We Happy Few has had an odd journey from the announcement and initial excitement, via Kickstarter, getting a publisher - what was first meant to be a modest procedurally generated roguelike adventure turned into something more fleshed out, more of a traditional action-adventure that also retained some of those early features.
Wellington Wells is a strange place, filled with as much danger as happiness. Secrets are layered on top of each other and the citizens of the village are all happy to pop a pill (aptly named Joy) and forget about their troubles. Anyone who doesn't is deemed a Downer and run out of town.
The game starts with you assuming the role of Arthur who works in an office that censors newspaper articles to fit the narrative being told by those in charge. You're awakened by a particular story that references your brother, and you find yourself being chased by co-workers as you escape. But this is only the beginning of your troubles as Arthur tries to find a way out of this dystopic nightmare and a way to rescue his brother Percy.
Arthur is the first of three playable characters (more to come via DLC) in We Happy Few, the others, Sally and Ollie, are acquaintances of his, and offer different perspectives, but also slightly different gameplay as each character has some unique abilities. Speaking of abilities, completing missions will give you points that you dish out in the skill tree, allowing you things like improved stealth abilities, more health, or advantages in combat (increased chance of inflicting bleeding for instance). It's fair to say that Arthur's story is the main one, but given how the narrative is layered, lie upon lie is uncovered and memories return, and you will want to dig up as much as you can not just along the main path but via the many side quests you'll encounter.
Something has to be said of the visual style and presentation in We Happy Few. It's simply superb. Channeling Britain in the 1960s it gives the game a unique style that puts it next to games like Bioshock and Dishonored, something that's both a positive and a negative because We Happy Few isn't the same sort of experience. The audio side of things also impresses and while the character animation during cutscenes isn't on par with the likes of the AAA brethren mentioned above, the voice acting is strong throughout. It helps set the mood along with the soundtrack and one can't help but think of A Clockwork Orange.
Its roguelike roots mean there isn't the same precise level design as in games like Dishonored, and quests will feel a bit bareboned as a result. The upside of this is that there's a whole lot more to experience and discover and you're going to have to explore as simply going from one main mission to the next will make progression difficult. You need to explore, craft, dig up treasure chests, find food and water and health items, sneak into people's houses to steal supplies, complete side missions - all to make sure you've got what you need. The constant need to gather and craft may not appeal to all players.
One example of this was as we tried to make it over to St. George's Holm as Arthur. We needed a Boiler uniform to get across a bridge (bridges that never seem to work separate the islands), but inside we were faced with a game of "Simon Says" featuring electroshocks. We had sold off our rubber catsuit (don't ask) to afford the Boiler uniform (we could have crafted it, but we didn't have enough torn raincoats), but as the rubber catsuit also offered protection from electricity, the best course of action was to either craft a new one (even more raincoats needed) or buy it back to use during the "Simon Says" session. We opted for the latter and it proved just how important it is to think long-term here; normally it'd be fine to discard items used earlier and focus ahead, but the nature of We Happy Few is such that you never know when an item might be useful again.
We've managed to stay away from Joy for the most part in this review. The happy pills that keep the good village folks from remembering the bad stuff, the war, the children, the Germans, the lies. You can conform and use Joy and you're going to have to in order to get through certain gates or fool certain people, but while there's an upside there's a dangerous downside. Withdrawal will leave you vulnerable (to thirst and hunger) and detectable as a Downer. So popping a Joy is only ever a short-term solution to a situation requiring stealth. It's an interesting mechanic, but there's no duality here, you can't simply go all-in and be a happy Joy popper as the side effects are too severe and you can't avoid it altogether either. So use it only when you absolutely need to. There are pills to help you cancel the effects as well, should you need it.
We Happy Few is a survival game in the sense that you'll need to monitor thirst and hunger as well as your addiction to Joy. It's not terribly intrusive, even if the village doesn't offer clean water (only with Joy in it), but filling up canteens and making sure you have some food, as well as getting some sleep every once in a while is as far as it goes. Unless you challenge yourself with the hard difficulty setting where you can also opt to switch on permadeath, another throwback to the game's rogueish origins.
Discovering shelters offers you some refuge and a few of them have light puzzle objectives (or combat encounters) that need to be overcome before they are operational. You can fast travel between the shelters, which is great if you need to fill up your canteens or stock up on herbs in the Garden district. Here you'll also find workbenches to craft more advanced items; the basic stuff is craftable from the menu anywhere in the game, and some stuff like lockpicks are craftable with a single button press as you need it. Overall the user interface is well designed, and the controller is stretched to the limits in terms of the number of items you can have at one or two clicks away. The only issue with this is that the items as they appear on the d-pad are a bit difficult to tell apart, particularly if things are hectic.
There are blemishes here and there though. The procedural nature of the world generation makes for some oddities, alleys that lead nowhere, bushes floating in mid-air, and we've also encountered a few geometry related problems. The AI is fairly basic; get spotted and it goes incredibly aggressive and gangs up on you, so you best stay hidden, or climb up on something and watch them scurry about below for a bit. It's not the most elegant of stealth experiences in this sense. As stealth is one of the main ingredients this is clearly a problem.
We were also a bit disappointed in how the world is populated largely by clones. They each have a name, some have a history with the characters you play, but all the old ladies look the same; short, stout and with curly grey hair. Perhaps it's in line with the theme here, but it bothered us a little, particularly in the more populated areas. Combat is a bit on the basic side as well, and while first-person melee is typically a bit wonky and imprecise, in some ways it serves as a good reminder to always try and avoid it. It's stamina-based which provides a tactical angle, but for the most part, if you need to engage you'll want to be aggressive, then back away to recover stamina, and repeat. One thing we found a bit off was the fact that taking down certain enemies while sneaking required you to first unlock a skill, which felt like the wrong way to go about it. If you manage to sneak up on a dangerous enemy you should be rewarded regardless, now we got beat down as we were looking for a button prompt that never appeared.
It may have been the art style and weird world that drew us in, but what kept us going was the narrative. These sort of fragmented narratives don't always work out, but here we felt the story was our main motivation as we crafted bits and pieces, beat up bobbies, filled canteens with clean water, and popped our Joys. It may not be as successful in creating a cohesive and believable world as say Dishonored, and its roguelike roots sometimes betray its AAA ambitions, but this is a rather unique concoction that you'll enjoy if you can stomach the sometimes tedious survival mechanics and a decent amount of bugs and glitches. Much like the case is with Joy there's an upside and downside to We Happy Few...