Somewhere, hidden deep inside We Happy Few, is a good game. Under layer after layer of bugs, poor direction, lazy development, boring quests, repetitive world design, uninteresting characters, and a general sense of déjà vu when you turn a new corner. It’s a great idea, in theory. A fictional archipelago off the coast of Bristol, Wellington Wells did something awful when surrendering to German forces at the end of World War II; something so horrifically awful that they’ve become reliant on a drug called Joy to take their minds off it and make them happy again. It’s not what actually happened that’s important–instead, it’s just the concept that’s so unique and interesting. It made me want to play We Happy Few. I wanted to explore the mystery hidden behind the glazed-over eyes of Wellington Wells’ residents; to discover what happened to the outcasts that were unable to take Joy, and so were chucked out of the towns for being ‘downers’.

And that’s where my positives of We Happy Few end. It’s an interesting concept, and a somewhat well written story. That’s it. I was so pumped to delve deep into the riddle behind the town, but literally everything wrapped around the storyline just contributed towards playing it being a chore. The gameplay is bad, the combat is bad, the stealth is bad, the survival is bad, the characters are bad, the world design is… mostly bad. That’s my critical take. Let’s break it down.

It's pretty at first, but wow does it get repetitive.

It’s pretty at first, but wow does it get repetitive.

 

We Happy Few changed direction seemingly countless times during its development cycle, and it shows. Too many chefs spoil the stew, or something. I don’t want to hypothesise on who did what, but when the world was first introduced to We Happy Few, it was a hardcore survival game, which was what got Kickstarted two years or so ago. At some point, the developer/publisher/someone noticed just how interesting the story was, and decided to push that to the forefront. All of a sudden, We Happy Few became a story-driven adventure game. But we wouldn’t want to lose the survival elements, right? Despite coming out well and truly after the heyday of open world games, that overarching mechanic was thrown in too. But the survival had to stay. And so, for some ungodly reason, did the procedural generation.

Procedural generation has its place in games, and props to We Happy Few for trying to be innovative, I guess, but wow does it clash. As it was released, We Happy Few takes more than a leaf out of Bethesda’s book, but the leaves rotted away before they were haphazardly grown into the tree that is We Happy Few (terrible analogy, I know. A cutting, maybe.) Bethesda’s open worlds rely on intricately crafted cutscenes that give you the impression of a living world that you just happen to be walking through. Everything feels alive, at least somewhat (let it be known, I’m not a huge fan of the Bethesda open worlds, but I understand why people are.) The side quests are usually immersive and interesting; you actually want to check quests off your journal–not just for the rewards, but also for the experience. All of this is only possible because of the meticulous and incredible level of care (and skill) that goes into crafting the worlds behind their games. Not a tree is out of place. Every hill is there for a reason. Every region of the map is immediately distinguishable from the others.

He's either fucking the door, or weeing into it.

He’s either fucking the door, or weeing into it.

 

We Happy Few has none of this, and it’s caused by the utter misuse of procedural generation for no reason that I can gather other than to be able to slap “procedurally generated open world” on the back of the box. The islands that make up the different regions of Wellington Wells are completely monotonous. The slums look the same. The cities look the same. Even on a smaller scale, each street in each city looks almost exactly the same. 99% of doors on each street are labelled with some variation of “On holiday”–for all intents and purposes, this means “Don’t bother, we didn’t put anything here.” It’s a completely lazy way of making the game feel bigger than it actually is. There’s maybe 10 or 15 signs that are repeated over and over throughout the cities. The time and effort was not taken to make Wellington Wells an interesting world to explore. It’s a shame, because it’s actually rather pretty–at first, at least. Once you’ve seen the same colourful streets and buildings a few times it becomes very samey, and that only takes ten minutes. The scripted scenes and well-written sidequests are few and far between, but they’re the only interesting thing in the entirety of Wellington Wells.

People don’t die, they go on holiday.

 

If the procedural generation was dumped, there could be interesting secrets to uncover; hidden corners and unique locations that make wandering around worthwhile. As it stands, there is absolutely nothing to do or interact with in what feels like over 99% of the world. And as there’s essentially two area, the cities and the slums, that leaves a whole lot of repetition and emptiness. AND, if you try to sprint, you’ll immediately draw the ire of everyone around you, who’ll promptly start trying to kill you for acting up; at least until you get a somewhat late-game perk that makes NPCs turn a blind eye to your antics. So don’t even think about rushing between points on the map. You’ll have to take it all in.

It’s not just the world. I wish I’d counted the number of NPCs you encounter in any one area. I’d be surprised if it was more than 10. By that, I mean that (in the cities at least) there’s about 4 female NPCs, 4 male NPCs, an old woman NPC, and the bobbies/doctors. They all just have different clothing, a handful of voicelines if you interact with them, and that’s it. The old woman is the most obnoxious–you could be looking down the street at four identical old women in identical clothes pottering about. Names aren’t gendered, which I assume is a bug (it could be an interesting take on gender norms, but I doubt it,) so you’ll find yourself running into female Thomases and Harolds more times than you can count. The NPCs are so devoid of all personality or anything else to make them interesting, they just become obstacles to dodge when you finally unlock the perk that lets you sprint through towns.

Sorry for comparing We Happy Few to something with actual value, but Joy is Brave New World’s Soma; a mass-produced and mass-supplied drug intended to keep the masses happy; or, at least, suppress their memory of anything before the past few weeks. Uncle Jack is 1984’s Big Brother, a pleasant enough face that pervades every aspect of Wellington Wells, reminding residents to take their Joy and telling them how to make food from sawdust.

It's not even funny, it's just absurd.

