Arts video game review

Just let me run!

Struggling to survive in ‘We Happy Few’

8642 press exclusive screenshot 1
The protagonist is in combat with a bobby.
Courtesy of Compulsion Games

We Happy Few
Developed by Compulsion Games
Published by Gearbox Publishing
Rated M for Mature
Available on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows

It’s a lovely day. The Nonsuches are blooming. The Joy has never been more effective, making everyone happy! And they have been happy — for the last 15 years. Sadness no longer exists in the little town of Wellington Wells. Anybody who says otherwise will have a nice little visit to the police station for a friendly chat. So keep taking your Joy! As they say, “Happy is the country with no past!”

This is We Happy Few, a survival game set in an alternative 1960s England. Taking a page from George Orwell’s 1984, the game depicts everyday people trying to live in a futuristic dystopia. The only difference is that the citizens were the ones to craft their birdcage. To help them forget all about their horrible pasts, Joy is synthesized to keep everyone gleeful and cheery. As long as the citizens keep taking it, they’ll never remember any of the awful things they did during the German Occupation which happened years ago. Well, most of them don’t.

You follow the three interconnected stories of Arthur Hastings, Sally Boyle, and Ollie Starkey as they attempt to live in their dystopia. You’ll need to master a complicated crafting system and each character’s special abilities if you want to survive. Offering a procedurally-generated world filled with different environments that all have their own set of rules, the developing team had a big promise to fulfill to all the people who wanted both an immersive world and compelling story-line. The result? A game that is less than the sum of its parts.

For much of the game, until you unlock a specific skill, you can’t run without serious consequences. People become suspicious in the town, chasing after you until you break their line of sight or until they bludgeon you to death. As a result, you are stuck at a walking pace in a labyrinth of a city. The horrible framerate doesn’t help either. I found myself trudging through the early parts of the game while I was trying to get used to the flow of the game. Said flow is mostly pointless side quests that give you skill points. They are unreasonably difficult in the early game but become trivial when you unlock all the skills in the late game. It feels satisfying to blaze through the quests when you finish your skill tree, so it’s frustrating to see your progress disappear at the end of one arc as you finish one character’s story.

While each of the protagonists has an intriguing tale, the gameplay often gets in the way of the narrative. Much of the interesting parts of the characters are locked away behind collectibles which don’t show up on the map, so it’s possible to miss out on interesting characterizations. The game loses steam because of this. The characters become flat.

I wanted to enjoy We Happy Few more than I actually did. It sells you an 1960s aesthetic that’s really easy to fall in love with. The actual product is more like Joy. It’s enjoyable for about a few minutes. Then it becomes an absolute trudge as you attempt to play the game version of 1984. While it slightly redeems itself with the profoundness of the storylines, it can hardly be considered a “smashing time.”