We Happy Few
Publisher: Gearbox Publishing
Developer: Compulsion Games
Genre: First Person Open-World Adventure
Release Dates: 10 August 2018 (EU & NA)
Price: 59,99€ (Steam)
We Happy Few is a world heavily inspired by George Orwell's 1984 and considering the political landscape we live in nowadays it may hit too close to home for some people, but for the sake of not starting a political argument from a video game, I won't be making real-world to We Happy Few comparisons here, even though there are many similarities between the world of We Happy Few and the real world we've been living in for the past 2 years including lockdowns, mandates, forced drug usage, a pandemic, totalitarian authorities and a lot of media censorship. The world of We Happy Few is centered around this idea of happiness being a choice, but a choice that everyone must make or suffer the consequences of being an outlaw, and everyone that refuses to adhere to the rules shall be outcast from society so they wouldn't ruin the happiness of everyone else with their negativity and realism. The main piece of that authoritarian regime is based on the invention of Joy, a pill that gives people a temporary high, while also making them forget unpleasant memories such as the end of WW2 which took an alternate history route in this game and even though the Germans are mentioned many times throughout the game, it's never made clear what actually happened after the war ended and up until the Joy doctrine was put into place, probably because everyone took so much Joy that they forgot. "Take your Joy" is a phrase that you will hear a lot in this game and that is because taking your Joy periodically is mandatory and anyone refusing to do so is labeled a Downer, beaten down, and cast out of society by the cops or "bobbies" as they're called in the game since the game takes place in Wellington Wells, a fictional city-state inside of Great Britain, so there's a lot of British slang in everyone's vocabulary. While most of society has submitted to these rules and took so much Joy they literally forgot where their house is, there are people who refused to adhere to the rules, therefore being outcast out of the town and forced to live in what is called The Garden District, which is made up of multiple-segmented areas outside of the city, still left in shambles from the war and without the luxuries of the city like shops and restaurants, leaving the people there with only one option to feed themselves, which is to grow their own food, but that becomes more difficult as the soil becomes more infertile, resulting in many people dying from starvation, and to make the matters even worse, there's a pandemic out there that turns people into zombie-like creatures which will attack on sight.
You play as three different characters, each with their own separate act inside the campaign, starting with Arthur Hastings, a journalist working as a censor at the beginning of the game, which will quickly be outcast from the city after the events in the first few minutes, ending up in the Garden District, but still being able to return to the city later on, giving you a perspective on both worlds and as you get to see how differently people outside the city live from those on the inside. The second character you'll play as is Sally Boyle, a chemist and childhood friend of Arthur who uses her skills to make all sorts of drugs and medicine for the people of Wellington Wells, including Sunshine which is a placebo drug for Joy, making a user's eyes resemble those of someone who took their Joy, but without any of the other effects. Finally, the last character you will play as is Ollie Starkey, a diabetic middle-aged man having a hard time forgetting his dead daughter Margaret, but despite that, being a war veteran makes him a force to be reckoned with and the strongest of the three in a physical aspect. Even though the plot of each character makes them cross paths with each other at least once, the story of each character takes place in a different timeframe, therefore evolving the situation in Wellington Wells with each act without even needing dialogue, as the world around you will progressively change as you advance through the story. That is not to say there is no story-related dialogue, in fact a majority of the story is told through the dialogue, but a lot of the changes will also be reflected in the world around you and that's what makes this story worth following all the way to the end, and it's quite a long journey to get there too. That long journey is what may deter some people from actually getting to the end, as even ignoring all the side content and focusing entirely on the main story can still take you around 30 hours to reach the end and there's a lot of repetition too. Even though each character has its own personality, skills and goals, the story of each one takes place in the same location, be it with a few changes that you'll see for yourself, but you will often have to revisit locations you've been to with a previous character and do some things that you may have done before.
While life inside the city is joyful and colorful as everyone is friendly and higher than Snoop Dogg, life on the outside is grim as people suffer from starvation, plague and poverty, however, some of those things will change for both sides as the game progresses, but I won't go into further details for the sake of not spoiling any story bit. There is also a sense of routine as people go about their daily lives, visiting shops and friends, talking to other people on the street and looking into anything suspicious up until you unlock a specific skill, but you could break into someone's house and just waiting there, you'll find out people will eventually come knocking on their door and wondering why they're not answering, but this immersion will eventually break as well as characters start to glitch, walking through locked doors and forgetting how to walk, but maybe that's another side effect of Joy. The residents of Wellington Wells are also very engaged into Uncle Jack's shows which is this personality that appears on TV in different formats, reading the news, giving health advice or reading people a bedtime story, since apparently evacuating all the kids means adults turn into kids.