The most laughable and tasteless representation of BDSM I think I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s not even funny, it’s just absurd.

 

Joy is an interesting mechanic, or an interesting concept at least, but it’s so poorly implemented it makes me wonder if anyone actually playtested it. That’s how hard a time I’m having imagining that people waited in trash cans doing nothing for five minutes while their Joy withdrawal meter dropped to zero, and enjoyed it. In fact, We Happy Few has far too much waiting in general. Taken too much Joy and experiencing memory loss? Hide in a trash can. Accidentally pulled a totally innocuous cricket bat out front of someone and now there’s fifteen stoned villagers out for your blood? Hide in a trash can. Did a Doctor sniff out that you’re not currently on Joy? Hide in a trash can (this shouldn’t work by the way, as Doctors use their nose to sniff the lack of Joy.) Is your current dose of Joy about to run out? Shit, better quickly find a trash can to hide in, because if anyone sees you going through withdrawal (which is unavoidable, by the way), they’ll chase you until you find a trash can to hide in. God forbid you jump in a puddle–after, I might add, watching an NPC do exactly the same thing–because you’ll get chased to the ends of the earth. Unless you hide in a trash can.

I want to take a moment here to mention Sunshine, a drug that mimics Joy by causing the same pupil restriction as the real drug, but without any of the psychoactive effects. Why, then, does Sunshine trick Doctors, who detect Joy with their noses, or any of the robotic Joy detectors? It doesn’t make sense.

“Constable Constable.” Right.

 

Going back to the inspiration taken from open world games. There’s a reason that the vast majority of them have a quick-save/quick-load option. With a game like this, you want to be able to test things out. The aiming is pretty shit, so if you miss a bottle toss to distract some bobbies and accidentally hit the fence you’re hiding behind (this happened far too many times), you want to be able to reload and try again. No, instead, you’ll have to either a) hide in a trash can, or b) wait to get beaten up by fifteen people and respawn. It just makes We Happy Few drag. For a game that’s so heavily based around trial-and-error, error is far too punishing, and not in a good way. Very early on, I lost track of number of times I threw myself off a cliff after drawing the suspicion of bobbies.

The overarching story of Wellington Wells is interesting and the only thing that made me want to play, apart from the sense of obligation as I was writing a review. The plots of the protagonists are far less so. The first story is that of Arthur Hastings, a censorer (is that a word?) at Wellington Wells’ newspaper whos memory of his lost brother Percival prompts him to skip his routine dose of Joy and vow to reunite with Percy, if he’s still alive. It’s been done before, it’ll be done again, and it’s not even remotely interesting. I don’t give a shit where Percy is. To avoid spoilers, I don’t want to talk about Sally or Ollie, but they’re no more interesting–if anything, Sally’s story is just a bit problematic and stereotyped.

Nice to meet you, Ned.

Nice to meet you, Ned.

 

Crafting is an absolute chore; you need to find recipes to make stuff even if you have the ingredients, and your character’s weight limit is so prohibitive that, even though I wanted to pick up anything and everything (it’s a survival game, right?) I simply couldn’t. “Maybe if I hadn’t smoked in high school,” Arthur will wonder as his movement slows to a crawl because he’s shoved one too many slices of pie into his pockets.

I haven’t even gotten into the bugs. Glitches are abound; not only floating NPCs or Arthur getting stuck. I ran into at least two or three that were so severe necessitated re-loading of an earlier save. And it’s not always obvious if a roadblock you’ve encountered is intentional or a glitch, which makes progression absolutely miserable as you force yourself to play as few quests as possible to finish the game faster. That’s because quests are miserable. Far too many require you to walk from one point to another then back to your first point for no reason other than just making you walk and click a button. You can’t sprint until you get that perk, and forget fast travel–there’s only one fast travel point on each island, so you need to actually make the trek.

We Happy Few is a game that doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what it wants to be, and doesn’t know what its audience is. A hodge-podge of mechanics are haphazardly jammed into an overly ambitious but ultimately near-unplayable mess. It’s impossible to recognise landmarks in the map, as assets are copy-pasted beyond belief until the cities and Downer villages become unrecognisable messes. Considering its over two years in development, it’s hard to quite believe just how rushed We Happy Few is. And it’s such a shame, it really hurts me to say it–there’s such a good game, somewhere here, with such an incredible core concept lurking at its depths. It’s such a great idea, but I’m not sure I’ve seen such poor execution before. And there’s so much more I could go on about–my notes while I was playing got out of hand very quickly. I’m sure there’s even more I forgot to write down. I won’t even start about how it doubled in price from the planned $30, and took on a publisher despite already achieving funding from Kickstarter. And on release, it’s still not close to being finished.

We Happy Few certainly did a good job of limiting Joy to once per hour. It didn't even reach that.

We Happy Few certainly did a good job of limiting Joy to once per hour. It didn’t even reach that.

 

Pick survival, or pick stealth, or pick open world adventure. It’s hard to not wonder what this would’ve been like if a big publisher hadn’t come on board and potentially forced its ideas in, then slapping on a strict deadline. Its title may have been taken from a Shakespeare play, but it doesn’t make me think of Shakespeare. Instead, I’m thinking of how “We Happy Few” is far more descriptive of the people that enjoyed this mess.

2/10

Very Bad

Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of We Happy Few for PC.

About The Author

Matt has been playing video games and listening to music for too long. He accidentally started a website and now has to pretend that he’s got an idea as to what he’s doing. He neglects the games he’s meant to be reviewing and instead plays Dota 2 and Football Manager. Shameless Nintendo fanboy. Direct your complaints to @mattmcleod27.