We Happy Few is a confusing game at first glance. It’s got the trappings, grand scale, and look of a AAA title. But dig a little deeper, and it’s really an indie title masquerading as one of the “big boys”. Given that just about everyone in the game wears a mask, this is a rather enjoyable double entendre, but the real question is ultimately whether developer Compulsion Games – one of the studios Microsoft announced it had acquired at this year’s E3 conference – was able to make us happy with its game. And the answer to that is: it’s complicated.
Compulsion’s first title, Contrast, launched alongside the PS4, and along with the amazing Resogun, marked the first PlayStation Plus titles of the generation. While it was ultimately a massive let-down, there were redeeming qualities to it. It was an uneven, buggy game that nevertheless had some redeeming qualities, and that by-and-large describes We Happy Few as well.
We Happy Few is an open world game that takes place in a dystopian 1964 England in a world where the Nazis won World War 2. Everyone who’s still hanging around is forced to take a drug called Joy that keeps people constantly happy and unable to dwell on their past or any negative thoughts in general. It completely alters your perception of the world around you. The contrast between the brightly coloured, 70’s world of Joy and the rundown bleak world that you see when off your meds – people who don’t take their Joy are referred to as downers – is fantastic.
Really, the hook of the whole game is fantastic. The dystopian world and the ideas presented are incredible and the environment of Wellington Wells is engaging to explore. For a time. The quirks of the gameplay start building and making the game feel more tedious. Resource harvesting and crafting are pervasive throughout the entire experience. Survival elements are a source of near constant irritation as well, although you do have a say in how important drinking and eating is to the game. If you set survival elements to low, it offers an opportunity to get a stat buff, but you can just flat-out ignore it if you want.
Much like the downers in the game who stop taking their Joy, the cracks in the world start to leak through and things begin to look bleaker. The game’s AAA scale is largely due in part to the procedural generation that Compulsion utilises to increase the scale of the game, which for the most part works. But that’s really all it does. It works. It certainly doesn’t improve the game. In fact, the game’s best moments are all the more tightly scripted aspects as it allows for the story elements to be more elaborate and for the environments themselves to be more guided. When you’re doing the disappointingly sparse number of more heavily scripted moments, the game plays and feels almost exactly like an open world Bethesda title. Which sounds like a compliment, but it picks up largely the negative aspects: uninteresting, if mostly serviceable combat, with peaks and valleys of enjoyment, lots of recycled and bland assets, and woeful technical performance.
The thing is, the game is a technological mess. We hit several game breaking bugs which were thankfully saved by the title’s mostly generous checkpoint system, and an innumerable number of other bugs that don’t really hamper the experience but really irritate. The most egregious of the performance problems however is the framerate. The game runs at a largely unstable 30 frames-per-second, but it dips heavily in moments of intense action. And it seems to be a compounding problem, as the longer the play-session is the more frequent and severe the frame dips get.
And it's a full $60 title, even though only one of its two “included” modes is functional. Sandbox mode, which allows you to more elaborately customise the environment you’ll drop into, is a more of a roguelike game mode and was heavily featured throughout the title’s lengthy run as an early access title. The other mode is story mode, which features three campaigns as you play as three different citizens of the Wellington Wells. The first campaign you play as a man named Arthur. This is where the first misstep of the story mode occurs. You don’t get to play each campaign independently from one another, which we think would work much better. The first campaign, which already ran us about 15 hours, felt like it was stretching things out a little too much, which immediately led into the second campaign, where you play Sally, and then after Sally, Ollie. Doing them one after the other felt extremely tiring and by the time we got to Ollie, or honestly even Sally, we really didn’t want to play anymore. The biggest reason for this is that what feels like a two hour story is strung out over a dozen.
The problems are especially egregious during Arthur’s playthrough, as his narrative is threadbare, and wildly uninteresting. The fact that Arthur’s true motivations are “the twist” at the end of the narrative hurts many different aspects of the title. Without the full picture of why Arthur is doing what he’s doing, many of the situations he flies into blindly are a bit too extreme. If there were so much as a hint that there was a deeper reason behind him doing what he’s doing, the narrative might not have felt so scattershot.
On the bright side, Sally is a vastly more interesting character, and is the real standout of the title. A chemist and mother who crafts black-market Joy, you actually first encounter her in Arthur’s campaign. In the two brief times you meet up she manages to be more interesting than the entirety of Arthur’s narrative, too. However, one really cool aspect of the title – this applies for Ollie as well – is that whenever you encounter a player character in each respective campaign they play out differently than the first time you saw the events. This pairs well with the nature of Joy, and how perceptions can differ from person to person. Frankly, it’ one of the coolest things in the entire game.
Each character does mercifully play wildly different from one another, with different physical limitations, run speeds, personalities, and even skill trees. Some abilities overlap, but they are for the most part unique to each of the characters. This ability to easily distinguish one character from the other is useful for justifying why each gets their own campaign, but we are still flummoxed as to why you can’t pick who to start with, or play them all individually.
We Happy Few isn’t bad per se, but it’s a very near miss, as the game comes right up to the brink of collapsing in upon itself due to its many missteps. It offers such an intriguing backdrop for its world, and really interesting art, that whenever it's more focused and non-procedural, it’s a grand old time. These spikes of enjoyment are however far too infrequent given the scale and running time of the title, often times leaving you floundering amid strong art direction and music without any real desire to actually play.