Everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover or a movie by its trailer, yet gamers around the world judged We Happy Few by its initial gameplay debut at E3 2016. That demo, covering roughly the first five minutes of the game, revealed the setting: a bleak, British dystopia, where citizens pop their Joy pills to fill the world with butterflies and rainbows, censor any news thatmight cause unhappiness, and brutally beat down anyone who tries to leave this strict regimen of drug-fueled bliss. It’s a promising premise, and fans immediately began speculating if We Happy Few could be the next BioShock.
Then, the game arrived in early access, and the grim truth was revealed like a Downer going off their Joy. Instead of the tight, story-driven, political game many had been expecting, We Happy Few was revealed to be nothing more than a procedurally generated survival and crafting game. Let loose in a world of same-y, infinitely repeating trees and houses, scrambling for berries and water to keep endlessly depleting hunger and thirst meters from bottoming out, players looked around at the bleak state of the game and realized that expectations had utterly failed to meet reality.
To its credit, developer Compulsion Games realized this and took the criticisms to heart. Over the last two years, the team has tried to turn We Happy Few into that game that so many players wanted. At launch, it’s straddling the line between the two different visions. There’s now a story following three different characters: Arthur, Sally, and Ollie. The game has a tight path for each of them to follow, with a decided narrative. The survival mechanics are still present, but have been tuned down, causing debuffs instead of death. The world still randomly forms through procedural generation, but large parts of the story take players through specific, pre-designed levels and puzzles.
Unfortunately for We Happy Few, this marriage of genres isn’t a happy one.
It took me roughly 37 hours to fully complete We Happy Few, and honestly, that felt like about 22 hours too many. While the game has an interesting story—and it’s one that picks up speed as you move from Arthur to Sally, and finally to Ollie—the weird mashup of the randomized survival elements and the narrative cause the game to take much longer than it really should.
There are a few simple reasons why it drags on. The narrative has strict requirements: Go here, do X, craft Y, gather Z. The random generation of the world, however, is not always kind to the needs of the story. For example, at one point I snuck into the depths of a police headquarters to recover a file, only to discover that it resided inside a locked cabinet. I didn’t have any lockpicks or the bobby pins needed to craft one on me—I’d been using them indiscriminately up to that point. When I combed the rest of the building nearby, the random generation failed to produce any bobby pins or lockpicks. I snuck back out of the building and began combing the town, only to realize that I had been too thorough in my first venture through, and there were no bobby pins to be found.
I left the city and ventured back into the wastelands, hoping to find an abandoned house with bobby pins I hadn’t picked over yet. Searching for another hour proved futile; whatever RNG spawned dressers and cabinets simply wasn’t producing lockpicks. Up until that point, I’d been playing Arthur as the type of shy, unassuming man he’d seemed to be from his dialogue. In my frustration, I went outside at night, brutally murdered every policeman who wandered by, and finally managed to extract a couple of bobby pins from the pile of corpses I left on someone’s doorstep. Then I was finally able to sneak back in and resume my stealth mission, because nothing says inconspicuous and stealthy like a trail of bodies.
That wasn’t the only time the game failed to provide a crafting component or other item I needed to advance the story. A search for three pieces of coarse linen took me roughly six hours—six hours—of picking picking through identical, procedurally-generated houses, all with the same layouts and rooms. In my playthrough as Sally, an early tutorial told me to knock out enemies using chemical compounds and hallucinogens, but the ingredients required to craft those didn’t appear until I was nearly done with her story. I was nearly stuck hunting for coarse linen again as Ollie, trying to craft a padded suit to harvest some bees, until I happened across a lucky bug (or, at least, an encounter that didn’t seem intentional): an entire village attempting to punch a swarm of bees to death, which distracted the bees just long enough for me to harvest them without dying myself.
That’s not the only way randomization hurts this game. We Happy Few has a pretty unique aesthetic. At first glance, the cities are original and cool in a creepy way, with rainbow roads and signs assuring citizens that they look fabulous. All the residents’ masked faces are stretched out into uncanny wide grins. Poke around for more than a few moments, though, and everything becomes very repetitive. Due to the procedural generation—the game engine deciding what goes where, generating it anew for each players’ game, rather than things being laid out by human design—every street looks exactly every other street. That tree? One of six identical trees on this block, because it’s the only tree the game knows how to create. The same NPC models repeat over, and over, and over, a city populated by identical portly grandmothers in floral prints, policemen in masks, one haunted gangly man, and one haunted gangly woman. The random generation means that roads make no sense. I spent more time with my nose in my map than in actually looking around, because there are no landmarks, no distinguishing features, no logic to anything to learn your way around. Once you’ve seen one road, one house, one sign, you’ve—quite literally—seen them all.
