We Happy Few
There’s a point quite early on with We Happy Few where a familiar sense of atmosphere sets in. Having gone through the motions of the opening sections, main character Arthur finds himself in the lush yet abandoned fields outside the city proper. One of the first structures we come to is suitably derelict, and once inside the home our attention is drawn to a large scrawl on the wall of two children with their faces scribbled out. In the background an eerie tune plays on a record player, the sort of track that wouldn’t be out of place in the latest psychological horror. Toys are strewn about the beds upstairs, while Arthur alludes to some major, catastrophic event.
There are no enemies, no detectable threats, and yet there’s still a tangible sense of dread. The building might look different, the rolling hills might not conjure a sense of claustrophobia, but the tone is so familiar it’s enough to think a Splicer might be standing right behind us the moment that creepy record is switched off. The Bioshock sensibilities are strong here, and We Happy Few does a commendable effort of withstanding such comparisons. And in much the same way that Rapture is iconic for its sense of place and of purpose, so too is Wellington Wells.
A mix of style and its Sixties setting gives We Happy Few something unique. As the story unravels there’s a good amount of depth to it. There are no real ‘would you kindly?’ moments and no overarching Andrew Ryan characters to espouse political musings about the state of the town and, with it, human nature, but it is a fulfilling story, and perhaps the key reason to give We Happy Few a shot. There’s a quality to it, too, with authentically British dialogue and voice acting that could have all too easily fallen apart.
The crux of it all revolves around the hallucinogenic Joy, a literal happy pill that keeps the populace in a constant state of euphoria and as a result placated and malleable. It’s all a little Brave New World, but it’s a dystopian idea that is rarely explored within videogames. you’ll play as three distinct characters, each with their own specific input into the narrative. But Joy is more than just a plot device: since the town’s inhabitants have become so culturally reliant on the drug, anyone who doesn’t partake is chastised and even, ultimately, run out of town.
Therein is the major function of the gameplay, where you’ll need to interact with the world in an subordinate manner: walk, don’t run; wear the right clothes; keep that smile up. It’s about balancing the Joy dependency, which – when taken – gives the world a visual glow and helps calm those otherwise hypersensitive npcs. However, it can be something of a nuisance. The withdrawal effects are debilitating, for example, and will be a surefire giveaway that you’re a ‘downer’, leading you
THE GAME is ABOUT BALANCING SOCIAL ANXIETY WITH GETTING TO WHERE YOU WANT TO GO
to have to spend an awkward amount of time hiding from sight until the withdrawal has worn off. It is such a bother, in fact, that it’s actually better to ignore the drug completely and just race around the town getting to your destination and just deal with the consequences – thereby undoing the whole central mechanism around which We Happy Few revolves. If that means a fight with a group of the local bobbies, then so be it. Combat is weighty enough to be enjoyable, though not so much that you’d rather instigate a potential life-threatening ruckus than avoid one. But it’s still the better option than wasting time hiding under a bed.
Things aren’t helped much by the fact that the game becomes little more than one long fetch quest, into and out of the town. It’s sandbox in nature, an open-world environment, but one that doesn’t really have much in the way of player involvement. It is a setting, not a playspace, in part because playing in such a space would only draw attention in its society of conformation.
There is exploration, though, which means rummaging through bins for bobby pins and gathering up scraps of cloth. Perhaps a failsafe from the recent trend of survival games and the game’s heritage within early Access, but all this means is that you’ll spend much of your time in the game vacuuming up parts just to craft various items later on. It’s almost arbitrarily added on and doesn’t really add much to the game; if anything, it detracts from the strengths of the world, since it becomes less about interacting and exploring and more about crouching about rifling through filing cabinets and drawers. There’s no real desire to do so, either, it’s just built on the innate gamer’s compulsion to hoard things.
The issue is that this weakens the benefits of the game, though. We Happy Few is a confused title, at once solid in its identity but with a set of gameplay systems that are at odds with its own goals and themes. The idea is to make the player feel a sense of paranoia as they explore the world, but that doesn’t happen; instead it’s just a set of frustrations. you’ll be irritated about having to swap outfits according to your location, hunting down specific crafting parts just to progress the story or the having to balance social anxiety with getting to where you want to go.
Its story is well-told and a treat aesthetically, and in that sense it’s appealing enough that it’s worth playing for that alone. But it suffers for its mechanisms: in much the same way that the overuse of Joy is a detriment to the inhabitants of Wellington Wells, a little more restraint from the developers could’ve allowed for a more finely honed experience that doesn’t struggle with its systems to allow the intrigue and style to rise.
VERDICT 6/10 a compelling story but mundane survival Gameplay
above: Combat does a good job of having an impact, but can be tough against three or more enemies, so it’s often better to avoid if possible.
above: The retro-futuristic style is perhaps its most winning achievement, utilising a thematic look of the Sixties, except with Fallout-like technology.
below: each character has their own preferential playstyle, but not to such an extent that it’ll direct how you play. Sally can create an alternate drug called Happiness, which gives the outward effects of Joy, but none of the withdrawal symptoms.
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