After hearing so many different things over the years, I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the Compulsion Games’ stealthy survival trip We Happy Few. When I first started investigating the title during its adventure through early access on Steam, I didn’t pull the trigger to see what all the fuss was about. Instead of dropping cash to see how the game grew over time, I opted to wait for the full retail version, which means I can’t really comment on the game’s birth as a supposed sandbox survival title to a story-driven adventure with some light crafting, combat, and resource management. As it stands, We Happy Few scratches my itch for dystopian violence and satire while assaulting my senses with Terry Gilliam-inspired visuals and a few moments of genuine emotion. That said, the developers don’t execute everything with style and grace, especially when it comes to the game’s stealth and combat mechanics. Thankfully, these moments are just minor bumps in an enjoyable albeit disturbing journey through tragedy and regret. This story will stick with me for a while, that’s for certain.
You begin the game as Arthur, a mild-mannered government employee who spends his days redacting newspaper articles — in short, he gets paid to erase the past. If it’s bad news, then it gets smothered in black ink. If it’s good or otherwise bland news — something that won’t offend the masses — then it’s cleared for consumption. You see, the people in Wellington Wells (which exists in a world where the Germans successfully invaded England during the Second World War) did something pretty horrible back in the day, and it’s a stain on their history that they’d like to forget. To keep those horrible memories at bay, they began taking a pill called Joy, which turns the world into a colorful utopia where they can, for instance, gleefully chow down on small animals they see as candy. However, horrible memories have started seeping out of poor Arthur’s brain, causing him to remember a part of his life he’d otherwise like to forget. When he stumbles across an article about himself and his brother from long ago, he can’t resist the urge to delve into his past. Before long, all hell breaks loose.
During his journey to reconcile his past and locate a missing member of his family, Arthur comes into contact with some quirky individuals from his past, including Sally Boyle and Ollie Starkey, two characters you’ll end up spending quite a bit of time with before the game comes to a close. Both characters have different traits, personalities, and movesets (Arthur can choke out unsuspecting enemies, for example, while Sally needs to syringe to do the job). You’ll take control of the characters according to where you are in the story; you can’t switch freely between them whenever you feel like changing things up. And although I ultimately preferred Arthur’s story to the other two — his arc seemed a bit more heartfelt and genuine to me — it’s interesting to see this engrossing world through the eyes of three different people. These aren’t simple “reskins” — Arthur, Sally, and Ollie are three very different characters, and each has their own demons to exorcise.
Make no mistake about it: We Happy Few is a dark, dark game. Although the title’s art style suggests it’s more of a cartoony take on A Clockwork Orange or Brazil, the unsettling and downright horrifying secrets lurking within the heart of Wellington Wells is enough to give even the hardest of hearts pause. I’ll stop there to prevent myself from traipsing into spoiler territory, but let’s just say there’s a very good reason the citizens of this English town have decided to bury their past inside a chemical high. Those who decide to kick the habit and others for whom Joy no longer works are cast out of the city, forced to spend their days in crumbling houses with their memories. It’s an interesting dilemma: Do you face and live with the skeletons in your closet, or do you hide behind a drug that can allow you to live in a fantasy world where your sins are forever locked away? The game handles this story quite well, especially when you get to see things through the eyes of separate characters. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn’t always keep up, and it fluctuates from pleasant to downright frustrating.
As soon as you escape from the tunnels beneath Wellington Wells, you emerge into a world filled with clutter, trash, and junk. To survive, you’ll need to collect this stuff and fashion it into items you can actually use (scraps of cloth become dirty bandages, bobby pins serve as lockpicks, etc.). This means you’ll spend a fair amount of time rummaging through bombed-out houses, trash cans, and anything else that serves as a container. You’ll also need to eat, though healthy food isn’t very easy to come by for those living on the outskirts of Joy-soaked society. Oftentimes, when your character’s hunger becomes detrimental to your survival, you’ll have to nosh on a rotten onion or a nasty potato, which could have serious short-term side effects on your character. And heaven forbid if you nibble on a hideous carrot covered in rot right before you have to square off against a handful of well-armed adversaries. When you’re sick to your stomach and suffering from food poisoning, swinging a shovel at your foes becomes a desperate and futile act. It’s these harrowing moments when We Happy Few shines, even though the combat system itself occasionally feels a little too loose and unrefined to do much good.
