The world of We Happy Few is disturbing and unpleasant. A world where the horrors of what came before have left scars that no one truly wants to confront, lest they be forced to deal with the harsh realities of what really goes on in the city of Wellington Wells.
Small wonder then that the inhabitants of this city choose to keep themselves sedated with Joy, a drug that keeps them in a state of constant euphoria. It keeps them carefree and jolly, and sometimes it truly is better to leave the past behind. But on Joy, people don’t really seem to have a choice.
You might have already guessed this from my attempt at a dramatic opening, but We Happy Few can often be a very intense experience. Not in terms of gameplay though, I mean in terms of it’s story, which is by and large the star of the show. Told through the perspective of three very different protagonists with their own separate acts that you play through with their own unique story arcs and side missions, each of which are thoroughly engaging.
First is Arthur Hastings, a mild mannered redactor, who you both start the game as and play as the longest. After deciding to stop taking his Joy one day, he sets off on a journey to find his missing brother, learning more about his past as he does. He’s also the most balanced of the three playable characters.
Next up is Sally Boyle, a chemist who manufactures a special form of Joy for the city’s police. She is the weakest of the three characters in terms of physical strength, but makes up for it with her ability to craft unique items such as drugs and chemicals that can be used both in and out of combat.
And then finally we have Ollie Starkey, my personal favorite of the bunch. Ollie’s an insane former soldier who relies on brute strength in combat and has a penchant for explosives. He’s also an extremely foul mouthed diabetic who needs to constantly maintain his blood sugar levels.
Apart from the fact that each of these three protagonists have their own unique specialties that effect gameplay, they also offer vastly different perspectives about the goings-on in Wellington Wells. Their paths occasionally cross as well, providing further context as to their actions later on in the game.
I won’t spoil anything about the plot, but as I’ve mentioned before, it is the game’s strongest aspect. While occasionally comical, it goes to some very dark places through both the main campaign and through gold masks scattered across the map that give us an extended look at the character’s history. I was so thoroughly engaged by the narrative in fact, that I sometimes forced myself to grind through missions in order to get my hands on the next bit of story.
And I say that I forced myself, because the gameplay can get repetitive very quickly in We Happy Few. You craft weapons, tools and healing items with materials you scavenge in the world, and then use them to distract, knock out or kill the different enemies you encounter. Combat is fairly straightforward, with a button for attacking, a button for blocking and a wide variety of bombs and other tools to help you in these encounters. There is also a stamina bar that you have to regulate.
Blocking often times seems to negate a tremendous amount of damage, and I never actually felt that I was in any real danger of dying due to the fact the healing items are the easiest thing in the game to craft. The most challenge I ever encountered was when I would get swarmed by upwards of 5 enemies, but even that was easily manageable by just running away when my health was low and using a Healing Balm and then running back. Stealth is also an option for those who prefer a more subtle approach, and it’s honestly very basic so I don’t have much to say about it.
Outside of combat, you’re constantly scavenging for items and crafting things over and over again. New weapons, lock-picks, jimmy bars, etc. It’s engaging for a while, especially when you’re constantly finding new recipes for new weapons, but gets old fairly quick.
What is more interesting however is the game’s different survival and conformity mechanics. You need to make sure that you keep your characters fed, hydrated and rested at all times, or else it effects their stats like stamina during combat. You also need to craft bandages and different medication for afflictions such as food poisoning and flushing Joy out of your system.
Because one of the game’s best ideas are the different conformity mechanics. Downers don’t take joy and are hostile towards well dressed individuals, so you need to cut up your clothes with a rock in order to be able to walk among them without arousing suspicion. The deranged Wellies however are hooked on Joy, and will be hostile towards you if you show up in torn clothing. They’re also likely to attack you if they think you’re a downer, so you need to take the drug when around them to remain inconspicuous.
Taking Joy transforms the bland landscape into a colorful wonderland, and even changes your character’s gait. It allows you to blend in and bypass barriers such as Joy Detectors, but can prove dangerous when taken in high amounts. It’s an incredibly interesting twist that adds a whole new layer to the game’s otherwise basic stealth mechanics.
Yet even on Joy, you can’t ignore the game’s other numerous problems. Each of the different islands that make up Wellington Wells are certainly diverse, but a few hours into the game you start to notice similarities that are hard to ignore. The buildings in the procedural towns all start to look the same, and most of the variety is only found in the handful of carefully crafted interiors that you visit in your journey.
Playing on the Xbox One, I also encountered a large number of pop-in issues, and there were times when structures in your immediate vicinity just look downright ugly. There is also a near constant stuttering on the console that makes the game incredibly annoying to play. The frame-rate is better inside buildings, but outside in the open world, it’s horrendous.
In conclusion, We Happy Few has a compelling narrative that is sure to keep you hooked well into the 30+ hours it takes to finish the main campaign, and I’m not including the various side activities in this either. The problem however, is that it can often times be a very tedious and repetitive journey.
We Happy Few is out now on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and the PC. It is developed by Compulsion Games and published by Gearbox Publishing. This review covers the Xbox One version of the game.
The review copy was provided by the publisher.
We Happy Few had the potential to be an amazing game, but a lack of polish in many areas results in an experience plagued by repetitiveness. It’s still a serviceable game, it’s just not as great as we would have liked.