We Happy Few on PC
The bobby smirks at Arthur with his creepy, Cheshire cat-like grin, warning him not to get himself into any mischief or there’ll be hell to pay. He brandishes his baton menacingly, giving Arthur one last knowing look before turning away. It’s a tense moment, especially since you’re not sure if the bobby knows you’re secretly a Downer. After turning away, though, the bobby proceeds to walk in aimless circles around the bench Arthur is sitting on. Every few seconds or so, he’ll tell Arthur the same thing he did before —that he needs to keep himself out of mischief— then proceed to walk in circles and repeat the cycle.
This little anecdote could probably sum up my experience with We Happy Few as an entity. The game offers a compelling narrative and setting, but is constantly undercut by a lack of polish, which completely botches whatever underlying menace and sinister message it was trying to convey.
Developed by Compulsion Games, We Happy Few takes place in a dystopian version of Britain. In this world, the people have gotten themselves hooked on a drug called Joy, which puts them in a constant state of euphoria. The people are happy all the time, but side effects include severe memory loss, mindless violence, and the creation of an authoritarian government where those who aren’t on the drug are ostracized and beaten up.
The game’s first act puts you in the shoes of one Arthur Hastings, who holds a job looking through newspaper articles and censoring them before they’re released for public consumption. One day, he opts not to take his Joy, and memories of his childhood come flooding back to him. Before long, he’s recognized as a Downer (people who are off their Joy), and he’s forced out of the village. Arthur then resolves to recover as much of his memory as he can, while also going in search of his brother Percy, who had been sent to Germany when they were just kids.
We Happy Few’s setting serves as a nice backdrop for Arthur’s story, especially when the game delves into the political climate of this dystopian world, along with themes about the price of happiness and whether it’s worth living in a fantastical, dreamlike state rather than dealing with the horrors of reality. It’s really fascinating stuff, and his story only gets more exciting when you meet other characters with conflicting ideologies or different takes on the situation.
Art direction in We Happy Few is stellar, with neon colors popping in vibrancy when you first arrive in Maidenholm, contrasted with the gloomy greys of slum areas like Lud’s Holm and Barrow Holm. The character designs are appropriately unsettling and creepy, where every NPC has a white mask plastered to their face to make them look like they’re perpetually smiling. The cartoonish style of the game is beautiful and eerie at the same time, and there’s a lot to appreciate here in terms of art and visuals.
We Happy Few has plenty of story content to dive into as well; while Arthur’s story can take up to 10 hours to complete, there are two more character arcs to explore after that. The game lets you play as Sally, the drug dealer with a secret, and Ollie, a delusional Downer who hears his dead wife’s voice in his head. Sally and Ollie’s stories are a little shorter, but getting to explore Britain through the lenses of three very different characters provides We Happy Few with a great deal of depth to its narrative and storytelling. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that everything else about the game is just so awfully unpolished.
At its core, We Happy Few is a survival game, which is already an odd choice on its own. Aside from managing how much Joy you’re taking, you’ve also got to keep an eye on other needs your characters might have. For instance, Arthur needs to manage his thirst and hunger, Ollie has his blood pressure to look out for, and Sally, well, I won’t spoil what Sally has to manage as it’s actually quite an interesting twist in the context of the story. It isn’t difficult to find the resources you need most of the time, but it feels like unnecessary padding or busywork just to make you feel like you’re always doing something during downtime. If anything, it almost ruins the pacing of the story, as you’re constantly making sure your characters are healthy, managing their inventories so they don’t get overburdened with stuff, and it all just feels so unnecessary.
I can’t help but wonder how the game would’ve turned out if it had just been a linear story path that you could follow, or if Joy was the only thing you had to manage. As it stands, this means that the bulk of the gameplay revolves around collecting resources and making sure your characters never get too exhausted, lest they start underperforming in combat.
So let’s talk about the combat. To put things bluntly, the combat isn’t great. In fact, it’s kind of awful. You’ll primarily be using melee weapons, and you’ll hit the left-click to give your enemies a good whack. But when you take the stamina system into account, it’s not always easy to land hits on enemies, and you’ll also need to learn to block attacks and shove people away to break their guard. When you’re playing as Arthur and Sally, it’s generally unwise to face your foes head-on, and so you’ll have to rely more on stealth. And unfortunately, the stealth elements are easily the weakest part of the game.
For starters, enemy detection feels hit-or-miss most of the time. When you’re crouching, you’ll be able to see enemy footsteps on your screen, and sneak up to them accordingly. However, it’s not always clear what the enemy’s line of sight is. At times, I’ll be able to sneak up from the side and perform a quick takedown. Other times, I’ll be crouch-walking towards an enemy from directly behind, and they’d somehow hear me and get aggressive immediately. Even when you’re forced into full-on combat, AI behavior still feels incredibly wonky and stilted. Enemies will run straight at you and try to beat you up, so it becomes a matter of kiting groups around the room while you’re recovering stamina, then turning around and trying to get a few jabs in before you continue running. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can try to face the group head on and break their guard while trying to slap multiple enemies at once, but that’ll usually end badly for you.
With an unreliable stealth system, and poor melee combat bogged down by your character’s wimpy stamina bar, combat isn’t particularly fun or engaging in We Happy Few. It’s pretty tiresome, and the fact that most of the game funnels you through these stealth-based levels doesn’t make for a very enjoyable experience, gameplay-wise.
That lack of polish permeates throughout the experience, even when you’re out of combat. As per my anecdotal example from earlier, NPCs in the village serve no purpose other than to prevent the area from being empty. We Happy Few is a semi-open world game, where you can travel between the different islands and pursue side objectives, but apart from key NPCs who exist to give you quests, the rest of them are just there to walk around with no purpose. Bobbies will hunt you down at night, and doctors will come after you with chainsaws if they see you’re off your Joy, but everyone else just kind of meanders around. The open world ends up feeling hollow and devoid of any soul because of that. I suppose you could argue that the NPCs are soulless precisely because they’re so addled with Joy, but when they start walking around in little circles and saying hi to the same person every few seconds, or when their character models randomly disappear when I try to talk to them, it breaks any immersion you might have had in We Happy Few’s world.
We Happy Few is at its best when it concentrates on just giving you the lore and story details. The game’s writing feels a tad ham-fisted during its opening hours, but it gets progressively better once you get out of the tutorial island. The writing is so full of witty charm and dark humor steeped in British culture that satirizes some real-world situations in playful, and sometimes disarmingly profound ways. It’s also absolutely silly and plain psychedelic in the best ways possible. Just when I think I’m about to give up on the game for putting me through yet another miserable stealth section, We Happy Few puts its charming side on full display and lets me go on a rollercoaster teacup ride while I honk a horn and suck up rocks in a tube. The game thrives on the absurdity of its premise, and it’s the one thing that propelled me forward, giving me the willpower to see the story through to the end, because damn if I didn’t need it after all those painful stealth and combat encounters.
After completing all three story acts, I found that I enjoyed the journey the game took me on, but I was also overwhelmingly relieved that it was finally over. At the end of the day, We Happy Few leaves me feeling conflicted. I don’t ever want to put myself through that resource management slog ever again, but I can’t discount its sharp wit and captivating writing either. Ultimately, I can’t bring myself to give We Happy Few a wholehearted recommendation for the average player. This is a game that will test your patience, and if you’re willing to stick it out, you’ll be rewarded with a good story that was only let down by weird design decisions and flawed execution.
Score: 3/5 – Fair
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