Specifically, We Happy Few tends to fall apart during some of its stealth sequences. Yes, sometimes you can go in swinging and come out victorious, but when you’re up against, say, an entire squadron of elderly soldiers inside an old military camp, it’s best to do some sneaking. Prowling around in bushes can help you stay in cover, but it’s difficult to tell which ones will keep you hidden. Some bushes and plants that seem capable of keeping you tucked away from your enemies don’t work, even though they’re thicker and denser than those that can. When it works, you can agitate the hell out of your enemies with rocks and darts and snicker while you ruin their days. However, just when you think you’ve gotten away, three goons will suddenly loom over you with weapons raised — all because of a bush. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the greatest at sneaking and stealth games, and I’m aware of when I suck and when the game is working against me. Sadly, I felt that We Happy Few spent more time bending its own rules to allow my adversaries to find me even though I’d done everything within my power to stay out of eyesight. Again, this might be a user issue — and I wouldn’t be at all surprised — but those who struggle with stealth should keep in mind that there’s a high risk of unchecked rage in your future. This one doesn’t always play fair.
As far as presentation goes, We Happy Few looks fantastic. Although the ruins surrounding the Parade District (the area where those who habitually and consistently take their Joy reside) look a little drab and same-y, the game takes an interesting turn when things get colorful. Watching the citizens go about their daily lives while completely blitzed out of their skulls never gets old, and the art design recalls the work of Kubrick, Gilliam, and good ol’ 1970s psychedelia. But don’t let these colorful moments fool you; when the game needs to get nasty, it does so with lots of shock and a fair amount of blood. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches, especially when it comes to the horrible acts the people of Wellington Wells committed in the past. A simple excursion into an abandoned home might turn up dead bodies or suicide victims. I encountered more than a few people dangling from ropes during my adventure, and considering the backstory, these moments paint pictures that are difficult to forget. The world-building in this game never fails to impress, even when the gameplay muddies the water.
Although Compulsion Games might hammer them out before the game finally hits retail, We Happy Few does sport a few annoying bugs that do more to disrupt the atmosphere of Wellington Wells than break the game. More than once, I spied characters sitting through furniture as opposed to on it. Occasionally, the people I attempted to talk to would begin to repeat one particular animation, effectively locking me out of any possible conversations. And on a pretty solid PC, the frame rate had a tendency to dip during heavily populated segments, but it never slowed to an absolutely unplayable crawl. Again, these aren’t problems that would destroy the experience and prevent me from moving forward, but they do disrupt the immersion, which is important when you’re playing a game packed with so much delicious atmosphere. That said, once you’re up to your neck in Wellington Wells’ world, chances are you won’t even notice them.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through the colorful and frequently depressing world of We Happy Few, I can’t help but feel the game doesn’t fit together as well as it could. The crafting isn’t overly impressive, and trying to keep your characters from experiencing the ill effects of thirst and hunger seem like afterthoughts. Fortunately, those who don’t enjoy survival games can still play through the story on “easy,” which will make things like combat and satisfying needs take a backseat to the elements the game gets right. Even if the stealth mechanics don’t always work like they should, I still found myself pulled into the world Compulsion has crafted. Sure, it would have probably worked better as a straightforward first-person adventure game as opposed to a stealth-survival title, but I’m willing to set aside those missteps just to immerse myself in this story. As long as you know what you’re getting into and don’t mind stumbling your way through some extremely irritating moments, it’s worth the twenty or so hours you’ll sink into it. We Happy Few warrants your attention, but maybe not too much hype.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Compulsion Games.
We Happy Few doesn't always come together to form a cohesive video game experience, but its story and art direction are nothing short of fantastic. Had the developers dumped the stealth and survival mechanics, I'd love this game to death.