I was excited about this game, you know. It’s not often that we get such a bold art direction and a head-first dive into dark themes, putting exploration of the video game art form above creating gameplay that will sell as widely as possible. That’s what happens when you’re given a big budget as an indie studio, I suppose.
‘We Happy Few’ is a strange mixture of stealth and survival game mechanics set in an alternate 1960s London, where the English population is chemically sedated and controlled through propaganda machines and the mass distribution of a drug named ‘Joy’, which makes the rotting society around them seem bright and jovial; a homeless person becomes a jolly businessman, a bowl of gruel looks, smells and tastes like a delicious soup, and the masked enforcers who arrest or execute dissenting rebels take on the demeanour of jolly old bobbies. Everyone in this society is forced to be happy. A really fun and engaging premise, which for me evoked elements of 20th century Sci-Fi like ‘Soylent Green’, ‘Brazil’, and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Which I’m super into, by the way).Will Reviews – We Happy Few (Spoiler-free)
The problem comes when you realise that this concept, and inhabiting a space bearing it, seemed to be where the game’s identity ended – Mainly because actually playing the game is something of a chore, I’m sorry to say. The mechanics of the game revolve around a weird concoction of stealth-action and survival mechanics, none of which actually develop in any way that is engaging or creative. Aesthetic and themes aside, this is a passable game with no real creativity put into it, aside from the idea of ‘blending in’.
Blending in is a kind of social stealth, whereby the clothes you wear and the amount of Joy you’ve taken dictate how suspicious people will be of him. The problem comes when you realise that all this means is that you have to stealth around an area for a little bit if you aren’t in possession of the correct clothing (Wrecked clothing in the disillusioned areas full of rejects, and nice clothing in the drugged-up areas), and then you’re home free to explore the game’s environment as you see fit.
This is an issue because actually exploring the environment and taking part in the gameplay simply isn’t fun. The stealth, for example, is forced into use in really poorly designed environments. One really frustrating example was when I was forced to enter a building full of thugs, only for one of the thugs to be sat guarding the only entrance. I couldn’t sneak past him, and I couldn’t tackle him from behind because he was perched on a ledge – So I did the only thing I could do and tried to fight him man-to-man before entering the building. Big mistake. Within moments, five to ten goons swarmed out of the building, forcing me to run for my life. The problem then was that I couldn’t even enter the building, as every attempt was met with a swarm of the now highly alert and grouped-up goons. I had to resort to luring them away from the building, one by one, fighting them, leaving the area to scavenge for healing items, and then coming back until there were few enough enemies to make the stealth viable… And even then, we’re not talking about good stealth – Dishonored this ain’t. Nope, it’s plain old ‘Sit in the clearly defined safe zones until they turn around, and then choke them out’. Dull, repetitive, and we’ve seen it all before. This, not a game made to accommodate its fun and unique mechanics, its a set of mechanics made up to fill a game.
The world design is probably the worst symptom of this – The game is set in a compartmentalised open world, with areas and quests spread evenly across large open spaces, and this adds absolutely nothing to the game. It’s simply a feature that sounded nice on paper, worked into the detriment of the game as a whole. The open world simply adds a strange commute between missions and breaks up the pacing completely by making you detour from the main path to rummage for healing berries, completely killing the flow of the story. Imagine a James Bond film where every bit of travel between cities was met with 10 seconds of Bond getting on a plane, sitting down, opening a magazine, ordering a drink, getting off the plane, and collecting his luggage… And you’ll understand how pointless and mood-killing this commute is. This game would have great potential with a level-by-level design, giving the devs time and resources to hand-craft long stretches of gameplay rather than small moments dotted around an empty map. The game simply feels lifeless, lacking in anything that draws me back after I’ve put down the controller.
No, these mechanics didn’t come from their fit to the main campaign, they came from the original premise that the game was about survival, an adaptation of RUST or ARK with a more unique setting and overworld. As fun an idea that is, in practice it’s simply to the detriment of the ‘main’ game we got. For example, the game has food and drink that you have to consume over time to stay fed and watered, and this adds absolutely nothing to the game’s feel. We’re supposed to be on a highly atmospheric exploration of very ripe themes, perhaps even get the chance to explore our own world via this one’s allegory, but instead, we’re walking place to place across an empty space occasionally getting into a jankey fistfight or interacting with a really unnervingly animated NPC. If this game had taken the chance it had to set up meticulous situations through isolated courses which offer players a social or stealth puzzle along with a tension around being found out by the local police, this game would easily be able to stand with the big boys in terms of high-art games… But again, Dishonored and Bloodborne this is not, this is a mish-mash of ideas that sounded nice on paper but needed more thought put into it.
But I don’t want to end this review on a bad note, because this game certainly isn’t without merit. The fact of the matter is, that this game is imperfect, yes, perhaps even mediocre, but it broke the mold of what kind of games we’re used to seeing, at least from an artistic point of view. Games as of late, especially ones backed by entities like Microsoft directly, aren’t exactly growing on trees and this game deserves all the praise it can get. Given some more time and thought, the campaign could genuinely have been one of the most enjoyable I’ve played all year – It wasn’t the poor quality that lead me to stop playing, just little annoyances that got in the way, and made me think ‘I kinda want to play some more, but god damn I can’t be bothered’.
With some re-arranging of the locations we visit and the characters we encounter, the mechanics of play, and the level design, this game could have fantastic atmopshere and would have compelled me to take a deep nosedive into the ripe thematic core it presents. So my message to you is this: if the idea of ‘We Happy Few’ interested you, I’d recommend you give it a try. It’s not perfect, by any length, but it’s something I think we should all at least look at, as there are many design lessons to be learned. A great concept does not make a great game, but if you’re willing to put up with some slightly annoying level design and play with mechanics you’ve seen before, that price of entry may well be worth it if you’re wanting to experience the story it has to tell.
But to me, the takeaway experience was mediocrity that could have been greatness, so I give it a 6.0 / 10 – 5 for being average, with a bonus point for effort. Sound fair?