Since this a first-person open-world game, it plays a lot like other games in this genre and it doesn't really do anything new in terms of combat, but each character has a different approach to combat since Sally cannot withstand too many hits, so it encourages you to play stealthy when possible and use your crafted chemicals to dispose of enemies when not possible. Ollie on the other hand is a tall and overweight man, so stealth isn't even possible, forcing you to rely on direct weapon combat, but since his story is the last one, by the time you reach that point you probably mastered the combat system, which isn't that complex to begin with, as it's a simple game of block and hit when the enemy isn't blocking. Arthur is a mix between Sally and Ollie, allowing both stealthy and direct approaches, but he still has less health than Ollie and isn't as stealthy as Sally, which gives you options at first, but since Arthur's playthrough is the first one, this creates a problem of repetition later on as there won't be any new mechanics introduced in the other 2 stories aside from Sally's ability to spray enemies with different chemicals like Sleeptite which puts enemies to sleep without killing them or Hallucinex which gets them so high they'll completely forget about fighting you and start wandering around tripping balls. Ollie doesn't really have any specific combat skills of his own as he can wield any weapon that Arthur could and the only mechanic specific to him is the blood sugar meter which requires you to stabilize it by eating sweets or injecting a Glucose Syringe, but it doesn't really provide any refreshing gameplay, it's just another meter that you have to keep an eye on. In many cases, you can also avoid combat entirely by just running away, which is actually fairly easy to do, especially in the Garden District where all you have to do is get off the road and run towards the forest for enemies to give up and stop chasing you. In the city that can be trickier since there are people everywhere and if you get spotted doing something you shouldn't or pick a fight with someone, everyone will start attacking you and escaping them can be trickier, but by the time you reach the second act you'll probably have a map of the city memorized in your head well enough to know where some of the pipes are located, so you can just climb those and wait for the enemies to give up searching for you and then just walk by past them because you know, Joy makes you forget. There are lots of small mechanics that haven't been fully thought through and learning to abuse the enemy's limited detection range is one of those, but everything from combat to picklocking and stealing can be abused in some way which you'll naturally figure out eventually since the game is so long, so even if We Happy Few will seem like a satisfying experience from a gameplay perspective in the first few hours, it will eventually get very repetitive as you learn how to abuse those mechanics, master the simplistic combat and memorize the layout of streets so you always know where to run towards next.
One of the most unique ideas in the game is this concept of very strict rules when inside the city, so at first you won't be able to run, crouch or jump without NPCs getting angry at you and calling the bobbies, but this will eventually become obsolete since there are skills that once unlocked will stop NPCs from noticing any of those things, which is probably because at some point in development they realized having to slowly walk through the city in a 30-hour game and getting everyone on your tail as soon as you accidentally press A wouldn't fly with a lot of players and I have to agree, it would be pretty annoying if that skill didn't exist. Another one of the most omnipresent mechanics in the game, which is the fact that you have to be on Joy while inside the city is also completely nullified by a skill that will prevent other Wellies from detecting you if you are not on Joy and the same applies to the night curfew and the Joy-checker gates which can be hacked and put offline permanently. This creates a problem that may be very important to some players and not important at all to others, the fact that the most unique mechanics in this game are completely thrown off the window a few hours in, leaving you with a basic, limited open-world RPG, but at the same time, if they leaned all the way into it and forced you to slowly walk the streets, respecting all the rules, it would be an even more boring experience and probably frustrating too since an accidental button push would have the whole town on your tail. Following the main storyline will put you in a variety of different situations, teaching you the combat system, the stealth system and the fact that sometimes you shouldn't bother fighting anyone if you've alerted them and just start running until they give up, but despite a lot of repetition, there are some memorable and fun moments scattered throughout the campaign, it just happens that the good stuff is crammed in between a lot of repetition.
