We Happy Few turned heads when it was first announced during an E3 press conference several years ago. The idea of an entire town kept docile through the use of drugs that force them to be happy felt very unique and dystopian. Not only that, but the game immediately earned Bioshock comparisons for its bold world and intriguing premise.
After a stint in early access, the game is out now on PS4. What began as nothing more than a procedural survival game has now been given a story that spans across multiple characters and areas of the game’s world. Now that I’ve had some time with the game, and it has received a couple patches to stabilize some issues, it’s time to find out if you should take the red pill and visit wonderland, or if it’s better to just take the blue pill and leave.
Ups, Downs, and Reading Between The Lines
Emotions are perhaps one the most subjective elements of the human condition. We can look at you, poke you, prod you, and make some assumptions about how you’re feeling or what is making you feel sick. It’s not so easy to look at someone and declare that they are happy or sad, fulfilled or depressed.
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, but we understand it far less. In We Happy Few, you play as three different characters across the game’s storyline. It all starts with Arthur Hastings, a man with a guilty conscience and a cushy job working for the local paper.
Like the other citizens of Wellington Wells, you take Joy. This drug keeps you cheery, happy, and carefree. It numbs you from any and all negative emotions or the ability to think about your past. From a government standpoint, it keeps the people (or should I say sheeple?) docile and easy to manipulate.
From the perspective of the people, it’s not such a bad gig, is it? Take your medicine, and never be sad. Well, much like the real world, you can’t live in a cloud where everything is always fine. That kind of glass box will shatter sooner, rather than later.
No, happiness is only fulfilling when it’s tempered by the darker moments. How can you appreciate the beautiful moments without suffering through the sad ones first? The latter gives you the ability to cherish the former.
If we were happy all the time, it wouldn’t be a special feeling. It would just be how thing are. Much in the same way, the world and characters of We Happy Few are numb to the world around them and walk through life like zombies.
It’s only when Arthur starts to go off the drug and his memories come flooding back, that he starts to see the world for what it truly is. In this alternate version of the world after World War II, the people of Wellington Wells have a dark secret in their past that led them to take these pills so they could forget.
Arthur too has a past he wanted to forget, but when it creeps back up, he makes the decision to not take another pill and instead face it. Like you would expect, things begin to go downhill. This world calls people off their Joy “Downers” and exiles them to the broken and rundown slums outside the main city areas.
Arthur’s story has him trying to survive in this world as an outcast, all while reconciling the past he tried so hard to forget. As the game goes on, you’ll eventually play as two other characters in a linear fashion, so there’s no jumping around here.
From a narrative standpoint, I like the linear nature that takes you through each character’s story completely before moving to the next. It gives you time to appreciate their nuances and skills before wrapping things up.
The world and extended lore that you encounter via documents, letters, and side quests, all feels unique and interesting. While you don’t have a ton of influence on how things play out, there are plenty of ways to interact and experiment with things like social stealth and taking Joy or trying to avoid the drug altogether.
While certain situations will force you into taking the drug, there are alternatives that offer similar effects without the negative side effects. The ability to overdose on Joy or go into withdrawal also adds another layer to the world as it lets you see the true side of it, along with the colorful facade that Joy provides.
Before we move into the gameplay, I need to address an elephant in the room. Since the launch of We Happy Few, I have seen a lot of flak thrown at the game’s developers over the perceived commentary on drug culture.
From what I’ve seen and read, it seems like a statement was taken out of context and blown outta proportion. People felt that the game’s story and the world was an attack at people who take antidepressants to deal with mental health issues, but I didn’t feel this way at all when I was playing.
Regardless of the game’s message, there’s no excuse for toxic behavior against developers. Other forms of art like books, movies, and television have all made bold statements on society and yes, even prescription drugs, and they were praised for it.
