Editor's Note: Hours after publishing this review, a 7.6 GB patch was distributed to media. The changes include rebalancing crafting recipes, fixing crash bugs and repairing broken AI behavior. These were all issues the reviewer experienced during his playthrough, which is reflected in the game's final score. The reviewer reached out to ask about a day one patch during the review process and was told that it could not be confirmed at that time. Due to time constraints, we're unable to devote another 20+ hours to the game and the review will stand as is despite some of it no longer reflecting the final product.
Trailers can be a tricky thing. Good or bad, a strong debut can shoot a game into prominence or damn it with undue expectation. Dead Island's reveal was a haunting ode to a family's last moments that clashed with the game's over the top zombie slaughter. The original Gears of War kicked off a trend of moody song covers by departing completely from its action movie origins. Then there's We Happy Few, which debuted with a glimpse into a fully realized 60s dystopia in the tradition of BioShock. When it dropped onto Early Access as a survival game focused more on scavenging than questing, the general public soundly rejected it. Compulsion Games took that to heart. They moved forward with a risky new vision full of promise, expanding the game's scope and focusing in on what people wanted.
This new vision is a full twenty-five-hour first-person adventure that follows the story of three would-be Downers. Society is overdosing on Joy, the wonder drug that makes you forget everything bad. They say that happiness is a choice as they kill you with kindness. Everyone who chooses differently lives in exile, trying to survive in the wastes of the Garden District. You must pick up whatever cricket bat or pipe is handy and sneak your way through the city, bypassing Joy detectors and taking out guards as you go. Over the course of the story, each character tries to find their own escape from this magnificent world gone wrong.
Wellington Wells is a fully realized place filled with colorful characters and plenty of diversions. Sure, a lot of the townsfolk appear similar, and some of the faces might not look great up close, but the storytelling and atmosphere pick up all the slack. Around every corner, there an engrossing Uncle Jack broadcast or a clever propaganda poster to draw you in. Brilliantly subtle cutscenes bookend each mission and effortlessly push you forward. Every side mission introduces a unique character or concept that builds up the world. You can tell that a lot of effort has gone in here to craft a campaign worthy of expectation.
This makes it all the more a shame that the rest of the game fails to live up to that high standard. Gameplay-wise, We Happy Few recalls the early days of a Bethesda title rather than a trip to Rapture. Jank is everywhere, both of the charming and frustrating variety. On the lighter side, you might see floating lanterns where a building should be. You might see a Bobby's neck stretch as his body crumples to the ground, or a secretary sitting in midair next to her chair. These are all expected with this type of experience, especially when there's procedural generation involved.
Yes, despite transitioning away from roguelike-style survival, We Happy Few still clings onto a lot of the mechanics and systems that made more sense in its original design. Every player still gets a randomized city when they restart, but there's no benefit to that variety. The minute changes in road layouts won't add to replayability and can cause navigation issues in your initial playthrough. The RNG could decide to place all your mission objectives close to a fast travel point or spread them to the four winds. If it's the latter, you'll need to craft more health items to stay alive, eating into your resources. When the slightest misstep can inspire an angry mob to hunt you down, you'll need as many crafting ingredients as you can get.
The random nature of the world can also radically change your experience with the story. At some points, missions require very specific items, like empty syringes or pots of honey. The game is bad at pointing you towards these items naturally, leading to moments where I wandered for hours trying to procure what I needed. Other times, a quest's needs are so specific that you know that the items will fall directly into your lap. While I appreciate the forethought, it's rather unsatisfying to see a puzzle present itself and its solution simultaneously. There were a few brief moments where I felt prepared for what came next, but it always drifted back to one of these two extremes.
Other mechanics fair better. When ignored, the hunger and thirst meters will debuff your character rather than kill them, which is a good compromise. Several characters have additional meters that tie into their personal narratives, and the entire system works wonders at humanizing these protagonists. Little touches like the populace responding to your clothing or your past deeds continue the world building in great ways. You can get through a lot of missions by smacking people around, but these are your former friends and neighbors. We Happy Few doesn't let you forget that.
If you do end up getting violent, the melee combat works well. There's a nice variety to the weapons, ranging from blunt instruments to crafted electrified monstrosities. You can also use an array of thrown instruments, which can be anything from a rock to a basic grenade to an explosive rubber duck on wheels. In fact, the arsenal is almost too varied, especially since you're encouraged to disengage as often as possible to stay alive. Each character has different strengths in combat, but the missions ensure that they don't play a huge part in the end. It's easy to bluff your way through without digging into your current character's unique traits, and that's a shame.
Of course, sometimes We Happy Few forces you to improvise, and not in a good way. I ran into a multitude of progression halting bugs in my playthrough. Quests would seal me into an area without an exit or place navigation markers off the map. Vital NPCs sometimes decide to join in the fight and die, which halts missions in their tracks. I lost count of the number of times I had to revert to an alternate save and redo chunks of content. Thankfully, I was playing on PC, so this was doable. Console players may be out of luck in the short term, and I can't imagine that any early adopters will avoid these problems entirely. The developers did message that they are working on fixes, but it seems like a lot to ask of a small team.
In a way, that sums up the entirety of We Happy Few. This is a game full of ambition, and what it does achieve is admirable. Each player character is flawed in an interesting way, providing a bevy of unique experiences. Every big cutscene hits with an emotional weight, making you want to keep playing for hours at a time.
You'll want to, but you might not be able to, and that's the crux of the issue. The fact that something this good feels trapped underneath a broken mess is a tragedy. If and when the game receives numerous patches, We Happy Few will be well worth your time. Until then, the characters can only put on a false smile, hoping you can forget past transgressions and just enjoy the good bits. I'm afraid we've come to the end of our time, and no magic pill is going to save this one.
We Happy Few has a pristine narrative vision, but it feels layered on top of a wholly different game. Much like the famous visage of the Wellington Wells citizenry, the story is a mask that tries to hide a buggy open world and needless procedural generation.
- Excellent World Building
- Memorable Story
- Uncle Jack
- Open World Jank
- Progression Halting Bugs
- Unfocused Gameplay