When games are funded predominantly through Kickstarter, they tend to be on an indie-game scale, both in terms of production quality and cost. The likes of FTL: Faster Than Light, Darkest Dungeon and Shovel Knight all made waves in the indie-sphere by delivering innovative titles from the funding website, but all are distinctly indie games. We Happy Few, on the other hand, is the size and price of a fully-formed triple-A game – for better or worse.
We Happy Few tells the tale of the dystopian town of Wellington Wells in post-war England as it struggles to grasp with atrocities it committed in World War II, told mainly through the perspectives of a trio of characters who must understand their place in the town. Laced with retro-futurist motifs and delicately-realised characters and locations, the world of the game is one of the most finely crafted in all of gaming – unfortunately, the gameplay never steps up to match this strength.
The story of the game is broken up into three acts. Each one takes a different character through the various districts of Wellington Wells, exploring their deviances from the complacent population and the reasons they refuse to conform. When dealing with dystopias, it can be very easy to fall into clichés and preachy moralising – however, each of the happy few has a dubious and scarred past, but an earnest reason for confronting it. There are no ‘chosen ones’, and the authorities are shown to be just as flawed as the characters.
Having each of the characters’ stories take place one after the other means the game is long, and it seems all of the important story beats and twists are sufficiently covered in just the first act. The protagonist of this act, Arthur, works his way from the suburbs of the town to its epicentre, visiting various locations that cast a light on the world and the events that caused it to diverge from reality. While specific plot elements from this act are expanded upon by the other characters, they only ever seem to supplement the larger narrative of this first act.
Despite this halting narrative, the various twists and turns, and the way the main characters interact, is a compelling exploration of grief and attempts to cope with trauma. For the most part, however, the story is largely an excuse to explore Wellington Wells – not that an excuse was needed to visit the supremely well-imagined and fully-realised world.
The game quickly introduces its dystopian elements – Joy is a drug that makes the populace placid and happy, Bobbies are the police force that struggle with the fact that a happiness drug makes their jobs redundant, and the Downers and Wastrels are swathes of the populace who can’t or won’t take their Joy. The game doesn’t use these features as set-dressing, however, and large parts of the story explore how and why Wellington Wells adopted its strange and repressive limitations. It’s to the game’s credit that these dystopian elements are all also game mechanics, and you can play the game differently depending on how closely you conform to the societal expectations.
The world wears its quirkily English charm on its sleeve – NPCs hail each other on the streets, the particular architecture and town layout is reminiscent of real English locations, and the story and world tap into real post-war anxieties while funding novel and darkly humorous ways to realise them in the game. Finding hidden journal entries and notes becomes and enjoyable exercise, which it so rarely is in games, because delving in to and unravelling the world and history of Wellington Wells is a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience. As a walking tour simulator through a fantastically crafted world, We Happy Few is an incredible experience.
The game stumbles pretty heavily in other regards – namely the actual gameplay itself. Having a great world is an achievement, but when exploring the world the technical limitations of the game become horribly apparent.
The gameplay is split between stealth and combat, with the former taking the lion’s share of the attention. When walking around Wellington Wells you’ll be spotted if you obviously haven’t taken your Joy (and if you have, there’s a whole plethora of side effects to worry about). This means you must act a certain way to fit in – wearing the right clothes, acting the right way and interacting with the population makes walking down the street a challenge. This novel interpretation of stealth is hugely enjoyable – it never seems much like a chore, but it makes logistics an important part of the game.
In the level locations themselves, this gameplay novelty is quickly dropped. When infiltrating facilities or stealing items from factories, the game seems to parrot the Deus Ex games in the way you can choose to fight your way through enemies, sneak past them, or use stealth to wipe them all out. The branching skill trees, the crafting systems, the various items to use, all seem to imitate a plethora of better games too. There are many other issues with the gameplay: stealth is simplistic, looting items rapidly becomes unnecessary given the sheer mass of junk items you accumulate, and combat, once you understand how it works, becomes a little too easy. Between its clear attempts to replicate other games' mechanics, and its failure to balance the mechanics it does use, the gameplay never feels as compelling or interesting as the world it is set in.
It can be hard to play the game for too long without stumbling across a major bug. The Steam Discussion board is a slew of bug list and problems, and this reviewer frequently ran across the problem of room interiors not rendering – objects like doors, furniture, walls and interactable objects wouldn’t appear, and the only fix was to pause the game for around five minutes to give the game time to render. At best this left the feeling of missing out on world-building and interesting settings, and at worst this meant being unable to progress quests until individuals or objects had spawned in.
Not all the production quality is this low. The game looks fantastic, with a distinctly ominous art style and visual feel. The music is wonderfully immersive, particularly in the few instances it is played non-diegetic. The main voice actors do a fine job inhabiting and projecting their characters, although the sections with young children have notably poor scripts and poorer voice actors. For the most part, the production quality is commendable.
The narrative and mechanical aspects of We Happy Few are polar opposites. The former is a fantastic depiction of a troubled world and its troubled inhabitants, and explores themes and ideas that put the majority of other games to shame. The latter, however, is an uninspired and simple time sink that only distracts from the wonderful narrative of the game. It’s likely that many players will be deterred by the gameplay, and as such won’t get to experience the story for all its glory.
This is Compulsion Games’ second game, and it’s clearly an ambitious project compared to their previous Contrast. However the scale of the game that Compulsion envisioned is also its downfall - larger games always have technical flaws (we're looking at you, Bethesda) and games on a Kickstarter budget rarely reach their potential. Perhaps they should have tried to make a smaller game, and kept some of their ideas for sequels, so they could make the game as great as possible.