We live in a time where we are spoiled by fantastic games being released so frequently. Earlier this year we were treated to God of War, recently Octopath Traveler (a personal favorite of mine this year) found a comfortable home on the Switch, and we go into the holiday season with two goliaths: Spider-Man and Red Dead Redemption II. Sprinkled through these highly-revered games are a ton of enjoyable experiences that, while they won’t make many people’s Game of the Year list, are worth at least some of your attention. One of these games that I keep finding myself playing between sessions of higher-profile titles is We Happy Few. This drug-induced, narrative focused survival/crafting game isn’t hot enough to light the world on fire, but it might be warm enough to boil yourself a nice pot of tea.
Story over ‘Progression:’
Many survival games use their crafting to drive progression in the game. Gather wood to create basic equipment, use that equipment to collect materials for better weapons/armor/etc., and so on until you craft the best equipment the game has to offer. This is done a lot of times without much influence from the story, especially in regards to survival games that started in Steam’s Early Access program. Ark: Survival Evolved is a great example of this. While I’ve probably played 50+ hours of this game, I’ve never known a scrap of information about our character’s origins or if there is a larger conflict going on in the game’s world. This can work if you want pure escapism without a deep understanding of the world, but if you’re looking for anything lore-building you’ll be out of luck. We Happy Few instead encourages the player to keep moving forward through narrative and not the now-normalized crafting progression alternative. While this causes the game’s crafting to fall short it gives more of a focused purpose to your playtime. Yet it still requires you to manage your intake of food, water, and sleep – scratching that survival game itch.
We Happy Few tells the story of a few characters, mostly focusing on Arthur Hastings, in the post wartime English town of Wellington Wells. Arthur is trying to flee a society drugged numb with the mind-altering substance known as Joy. “Happy Is the Society With No Past” and “Happiness Is a Choice” are phrases you will hear or see a lot throughout the game, and they perfectly encompass the effects that Joy has on its user. Joy causes the person taking it to exist in a happiness-only state of mind while simultaneously causing them to lose unpleasant memories; a side-effect you likely won’t find printed on the side of the bottle. In this you will find We Happy Few’s unique survival mechanic: managing your consumption of Joy. Taking the drug will allow you to walk through towns without trouble and interact with its citizens. These towns even have Joy dispensers to encourage its citizens to keep themselves in a state of bliss, mindless to the many problems that exist. When you take to much Joy you will suffer from memory loss (in which Arthur loses memories of his brother Percy, something you collect throughout the game) and the effects of overdose. If your Joy meter runs out you had better have a place to hide. Suffering from Joy withdraws brings a lot of attention to your character, making any nearby NPC hostile towards them. It kind of makes you wonder what’s in this stuff, right?
Balancing your intake and learning to live with the withdrawals of Joys makes for a very engaging survival mechanic. When you hear the deep noise signaling that your Joy meter is nearly out, it causes an immersive moment where the player must quickly decide if they are going to take another Joy pill to blend it (and suffer increasing their chance of memory loss) or if they will find a trash can or dark corner to hide in until the withdrawal effects wear off. It’s a fantastic, simulated little epinephrine rush where your brain goes into its ‘fight or flight’ protocol.
Its Visual Style is Unlike Any Other Game Before It:
Games set in the events following World War II are fairly common. Usually these have a decrepit depiction of the locations affected by the war’s events. We Happy Few puts a spin on it that I can’t say any other game before it has pulled off – and We Happy Few nails it. Not only do you have the grim, ransacked looking world, it can also be bright and cheerful, and these two instances happen in the exact same places. When you are diligent about taking your Joy (just as Uncle Jack says you should), you will be treated to a world so colorful and beautiful that you’d think Wellington Wells was the hub of all happiness in the world. Yet, if you are suffering from Joy withdrawals the world takes on the persona of a Tim Burton movie. The sky is a greenish-greyish hue, the houses all look worn down and abandoned, and your disgust with the world and that awful pill you’ve been taking is apparent enough to put everyone nearby in a frenzy that you’re the target of. It is only when you are not taking Joy and not suffering from the withdrawals of it (which is how I chose to spend most of my game time) that you will see the world for what it truly is. It isn’t over-the-top, but colors pop better than you would expect of a world that is going through the ordeals that Wellington Wells is.
The real start of this show is how it looks when you’ve been taking your Joy. It’s visually reminiscent of London’s 60’s hippie scene, bearing memory of Austin Power’s London pad in the series’ second movie. As soon as you take a pill of Joy, butterflies fly in front of you, immediately rewarding this addictive behavior. Buildings in the city are painted with brighter colors than when not on the medication. The roads are painted to represent a literal rainbow. While we’ve seen the beforementioned dark depiction of this setting, this colorful side of We Happy Few is completely unique and absolutely worth experiencing. Even if the crafting has you shaking your head at the game.
It Pulls Off Stealth and Combat Well Enough:
Stealth and combat are two things that seem to go hand-in-hand when talking about video games. Some games have merciless combat for the sake of forcing the player to engage in stealth. Other games have poorly developed stealth because so much time and attention went into creating their combat. It seems like games created by newer, up and coming studios with both stealth and combat will fall somewhere on this scale. If we were to throw We Happy Few on this scale, I’d say it lands close to the middle but still favoring stealth. It’s neither lacking nor exceeding in either of these areas. Stealth tends to be the best option when moving about in a restricted area (or suffering from Joy withdrawals) since enemies can quickly and easily call for reinforcements. Fighting a few enemies is manageable, though challenging at times. If you have to fight a dozen or so enemies, you’re better off running away and trying again. We have our standard stealth options, and they work well enough for the most part. You can hide in specific, yellow flower bearing bushes, but very few others. Trash cans are an option as well if you’re desperate. You can even sit on a bench and blend into the background by reading a newspaper. These don’t really add enough uniqueness to We Happy Few to earn it any sort of praise, but hey, they work well enough.
Combat can be surprisingly enjoyable in the game. Similar to stealth, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it has all of the building blocks that are important for fair and balanced combat. The light and heavy attacks are the tried-and-true method of striking in a lot of similar first-person perspective games, but the addition of pushing enemies away and having objects to throw at them spices it up a bit in We Happy Few. Although it’s not particularly deep, it is done to a good enough extent that I found tense situations of combat to really suck me in, instead of become occurrences where I laughed more than I focused. For this reason, combat never feels like it’s a thorn in the side. It’s a core mechanic of the game and it serves that purpose well enough.
Is We Happy Few Worth Your Time?:
Well, that depends on you of course. It is visually striking in a way that a lot of other games on a similar budget cannot pull off. The storyline has a lot of quirky segments and the set pieces are very enjoyable. There is a huge conversation that could be had just deconstructing and analyzing some of these moments, when you are deemed to not be a Downer for example, but it’s best not to spoil them for the sake of making this point. While some of the game’s mechanics don’t pack the punch that its world does, they don’t feel cumbersome by any stretch of the word. If you can pick up the game knowing it has flaws, just as any other game does, for the sake of experiencing one of this generation’s most uniquely depicted worlds, I would highly encourage you to take a dose of We Happy Few.