(Somewhat amusingly and frustratingly, the map and world seems to generate anew with each new character’s story. In Arthur’s story, I visited the city of Maidenholm, stopped in a few shops, and met with Sally in her house. In Sally’s story, I still lived in Maidenholm, but my house was in a completely different location, all the shops had moved, and Maidenholm itself seemed to be placed in a completely different part of the world map, despite these events taking place at the same time. Make of that what you will.)
That’s the general trend in We Happy Few. At first glance, things look cool! But venture a little deeper, and the systems begin to fall apart. As another example, a large part of the game deals with deception, requiring the characters to dress the part of the grinning upscale Joy addict to fit into a city or donning old, torn clothes to not be a target for the wastrels outside the city. NPCs treat you better if you greet them in passing and grow suspicious if you run, jump, stay out late at night, or climb through windows. That’s a neat touch. However, set one foot out of place, and the town explodes. Did you jump over a wall by accident, or accidentally punch a lamppost, or go off your Joy, or take too much Joy, or crash from Joy? Prepare to start running, because there is no middle ground for the AI between a happy greeting and beating you to death. There’s nothing quite like accidentally going through the wrong door and suddenly getting your skull smashed in by a pack of identical grandmothers armed with pipes, all of them screaming “MURDERER! HE’S GOT BLOOD ON HIS HANDS!”
The same goes for the survival elements in the game, which, as I’ve stated above, have thankfully been tuned down from their initial iterations in early access. The struggle to survive while maintaining different identities in different areas could be an interesting one, in theory. In practice, though, it’s simply tedious. It’s night time—so stop everything and sleep or the police will murder you. Arthur’s hungry—so stop everything and grab berries and eat. Sally’s story involves taking care of a baby, you regularly have to stop everything and tend to the baby’s needs as well as your own. (Honestly, I’m astonished that somebody out there looked at a sleep-deprived single mother struggling to take care of a baby and thought, “Yeah, tending to a newborn looks like fun! Let’s make it a game!”) Ollie’s situation is a nightmare—he can’t take Joy without vomiting and distressing people, and he has his own blood sugar meter to keep balanced, lest he start screaming profanities at strangers. While perks exist to alleviate some of these needs (and Ollie is built like a tank, since you’ll inevitably end up with the entire town out for blood if you so much as show your face above ground as him), gaining those perks feels more like eliminating an annoyance than getting more powerful. Once you’ve stopped running around in circles filling up meters, you can finally play the dang game.
That’s not to say that everything in We Happy Few is terrible. The story, with its themes of addiction and a nation desperately trying to forget its past crimes, is an interesting one. Each character players very differently, and each uncovers a different aspect of society that’s falling apart, hidden from the oblivious populace. There are some great details hidden in the game, like when Ollie cusses out random passerby in his heavy Scottish accent and the subtitles “translate” his curses into “English,” or the many side stories hidden in notes. Many of the story-centric locations are handcrafted, providing unique environments to sneak through or puzzles to solve, and the gameplay in these parts is actually interesting. I genuinely enjoyed sneaking through factories, hospitals, police headquarters, and even a kinky illegal pleasure house in an attempt to learn the terrible secrets the city is drowning out with Joy.
The good parts of We Happy Few are enough to make me wish that Compulsion Games had scrapped the RNG and survival elements entirely and made a game with just the narrative and deception systems, because shrinking the scope of the game to something intentionally crafted could have made it so much better than the sprawling, repetitive mess it is now. The handful of times that I saw items glitch through the floor, was randomly teleported, had perks I’d selected stop working, and heard the same (out of place) sidequest voice line every time Arthur loaded into a new area of the map made me wish that the game had gotten a little more attention to take care of bugs and glitches, as well.
We Happy Few sits in an odd place, because although I enjoyed the story, I can’t rightfully say that I enjoyed the game. There’s a good tale to be told there, and an interesting world, but it’s hard to enjoy or explore that world when it’s randomly creating itself around you and most interactions with it involve searching through an endless supply of cabinets, dressers, and trash cans. When an important character sympathizes with you and gives you free rein in a cutscene, only to turn around and beat you senseless the moment the scene ends because you’re wearing the wrong boots, the world doesn’t feel like it matches the story it’s telling. For those who are only invested in We Happy Few as a story, the game may still be worth a shot. For me, though, it was an experience more in pushing through the awkward gameplay to get to the story than enjoying the gameplay for its own merits.
Compulsion Games transformed its randomly-generated, survival game into the dystopian narrative everyone asked for, but those randomized elements are still holding We Happy Few back from reaching its full potential. The twisted tale of a society addicted to its own Joy is lost underneath an endless hunt for bobby pins and scraps of cloth.
M – Mature
|We Happy Few is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for PC. Code/hardware was provided by Gearbox Publishing for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.