There are some games in which you know what to expect from the first five minutes and that viewpoint doesn’t change or alter eight hours later. But there are other, slightly rarer experiences that surprise you at every corner, and just when you think you have things right in your head, they pull you in another strange direction and turn your thoughts upside down. We Happy Few is one of those games, one that has seen me bewildered, excited and, at times, a little bit sad.
I first encountered We Happy Few way back in 2016 when it launched in Game Preview format, sitting there for a couple more years before being deemed fit for full release. I loved the first half hour or so as it told an entertaining and intriguing story about a newspaper worker who refuses to take the mysterious drug ‘joy”, seeing the reality of the world in front of him – one that is not good. After this story-driven first part, you’re dropped into an open world village where it all becomes an experience focused on survival based mechanics and timed events. I was intrigued, but worried about what was to come…
Now that We Happy Few has arrived in its full fat form, the survival mechanics have been played down somewhat and the story mode has been ramped up, with not just one but three stories to follow. The main one follows the journey of the man from the preview, Arthur. The world of We Happy Few is one of a false utopia set in a different reality of a post-war Britain. But everyone takes Joy, a sort of recreational happy drug to hide the reality of the situation where everything is broken and in tatters. People are hungry, infected with disease and trampled on at every turn by the fascist regime in charge. Haunted by his childhood memory, Arthur decides to not take his drugs and has to try and escape both the status quo and the angry mob that follows him. See, he has now become a dreaded ‘Downer’.
The story, narrative, writing and world building is where this game excels, delivering a number of high points as it demonstrates moments of excellence, imagination, and innovation. The writing is of an absolutely magnificent standard with great characters, sharp dialogues and plenty of stories. I love the character of Arthur and his very English apologetic manner when knocking someone out or getting out of breath after running from danger. The tone and overall arc of the piece is a dark one with some quite heavy moments, but mostly it has a humorous tone with a slightly Black Mirror edge to it. It works very well indeed.
Gameplay wise and we have a definite mixture of highs and lows. Played in the first person with a heady mix of exploration, gathering items, crafting, survival skill utilisation and combat, it does at times feel like there’s just too much going on. The best moments occur as you move around this world, picking up items, and solving the main quest line and then the host of interesting mini quests you find along the way. They are all very varied and diverse in what they ask you to do, rewarding you with skills points and upgrades as you progress by completing missions and tasks. All this is fine and dandy, but there are bits that feel a bit jumbled and not quite right. The bobbies who are looking for you, and the joy meter that is utilised are somewhat confusing, bordering slightly on the annoying at times. There is also a night-time curfew that grinds the experience down to a halt, leaving you to have to sneak around trying not to be seen. It’s slightly tedious and in the end, I would just run, hoping that I could get away from the hordes of enemies following me. It seems to work reasonably well.
If things do go wrong, the combat works well enough too, with some great use of unusual weapons from a cricket bat to electrical stick. It does get a bit glitchy at times though, but never enough to see the enjoyment spoiled. That said, lengthy loading screens – especially those that kick in mid-action – can be a pain.
We Happy Few looks great though and it comes with a lovely bit of a Bioshock vibe to it. Once again the creativity gets to shine with great character design, embracing the swinging 1960’s tone mixed with the sort of strange cartoon world of the towns. Cutscenes are nicely designed and the level of detail found in the posters, documents and other little things you find are tremendous. The soundtrack is superb with a great musical scene mixed with a strange distorted feel because of all the weird Joy influence. The acting and voice work is brilliant, with some class actors on top form throughout. I particularly love the TV host with his creepy dandyish composure.
Even though the gameplay comes with its occasional glitches, has a bit too many things going on and is run by some strange mechanics, the story mode, characters, and overall tone are all brilliant and extremely well put together. When you think about all the chapters and side quests included – there has to be over 30 hours of gameplay here – it can’t be sniffed at. That sees We Happy Few live up to its promise and at the end of the day I’ve enjoyed this crazy world very much… as long as I remember to keep taking my Joy.