Aside from the main quests, there are also side quests, and while some of them like "Mystery House" or "I Yam What I Yam" are incredible side-stories with moments of humor, suspense and fun gameplay in new environments off the main path, they are just like the main content, crammed in between a lot of repetitive quests that have you running across the map doing errands and collecting items. Their number also decreases with each act, as Arthur's story has a couple of dozen side-quests, Sally's has about half of that amount and Ollie has only a few side quests in total, so even if the overall amount is decent, I would've preferred if they were more evenly distributed between the characters and more personalized in a story sense, replacing the errands with more moments of humor and intrigue. There are also collectibles and treasure maps that lead to buried treasure, but the best side content in this game is undoubtedly in the DLC, which focus on short stories with a different character each and new gameplay mechanics to play around, so if you're looking for a compact experience of all the things We Happy Few has to offer, the DLC is better at doing that than the main game itself. They Came From Below turns the whole game into a first-person shooter with satisfying combat, We All Fall Down focuses more on traversal and does that in such a refined way I can only wish those mechanics existed in the main game and the Nick Lightbearer DLC is just one of best things ever created and an experience that will stay with you even more than the main story.
While the graphics aren't anything breathtaking, the style really suits the type of game this is and the design does wonders showing the two different ways of life, with the city beaming with colorful roads and flashy signs, while the Garden District is full of ruined buildings and trash everywhere, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful as there's more nature present here than in the city and forest areas even though mainly empty are surreal to walk through. The animation plays really well in harmony with the style as the characters are expressive, despite everyone inside the city wearing masks, and the visual effects contribute enormously to the feel of the game as fog effects as well as different weather plays an important role not only visually, but also in terms of gameplay. There are also real videos used inside the game, more specifically the Uncle Jack shows, which run at fixed times inside the game and have different formats, and those are among the best things in the game as you'll probably stop nearby a TV to watch one of those at least once; also Julian Casey, the actor playing Uncle Jack is absolutely exceptional at the role and since TVs inside the game are usually quite small, you might need to rewatch some of those episodes from the Extras menu after unlocking them to spot some subtle elements in those videos that hint to different things inside the game, but I'd say it's worth it.
Alex Wyndham plays the role of Arthur, while Charlotte Hope takes on the role of Sally and Allan James Cooke voices Ollie, and they all do a fantastic job portraying their characters; they're authentic, natural, sometimes funny and they all relay their British nationality through the use of slang, accents and humming folklore songs. The cast of side characters is a mixed bunch, some of them also used in the DLC like Nick Lightbearer or Victoria Byng have professional voice actors and superbly written dialogue, but on the other hand, less frequent side characters can sound a bit bored and the quality of writing isn't as good. As for the NPCs walking on the streets, they often repeat the same thing over and over again, so if you keep trying to interact with them, eventually it will come down to everyone almost always responding with "Lovely day for it!". The soundtrack is absolutely amazing, especially if you like bands like The Beatles since a lot of it is in that style as there's even an in-game band called The Make Believes that has a similar sound and even though I've finished this game weeks ago, I'm still listening to the soundtrack every single day because it is that good.
If you were to rush through the main story of each character, you can reach the end in around 25 hours, but with all side content on top you can easily spend at least 40, and then there's the DLC which I cannot recommend enough, as I believe the best moments in We Happy Few are in its DLC, so if you want to platinum this, you're looking at about 65-70 hours, but a lot of that time will be spent doing repetitive tasks and walking around. There is a lot of content here, but the way it's segmented will probably throw off some people from doing everything, as the moment you finish Arthur's story, you start with a new character and no skills unlocked and an empty inventory, so there's that introduction stage up until you unlock the "rule-breaking-ok" skills to make it easier on yourself. Also, side quests and collectibles are tied to a specific character, so if you missed one during Arthur's playthrough, you will eventually have to go back to Act 1 to get it.
The idea behind We Happy Few is intriguing and in the current political landscape, also quite scary, but its execution isn't as smooth as it could be, as the segmentation of the story in 3 separate playthroughs even though unique, can throw a lot of people off from reaching the ending and many hours of repetitive tasks and walking will make you forget the great, shorter moments when We Happy Few truly shines. Despite that, the gameplay is fun for a while, even if that wears off eventually and the story is captivating enough to want to see it all if you've been hooked at the start, but there are many problems that a future sequel may address, however, if the idea behind this game sounds intriguing to you I recommend giving it a try and definitely play the Nick Lightbearer DLC.