“Snug as a bug on a drug.”
When I first played the We Happy Few demo a couple of years back, I fell in love. It appeared to be a survival game set in post-WWII England where everyone but you was hopped up on some sort of happy drug. You had a hydration meter, a hunger meter, and a sleep meter, all of which you had to keep track of, or you would be severely impaired and unable to defend yourself. The final version of We Happy Few is similar in these regards – you still have your meters, the locals are still doped, and it’s still post-WWII England – but there are a few fundamental changes they’ve made that alter the feeling of the game. It seems as though survival is no longer the primary focus, and story has come into play. At first, I thought this was a terrible decision; after spending some time with the folks in Wellington Wells, I think I’ve changed my tune.
As I mentioned, We Happy Few started off as a survival game, and this is still technically true. You are encouraged to pick up everything you find and look through as many cabinets and desks as you can – carefully, because this is a game of stealth as well. With odds and ends, you find you are able to craft all sorts of things, such as: lockpicks, clothing, healing ointment, bandages, and tech that helps you stay out of trouble. You’ll also find food and water to keep your stamina up and make sure you’re able to defend yourself adequately. When you are using a lockpick to get into a desk or when you’re searching an enemy you’ve just… disabled, an icon appears letting you know that you are making noise! So if you’re trying to hide from someone, or sneak around an office undetected, it’s best to perform these unsavory activities away from delicate ears. Along with your noisy sneak-thief antics, when you’re inside the city, citizens will be extremely wary of any “Downer” like behavior. If you’re caught sneaking about or entering someone’s home without their consent, you’ll be in for a fight. Depending on which character you’re playing as (there are three you’ll discover during your play-through), you will either rely on strategic hits and blocking, distraction techniques and debilitating chemical concoctions, or good old-fashioned brute strength. Instead of relying on your acting skills to blend in, you could join the menagerie in taking Joy, the drug that keeps everyone so cheerful! Be careful; too much Joy, and you’ll overdose, causing citizens to become unhappy and attack you on sight. On the contrary, not enough Joy and you’ll go into withdrawal, causing you to appear sick, making the locals unhappy, and again you’ll have an angry mob on your hands. We Happy Few does a reasonably good job of mixing it’s survival mechanics in with the rest of the gameplay. I never felt like they were a burden; more just a gauge I had to keep my eye on. Stealth, however, is something I am absolutely terrible at, so I often went in, shovel blazing, and relied on blocks, dodges, and lots of healing balm.
The difficulty and length of We Happy Few heavily depend on the player and the character you’re playing as, but I’d say there is a level of challenge to every play style. There are four modes for you to choose from off the bat: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Custom. Personally, I love a game that puts in that Custom option, as it adds a whole new level of replayability. We Happy Few lets you decide if you want to be a brute or a ninja. You can sneak your way through just about anywhere, silently taking down or slipping past enemies, and you never have to get your hands dirty. Conversely, you can barge through, as I often did, as long as you’re ready to use some strategy in your combat. None of the three characters are overly hardy and won’t stand up to many hits, so you have to be ready to block and use items to your advantage. The number of side-quests in this game make it easily stretch into a 40+ hour experience, so I’d say there is plenty of play-time to be had. You can always skip the side quests and plow right through the story (I certainly wouldn’t blame you; there’s some good storytelling here), and I’d say you’ll come away with closer to 25hrs of play. Either way, nothing to sneeze at, and you come away with a pretty hard-hitting story and a deeper understanding of the in-game world.
There are technically four stories in We Happy Few – those of the three characters you play as, and that of Wellington Wells itself. Upon starting the game, you are several years post-WWII, and the Germans won, taking all of the children in the city. You learn very quickly that the story of what happened is closer to a rainbow than black and white. Whatever really happened was so terrible, so ghastly, that the citizens of Wellington Wells would rather go through life in a drugged stupor than live with their memories. You will start off playing as Arthur Hastings, a “redactor” whose job is to censor the news so that it is more palatable for public consumption. During the war, Arthur lost his brother Percy, who was taken away by the Germans with all the other children. As you move through his journey, you’ll learn snippets of what “really” happened and how much Joy has negatively affected his recollections of the events in his past. The second character you’ll play as is Sally Boyle. Ms. Boyle is my favorite character, as I think her complexity is perfectly portrayed. We Happy Few does an excellent job of presenting flawed characters; there are no heroes here, just people trying to survive the best they can. Sally is the epitome of this notion. She is willing to do just about anything to make it to another day, which seems selfish and crass to most, and yet, everything she does she does for her child. Ollie Starkey, our final playable character, is perhaps the most harrowing of our three protagonists. Ollie has gone a bit mad since the war, and can’t seem to get his memories together. Ollie is followed around by a little girl, Margarete, who isn’t really there, and about whose background Ollie appears to be confused. It’s hard not to give anything away with Mr. Starkey’s story, but I found myself overwhelmed by pity as I smashed my way through quests with this character.
We Happy Few is a wonderfully designed game. The atmosphere is always exactly what you need to feel very on edge and in the moment. Though the towns are relatively repetitive, which makes traversing them a bit more awkward, the overall aesthetic is always spot on, whether you’re out with the Wastrels or among the proper townsfolk. I loved how different everything looks when you take your Joy. You instantly go from a post-apocalyptic wasteland to a lovely, quaint English borough. The character design for the NPCs is precisely what the game needs; there is nothing quite like someone beating you senseless with a wide grin on their face. The masks really add to so much of the creep-factor; the notion of never knowing what lies behind a smile takes on a whole new meaning. I will say, there are a fair amount of glitches in We Happy Few. I continued to run into NPCs who would seemingly phase through furniture and other obstacles, or cross distances instantly and be in my face before I could react. When playing as a character who can’t take many hits (a.k.a all the characters), this became exceedingly more annoying and hard to ignore. There is also a lot of speech overlap. I really can’t tell if this was purposeful at some points, but most of the time it just left me trying to decipher some word-salad while I was attempting to listen to the dialogue. While these glitches were a lot more prevalent than I’d like, they didn’t distract too drastically from the game, and I was mostly able to shrug them off and continue on my journey.
The sound design in We Happy Few is exceptionally creepy. Depending on what area you’re in you’ll find a cacophony of sounds that keep you on edge. Even while on Joy you’re just met with a slightly more upbeat, but still extremely chilling soundtrack. Most of the music is very discordant. I think this is to keep you on your toes and make sure you’re never genuinely calm; job well done. I often found myself just listening to the music when I hit a new area, as some of it is pretty easy to bop along to, as long as you like the feeling of being stuck at a demented circus. I don’t have much else to say in this regard. We Happy Few did an excellent job of matching it’s music choices to the situations you find yourself in. This is not some epic soundtrack for the ages, but it gets the job done effectively and helps in amping up the horror of your surroundings.
My first few hours with We Happy Few were not exactly fun. I was still left wanting the survival game I had been promised with the original demo and wasn’t quite willing to accept that this just isn’t the game we’ve been presented. We Happy Few does a fair job of mixing story and survival elements. I did find myself becoming bored with a few of the quests, and some of the fights I found myself in felt very repetitive, but overall these were minor annoyances, and I was able to push ahead to find out the next snippet of the story. The fact that we have the option of forgoing the side encounters and driving forward with the narrative is what will redeem this game in a lot of people’s eyes. While it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, and I am still left wanting for my dystopian survival horror, We Happy Few has an excellent narrative wrapped up in a creepy package, and that’s enough for me to give it my stamp of approval. I won’t encourage anyone to rush out and snatch it off the shelf, but don’t overlook it either. If you like stealth and a good story, this game is for you.