I always think it’s worth rewarding attempts to try something new. I’ll always be more preferential towards an ambitious or noble failure than an unambitious yet average product. Here we have something quite ambitious, that at least on the surface is completely different to anything else I’ve ever played. We Happy Few is the branchild of Canada’s Compulsion Games, previously known for 2013’s Art-Deco Puzzler/Platformer Contrast. It’s a Action-Adventure game, it’s also a Survival Horror, an Alternate History Satire, a Roguelike and completely and utterly off its joy.
Throughout We Happy Few, you play as one of three residents of Wellington Wells, an English village in the 1960s where the town government has shut itself off and is controlling its citizens through pills called ‘Joy’ that increase positive emotions at the expense of memory and being more susceptible to manipulation and propaganda. Essentially all three characters want the same thing, to get the hell out of dodge but quite obviously it’s not as simple as just walking out and taking a train away because that wouldn’t exactly be the most compelling narrative for a game. Also, if you stay off your Joy for too long, people notice that you’re being a downer and can be prone to violence towards you.
Having changed the game quite thoroughly since its early demos, the game’s survival mechanics are nicely balanced, what with being in a dystopian nightmare full of dwindling resources, in such a way as that they don’t lead to death but to limited stamina and loss of such abilities as running. This de-buffing of abilities while not making it impossible to still succeed is a nice spin on the formula for those of us who are not exactly adept at video games (though for those wanting more of a challenge, you can customise the difficulty, including adding on Permadeath for the incredibly hardcore).
Obviously, as you can see, the game is gorgeous, bringing a certain sophistication and unity of style to even it’s randomly generated maps, as a visual and narrative game, it is a stunning achievement in word and character-building with everything from the NPCs to the soundtrack feeling completely within the alternate time the game exists in. Equally, having the three characters you play as being different in their storytelling styles and gameplay is a nice touch, even though quick-footed Arthur Hastings is the most prominent character of the three, for me, the most fun to play as is the quite thoroughly mad Scotsman, Ollie Starkey who it’s lucky that he’s the best at fighting through a situation because he throws in the added caveat of low-blood sugar-induced bouts of quite alarming profanity which does tend to give away that you’re a ‘downer’.
Having mentioned combat, as entertaining as Ollie is to play from a character standpoint, the game’s main letdown is the combat is quite dreadful. Limited to just attack, heavy attack, block, counter, it is very basic but also quite difficult to actually manoeuvre around as enemies will tend to just block, surround you and then you’re buggered, aren’t you? Equally, while the central narrative is extremely well-done, most of the sub-plots amount to little more than fetch quests with the randomly generated elements of the game and these details adding to occasional bouts of repetition that do tend to drag down the thoroughly excellent central plotting. Though, it must be noted that as these are all optional, for the non-completist player, these can just be skipped in favour of jumping to the next fun planned encounter.
It’s not a perfect piece of video gaming but you have to admire its willingness to do something new, even though there are obvious similarities to the likes of Bioshock Infinite in its art-deco splendour with the extreme splashes of colour that are triggered after every Joy is popped creating an incredible visual effect up there with the best of that other series. It’s just a shame that as an actual game, it falls short. If you’re willing to cope with its faults, there is a lot of to love here but for some, the faults might be too much of a downer to cope with. I hope not, as it’s worth rewarding them for originality if nothing else; trying to tell a different story to the ones we’ve had before. Just if you’re going to pop a Joy, make sure to take it with a pinch of salt.
We Happy Few Is Available Now for Playstation 4, PC & Xbox-One