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Review: We Happy Few Squanders its Compelling Setting

Screenshot: We Happy Few

Developer Compulsion Games has been turning heads with We Happy Few for the last few years. Its extremely creepy and unique looking world which was oozing with style and haunting atmosphere in equal measure. After a mostly positive reception on Steam as an Early Access release, We Happy Few expanded in scope after Gearbox Publishing picked it up. Originally focused on only one character, now there are three playable characters and a whole lot more game as a result.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

We Happy Few takes place in a post WW2 dystopia where Germany conquered the UK.  All of the children were taken, and the remaining citizens are controlled with drugs. The drug’s name is Joy, and it’s designed to make you feel good while forgetting your past—and if you’re caught without it, you are considered a “downer.”  The setting is extremely interesting, and well realized. We Happy Few does not satisfactorily answer all of the questions that arose during my time with it, and I’m so compelled I would play a sequel just to know more of the alternate 1960s. But, as interesting and potentially huge the alternate history aspect can be, it’s only ever just a backdrop for a few small personal stories.

We Happy Few is a first person action adventure game. It resembles games like the Bioshock series in many ways. You can explore its interesting open world and discover side quests, and there are lots of lock-pickable doors and containers that need to be pried open. There is combat, and a multitude of melee weapons—from cricket bats to flaming pipes with spikes on them that you can both find and craft. We Happy Few encourages stealth with and when it doesn’t, expects you to attempt conformity.  There are survival elements too, such as the need to eat and drink. Eating rotten food gives you a penalty, etc. Even the amount of Joy you take is a consideration, as you need to take the drug to blend into certain environments, but too much can make your character have a sickly episode. The addition of thirst, hunger, fatigue, etc adds nothing to the game, and I found it to be a constant annoyance that got in the way.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

Despite We Happy Few’s resemblance to Bioshock, it lacks much of the refinement that series is known for. Despite how much there is to do throughout the three characters’ journeys,  rarely is it interesting. The main mission and most side missions usually have you looking for someone, something, (or a combination of the two) to bypass an obstacle. Rinse, repeat. Even the more interesting side quests are a redressing of that gameplay. And while there is some choice in how you can approach some problems, most problems can only be solved one way, with those hoping for multiple solutions ala Bioshock or Deus Ex will be disappointed.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

Combat in We Happy Few isn’t a focus, but it does come into play a fair bit. There are no guns–instead, most combat is melee. You can even avoid most fights, even if you’ve drawn hostilities, as you can often run and hide–though that might not always be the case. You can craft melee weapons to help if you do get in trouble, and even different clothing to give you protection against damage. Though, what you wear and how you act should always be considered, as those around you are hostile you if you don’t fit in.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

Arthur is the first playable character, and his is probably the most important story of the three. Arthur serves as your introduction into this world, and We Happy Few feels like it was really meant to focus solely on him. It’s a very narrative driven experience with every character, but Arthur’s story has had the most attention put to it, and it has the most heart as a result. It’s not always told in a perfect way though, as certain moments that should have more gravitas are often quickly forgotten as you move on to the next task. It isn’t a feel good story either, as most memories that come back are that of horrible regret. Arthur’s story really does feel like the main event though, as the two other characters Sonya and Ollie share most of the same settings, characters, etc. Each are dealing with their own baggage, either emotional or literal, and despite how interesting the world is from their point of view, that point of view doesn’t really show us much we haven’t already seen by the time we’re done with Arthur’s story. Their stories, to me, felt retrofitted onto Arthur’s, like a downloadable content pack. That said, the variation they brought to the actual gameplay is notable and quite interesting, and it’s great to have this content included with the game’s base price.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

Arthur, Sally and Ollie all have their strengths and weaknesses. Each requires food, water, etc. with Sally and Ollie each having additional gauges to pay attention to. Their differences are significant: Arthur can run faster, and tends to blend in easier—being so nondescript. Sally isn’t as mechanically inclined, and she’s smaller and weaker—but her chemical expertise allows her to make a good amount of money, quickly.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

For a world set in a psychedelic 60s, it uses all original music. There are a few 60s pop references, mostly as quest names, but nothing pervasive. We Happy Few doesn’t really have a main antagonist. There are the constables, and the system that keeps the people addicted to Joy, but there’s a hint that the system is self-perpetuating, and that the masters have long since left. Not everyone is addicted to Joy—there are those who have escaped its clutches, either by a moment’s choice (like Arthur) or because their body has started to reject it. There are a few interesting characters you’ll come across, but few that are really standout. The enemy types are memorable, like the bespectacled doctors, or the constables with their-ever sneering white faces, but beyond Uncle Jack’s pervasive face, there is no “big bad” beyond “the system” standing between you and your goals.

Screenshot: We Happy Few

We Happy Few manages to create a compelling, creepy dystopia, but then it doesn’t really do too much with it. The world is so interesting and the game tries to be so big, but the gameplay, characters and events just don’t support as big a world as We Happy Few tries to be. A tighter focus on Arthur’s story would probably have been better than adding the two other playable characters, as their gameplay variations are interesting, but just not interesting enough to make the extra gameplay worthwhile. And while their stories are great, they just aren’t told with the same heart as Arthur’s. The gameplay itself is underwhelming, with nothing that really sets it apart from its peers.

We Happy Few is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC

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