting in the way. It’s like being in a bar and having a polite conversation, only to be ruined by some drunken clown screaming to no one in particular that he can belch “God Bless America.” The stealth mechanics, which represent the majority of the game, doesn’t require a whole lot of effort or thought behind hiding and waiting for people to go away. Crafting can punish you if you don’t explore. The design of the game world is also a little problematic. Whether you’re in Hamlyn or the Garden Districts, all populated areas are surrounded by large, empty swathes of grassland and trees. Outside of towns and cities, Wellington Wells is a boring, lifeless space and the only thing to really accomplish there is herb gathering and the errant fetch quest location. At night, Bobbies and gangs only patrol the streets which means it’s totally easy to avoid them by heading off the beaten path. I found it easy to evade several pursuits by making straightforward sprints into the hills until they gave up. The monotony of travelling through the islands was amplified during a quest that had me spending so much time running from one end of an island to another and back again. It was one of the most padded out quests I have ever played. The communities themselves, with the exception of the Parade located on the final island, reuse a lot of assets and house layouts. Spending hours looking at the same bombed out houses and Hamlyn village homes gets boring. The game is often buggy as all hell, too. I experienced so many weird problems, from button prompts not working to people attacking me for no reason, that I struggled to be in control.
The craziest thing about We Happy Few, though, is what happens after you finish Arthur’s story. It took me eight hours to reach Britannia Bridge, and that’s with only doing a small handful of side quests. Eight hours of sneaking, crafting, running, and fighting to sit through a really poignant conclusion to this journey, only to be treated to a screen that says, “Act II: Sally.” When you’ve finished a playthrough of a character, there are two more to play the game as. To Compulsion’s credit, these new characters are not just texture swaps with different voices. Sally has her own skill tree with perks that make sense to her abilities and limitations. Arthur is great with melee weapons but Sally can’t use them. She can, however, use drugs to put enemies to sleep, can run a lot faster, and she also has a burden that must be addressed every so often. After Sally comes Ollie, a former soldier whom Arthur meets during the first few hours of his story. Ollie has is own reasons for wanting to leave Wellington Wells and must do so while managing a poor physical condition and a tendency to yell at people which could get him in trouble. All this extra game is cool, especially since some thought went into making Sally and Ollie feel different from Arthur and it’s fun to see certain story beats play out from their perspective. I think, though, I would have liked it if I could switch to these characters on the fly like in Grand Theft Auto V or at least given control of them at certain areas of the game.
We Happy Few is one of those games with a really awesome idea that’s weighed down by gameplay that doesn’t do it justice. And I think the the identity crisis it suffered might have something to do with it. Quest designs are boring and often not worth the trouble going into them, bugs and technical problems are all over the place, and the marriage of so many mechanics feels shaky. There were things I did like, such as the impact of Joy and how it effects gameplay and manipulates your vision (enemies giggle and spew butterflies when hit), the writing is sometimes good and the voice acting is great. I’m also a huge fan of the stylized 1960's aesthetic, from the interior decoration to clothing, and live action bits starring the creepy Uncle Jack, whose white painted face exudes a malevolence as he reads bedtime stories, announces curfews, and offers words of encouragement. I want to experience everything this world has to offer and it’s a shame that the playable material doesn’t have that same appeal and depth. We Happy Few could have been a great psychological thriller but its muddled vision and scope leaves it trailing behind the merit it deserves.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.