Dystopian futures are often drab affairs covered in shades of brown and beige, immensely depressing, and full of cliches and tropes that bleed from one version to another. In a world filled with existential dread and horrifying rules, does everything really need to look like a cheap pair of khakis? We Happy Few seems to think it does not; in fact it says to hell with so many of these ideas and instead gives you a colourful drug obsessed society to become a part of. As long as you follow the rules, do your job, and take your literal happy pills, then everything will work out and you can continue to be part of the team.
The trouble is that the story starts with your first character, Arthur Hastings, deciding that maybe he doesn’t need his Joy after all. However, Joy is the only thing suppressing all of the horrible things that the vibrant colours hide, even the ones tucked away in his own head. As you struggle to reclaim your memories, abhorrent as they are, you go out to keep up the happy mask that you and so many others wear. The good news is that there is a piñata to take some of this confusion out on, the bad news is that nothing is as it seems, it turns out pretty much everything is a lie no matter which sense you perceive it with.
When your colleagues notice that you’re disgusted with what’s going on they realise you’re off the pills; you are a Downer, one who either can’t or won’t take their medicine. You quite promptly get chased out of town and here begins your journey through the messed up world of We Happy Few. Set in an alternate version of the 1960s where the only thing that matters is fitting in, your job is to survive and see your character’s goals to their end. This is very much a survival game, although sometimes it feels more like a stealth game, and occasionally it tries to be a first person action game, even then the story tries to keep your interest too. If that all feels a little bit disjointed to you then you will not only relate to the characters you get to play as, but also have a fair idea of how the game feels to play.
Let’s try and go through this in some kind of logical order, how about the survival aspects first? In much the same way as many in this genre you will have to collect things from every nook and cranny you find, though here it is more likely to be bins and bushes. These will help you manage your hunger, your thirst, and your health. Naturally keeping on top of your own needs is integral to not dying, which is more or less the point of survival games, it’s right there in the genre name. You also get bits and bobby pins in order to help you craft tools that will assist you in achieving the objectives you need to.
Thankfully you can craft these items exactly when you need them and without any excess hassle, you simple push the button to lock-pick the desk and you will insta-craft a lock-pick to use. Unfortunately the rest of the crafting isn’t as smooth, healing items must be crafted one at a time, which is a nuisance because you will probably end up needing a fair amount of them. Add to this the borderline obnoxious inventory system and you end up with a system that requires more time and effort than is reasonable, and more hassle than it would be worth were it not completely essential.
Let’s delve into the stealth and action at the same time, as they are the two sides of one slightly grubby coin. You can fight with either your bare fists, or whatever weapons you find, or you can craft. It tends to be a matter of stamina management and choosing when to attack and when to defend. The trouble is that the combat feels so incredibly weighted against you most of the time that is simply isn’t a viable choice in the vast majority of cases, which is good really, because it isn’t as tight as the games that it calls to mind.
So you might hope that the stealth system is nice and robust, allowing you to slink by potential threats unnoticed with plenty of nuance, right? Wrong, stealth is a fairly bare bones affair that consists of crouching, stealth take-downs, hiding bodies, and hiding in yellow bushes specifically. It is certainly better than the combat, but has some weirdly arbitrary choices. You can conceal yourself in bushes, but only ones with yellow flowers, meaning that you’re just as visible as you would be in open space even if you are head deep in a bush with different coloured flowers. You can distract people by throwing objects, but the game tends to decide that what you actually meant to do was throw the glass bottle at the person you are trying to distract.
The story is interesting enough to have some genuinely enjoyable moments, but isn’t quite good enough to iron out the kinks. The world is suitably messed up, the trouble is that you can see that almost instantly, so further revelations become increasingly less impactful. When the base of a story is that everything is a lie, each further lie doesn’t feel like new information, just confirmation of this world’s truth. Mind you, the characters you play as are charming and well acted, and the voice actings fantastic too and really helps bring the world to life. Sadly it’s the gameplay that holds it back.
There’s a huge amount of potential in this dystopian 1960s drug trip, but ultimately it starts to feel frustrating quite quickly. Every time We Happy Few draws you in with an interesting tidbit about the world or the character you are playing as it’s scuppered by the systems fighting against you. It just becomes frustrating and makes a potentially immersive experience an irritating exercise in dealing with the game mistaking your intentions. Much like the dystopian world in which it is set, We Happy Few never feels quite right.
Version Tested: PC – also available for PS4 and Xbox One