“Don’t be such a downer.” No, this isn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch where trombone slides abound. This is the world of We Happy Few. Society has become hooked on a special brand of literal happy pills, aptly named Joy, and if you’re not willing to indulge, you’re going to ruin everyone’s buzz. With the entire countryside locked in a drug-induced euphoria, the harsh realities of the post-war world are masked from the population. That’s when Arthur decides to go off of his medication and things get a bit more interesting.
The Fog has Lifted
Free of the shackles of his own mind, long-repressed memories come flooding back to Arthur. Most prominently amongst these brief windows into the past is the loss of his brother during the war. Grief stricken, he sets off to find his missing sibling. Due to his excessive Joy use over the years, his memories come back in bursts. These exposition dumps play out primarily through voiceovers, set against a rotating set of still frame images. These scenes are nothing exceptionally compelling, but they sufficiently perform the task of filling in gaps in the intentionally spotty narrative.
Arthur’s story is just the first part of a three-headed narrative. Two other characters, Sally and Ollie respectively, also become playable once Arthur’s core storyline has been wrapped up. The plots of all three characters intertwine at different points, which in turn provide alternate perspectives on the events of the campaign, further elaborating upon this dynamic dystopia. A common desire to escape is what brings the triumvirate together, along with a handful of other narrative-driven reasons that I won’t touch on to avoid excessive spoilers.
All three of We Happy Few’s characters have their own unique quirks and special abilities. For one, Sally leans more heavily on the stealth mechanics than the other two, as well as her need to keep a certain balance to her character traits. Ollie, on the other hand, operates on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, acting as the explosive specialist of the trio. His personality is about as understated as a shotgun blast and has an endearingly insane character design.
Each playable avatar also dips heavily into the game’s original roots in the survival RPG genre. First conceived as exclusively a survival experience, the developers tirelessly worked to expand the single player narrative, in response to the Early Access audience’s desire to further explore the game’s world. As a result, there are numerous systems in place that you wouldn’t traditionally find in an exploration-centric game. Hunger, sleep, thirst, and wound management are all key factors to the survival of the player.
On the surface level these survival mechanics actually help to flesh out the realism, creating an intense need to constantly keep an eye on the character’s specific needs. A perfect example of this is Ollie’s blood sugar, which needs to be managed at all times in order to prevent it from impacting his overall health. However, after hours of balancing these teetering scales, it becomes tedious at best and downright irritating at worst. And this isn’t even considering the collect-a-polooza aspect of the design, which further slows down the progression of the storyline.
Crafting items from elements found in the environment also proves to be a constant grind. When not monotonously gathering enough materials to cobble together a health salve or lock pick, players are required to create unique clothing to maintain consistency with each new area they are visiting. If the locals perceive that something is off, whether it be a wardrobe that is too fancy for the borough or players acting as if they are off of their Joy, it will draw unwanted attention that manifests itself in increasingly violent ways. Oddly enough, the random passers-by are just as passionate about keeping you medicated as the law enforcement.
The whole point of taking Joy is to fit in with the rest of the populous. Once players have popped a pill or inadvertently drank from a water faucet that is laced with the chemical, the entire bleak and barren world is transformed into a beautiful inversion in virtually every respect. It’s almost like you are looking at the photographic negative, only it results in something far more positive. The impact is so substantial that the on-screen character will even start to gleefully swing their arms to exaggerate their movements. Only happy people do that, right?
Turn That Frown Upside Down
Despite being stuck behind the most literal interpretation of rose-colored glasses in history, characters still keep their wits about themselves. They realize everything that is going on, and also have to deal with the physical ramifications of coming down off of the drug, including hallucinations, bouts of blurred vision, or even vomiting. Taking Joy is not something that should be performed flippantly, as it can also have a long-term impact thanks to the cumulative total of all doses being tracked. Let’s just say that you won’t want to see what happens when you cap out that meter.
One area where We Happy Few really thrives are the shifting environments. Dark and bland settings are completely transformed under the effects of the drug into a psychedelic wonderland of rainbows and roses. The otherwise haunting atmosphere is key in making the shift believable. Everything from the physical appearance of NPCs to the way they interact will be transformed instantly. When not high, the desolate surroundings tend to be punctuated by either an understated background soundtrack or the uneasy, tinny tone of a record playing from somewhere on the map. I got the distinct feeling that the developer was trying to define the tone of each area through their song selections, ala BioShock, which worked to varying levels of success.
Speaking of mixed bags, let’s take a moment to touch on the combat mechanics for a second. If hard pressed, a single word could effectively describe the melee-heavy brawling: garbage. Sorry if that sounds excessively harsh, but when a core pillar of a game’s mechanics revolve around fisticuffs, I would have expected the fighting to be far more polished and streamlined. For one, there is an energy bar that slowly recharges, but essentially limits the number of strikes or blocks that can be performed over a period of time. There’s no sort of a lock-on that would help to keep shots on track. Most conflicts ended up feeling like a glorified slap fight, because there were far more punches thrown than blows landed. At no point did I actually feel any sense of genuine control or precision. Sadly, this doesn’t get much better when weapons are introduced.
Further adding to the frustration is the fact that all weapons will actually sustain damage and degrade over time. Just what we needed, another instance of the survival mechanics rearing its ugly head! However, if you are a fan of tirelessly crafting weapons that would make a caveman cringe, you will be in heaven. On another amusing note, enemies stick to the standard melee combat as well, despite the fact that they have muskets in their hands. Sorry guys, one throwaway line about soldiers preferring to use their bayonets over firearms isn’t enough to explain away this very obvious lapse in logic.
Putting the veritable bow on the top of the combat shit casserole are status ailments that will not stop damaging the player during cinematics. That’s right. If you’re bleeding out badly from a fight, but somehow manage to emerge victorious, there is a very good chance that you could still die during the post-battle exposition dump. In most cases you won’t even have the control necessary to apply a bandage and stop the descent into the afterlife. Plus, thanks to the mediocre auto-save feature (which you might as well just ignore and constantly manually save through the menu), most deaths will result in you needing to complete the entire battle all over again. I mean, what could be more fun than replaying a difficult mission that you barely survived the first time around? It ranks right up there with getting a cavity filled, rectally.
The Fog Returns
Easily the most disappointing aspect of We Happy Few would have to be the lackluster visual presentation on the PlayStation 4. I cannot speak to what you will see on a PS4 Pro, but my launch console left something to be desired. After seeing a year’s worth of pristinely crisp and incredibly detailed screenshots, this level of graphic fidelity is nowhere to be found. Textures were constantly popping in, NPCs suffered from a chronic case of “Vaseline face” until they were just a few feet in front of the player, and closeups of the primary characters looked fuzzy at best.
Additionally, there were many instances of NPCs that clipped through environmental objects, became stuck in the floor with only the upper half of their torso showing and even times where collectibles would be indicated on the HUD that simply were not populated into the world. To be fair, invisible objects could still be found if you were willing to scan over the area in search of where items were supposed to be, then happen to luck upon the on-screen prompt to pick-up the item.
I genuinely appreciated what We Happy Few was trying to accomplish. Its unique perspective to storytelling and compelling setting kept frustrations at bay for far longer than they had any right to. I even think that the game has the potential to course-correct though their future DLC. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the game has serious issues that make this full retail release feel more like a second round of Early Access. I cannot in good conscience encourage anyone to purchase the game in its current state. It would be best to revisit the game in a few months to see if things have improved. Now if you will excuse me, I have to pop a pill and pray to God that my entire memory of this game will just go away.
We Happy Few review code provided by publisher. Version 1.1.69541 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.