Real art, great art, is meant to make you feel something. Whether it’s controversial and it makes you angry, or it’s emotional and it makes you feel sadness or happiness, art is supposed to elicit emotion. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I’ll let you draw your own parallels between Wellington Wells and our world, but I thought the developers created a haunting vision of what happens when the government is given too much power, and the people become so desperate to forget their mistakes that they’ll sacrifice their own well-being just to feel some kind of surface-level version of happiness.
It is certainly one of the most unique and fascinating worlds I’ve explored in recent years, but the gameplay will decide if We Happy Few capitalizes on this unique world and solid storytelling.
Memorable and Varied Gameplay With Some Rocky Patches
We Happy Few is a game that pulls together a lot of different mechanics, but it manages to do so in a way that I really enjoyed. When the game first launched, and even after the most recent patch, it still has plenty of rough spots.
Performance wise, on PS4 Pro, I did notice frame rate drops and some stuttering, but the majority of my time in the game was relatively smooth. Bugs and glitches were pretty regular at times, but I didn’t experience any major crashing or save corruption issues.
Being a full-priced game, the lack of polish was hard to completely forgive, but I will say that when We Happy Few is firing on all cylinders, it’s a lot of fun. The game’s roots as a survival game are present here, but things like hunger and thirst provide buffs or debuffs depending on their status.
This means that if you’re hungry or thirsty, you may do less damage or have less stamina, but you wouldn’t starve to death while you’re trying to reach your next objective. I actually really liked this because it added some urgency to the survival and rewards for keeping them up, but it didn’t impact the pacing by stopping you in your tracks if you run out of food.
The game’s difficulties also allow you to customize the survival experience or remove it entirely, so there’s plenty of flexibility here that many have failed to mention in other coverage of the game. If you like the survival mechanics, leave them in. If you want a more traditional first-person action adventure, then take them out. It’s really simple.
There are handcrafted areas in We Happy Few, but the vast majority of the open world is procedurally generated. This leads to long stretches of land that look mostly the same, but it also provides some interesting areas to explore and loot.
Fast travel is offered in the form of hatches that you can find, which also offer workbenches to craft items you can’t normally make out in the field. Beyond the game’s main missions, there are also plenty of side missions to find, which range from simple fetch quests to really interesting and quirky side adventures.
I would have loved some more variety and consistency in the objectives as a whole. The game does rely on fetching items or components more often than not, but then it will throw a side quest at you about a cult that worships a sweet potato and suddenly all is forgiven.
While the game does focus primarily on melee combat with simple attack and blocking mechanics, the combination of stealth, combat, exploration, and looting all combined into a pretty addicting gameplay loop for me.
I loved seeing more of the world, even if it started to get repetitive, the next area would reinvigorate my interest. Uncovering more of the lore and story behind everything was also a powerful motivator.
It really just comes down to a lack of polish. The game’s bugs can range from quirky to downright frustrating, and when you add in the fact that the structure itself can wear on you from time-to-time, it becomes a hard sell.
That being said, the latest patches have improved many of the critical issues, and the team seems very committed to continued support and improvement. My hope is that many of the issues can be ironed out.
With more polish, We Happy Few is solid, if somewhat repetitive experience, set in a world that is wholly unique and well realized.
A Unique Style and Setting
The thing I love the most about We Happy Few is the sense of style and place that the developers have created. The iconic white masks with huge smiles and giant eyes have become synonymous with the title, while the cheery and colorful visuals represent the effects of Joy well when you’re taking the drug.
Simultaneously, the dead and dreary world you see when you’re withdrawing on Joy is a nice contrast, and the color palette in the middle works great as well for showing how the citizens of Wellington Wells view the world.
The distinct art style, the original music, and the stellar voice acting all offer excellent presentation for We Happy Few. Unfortunately, visual glitches and performance issues bring down this otherwise solid presentation.
While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend We Happy Few for full price, I do believe the developers will continue to iron out the remaining issues. If you find it on a sale, or new updates add some additional polish, Wellington Wells is one place I think we should all visit at least once.
Final Score: 7.5/10
A copy of We Happy Few was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 10/2/18