Although it has been in development for a number of years and available to play as an Early Access release as far back as two years ago, this year proved to be especially fruitful for We Happy Few getting back into the minds of interested players. Especially for those of us in Australia. In addition to development studio Compulsion Games being acquired by Microsoft, which pointed to perhaps a memorable interactive experience to match the wonderful art direction and alternate retro-futurist 1960s setting, there was also the issue of it getting banned in Australia. Due to the depiction of drug-use, in taking a pill known as Joy, as a key mechanic. A ruling that was recently overturned and embraced by the community as a victory for context.
And its context that best explains why We Happy Few, an interesting, thematically rich and often fascinating game - falls short of its ambition and potential.
One explanation or reason for the somewhat disjointed blend of narrative and open-world survival mechanics, comes with We Happy Few’s change in direction following its initial on-stage debut at Microsoft’s E3 presentation from a few years back. Where an alarming number of people all got simultaneous BioShock vibes, thanks mostly to the dystopian vision of an alternate timeline where strange happenings and a visually striking art-style presented a cinematic look at We Happy Few’s fascinating world.
Except that the cinematic and scripted direction of the presentation was only meant to serve as an introduction to the main experience – an open-world procedurally generated survival game set in a 1960s vision of post-war London. Where those that take Joy live blissfully ignorant lives and those that choose to remember the past are labelled Downers and cast out into the surrounding countryside to fend for themselves.
Regardless of its disjointed nature, We Happy Few’s setting remains fascinating for much of its lengthy run-time. The campaign, split over three acts and three characters, offers many memorable and strange moments – from infiltrating a church quiz group through to visiting a fetish club after curfew. In terms of structure there’s an almost open-world RPG feel to how both the main quests and side quests, or Encounters as they’re called in We Happy Few, are scattered about and play out. This means backtracking, dealing with a night/day system, taking or not taking Joy, getting distracted with new points of interest, and looting anything and everything in sight. Coupled with the extensive but mostly functional-at-best crafting system, We Happy Few ends up having more in common with Bethesda’s Fallout series than any of the BioShock’s.
A comparison that rears its hybrid head once you come to terms with the simplistic and often clunky melee combat. A mostly unavoidable element of We Happy Few, all combat in the game is melee with options to go lethal or non-lethal in a system that involves blocking and spamming attacks and then repeating the process. Lacking any real finesse, combat and item-use in We Happy Few is another aspect that points to the whole idea that although a fascinating game – We Happy Few is clearly scrappy and not without fault/s. One could easily list several, including weird NPC bugs that interfere with the stealth elements and overall console performance issues that give you regular flashbacks to the sub-25fps Nintendo 64 era.
But through it all there’s just something about We Happy Few that keeps you coming back. It could very well be the quality of the writing, the characterisation, and the setting of a post-war London trying to forget its shameful past through medication and dystopian control. Or it could be that, and the weird blend of ideas and styles. Where the freedom to explore and worry about elements like hunger and thirst, adds an additional layer to the presentation and stories being told. Even the use of Joy, which needs to be taken at certain intervals or mostly avoided is a fascinating mechanic that not only plays into the overall themes of We Happy Few also messes with the visuals in weird and wonderful ways.
In the end, whether that’s enough to excuse some of the bland fetch-style quest design or the repetitive nature of traveling from one side of Wellington Wells to another, comes down to personal taste. And a willingness to stick with a severely flawed release to experience a fascinating tale of regret, shame, and addiction that’s full of ambition, charm, and memorable detail.