Don’t Be a Downer | We Happy Few – First Impressions

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I love playing horror games and scaring myself, but if there’s one thing I’m terrified of more than any of the games I’ve played to spook myself it’s surrealism, particularly the happy kind. For this very reason, We Happy Few genuinely seemed like the perfect game for me. With a suitably creepy aesthetic and theme, and the chirpy surrealism that rustles me to my core, We Happy Few quickly earned the spot as my most highly anticipated Kickstarter game, and I backed it almost immediately.

I have been excited for its release ever since I backed it just over a year ago, and after that I tried to put it to the back of my mind so I could go into the game with a fresh pair of eyes and a completely unspoiled mind, ready to be freaked out. I ignored the E3 coverage and waited patiently for its release. I almost decided not to play in Early Access when I discovered that its story hadn’t been released yet, and it was instead a fairly early demo version of the game, but my excitement got the better of me.

Sadly, I was quite disappointed.

Here are my initial thoughts and first impressions of We Happy Few, along with a breakdown of what the game is, what it does well, and where it needs to improve. I’ll also give you a recommendation at the end on whether or not I think you should pick it up and why.

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What is We Happy Few?

We Happy Few is a dystopian action-adventure game with distinct survival elements. Set in an alternate 1960s Britain, the population of Wellington Wells is under the effects of a drug called Joy that not only keeps them happy, but insanely so, distorting their features into caricature with creepily wide grins. You have to find a way to hide in plain sight, practising conformity: if you’re seen to be off your Joy, the locals will “turn your frown upside down, forcefully!”

The game has a lot of stealth elements, with players having to find ways to avoid suspicion or being seen as a “downer” for being off their Joy meds. Players will have to progress throughout procedurally generated levels, completing quests, all while trying to fit in with the overly cheerful crowd.

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Initial Thoughts

The intro of We Happy Few lived up to and exceeded my expectations. I went in almost completely blind, and got exactly what I was hoping for. Without spoiling anything (because I think everyone should have the same experience I did going in), the game starts relatively slowly but as you start to explore your character’s office, you learn that things are not quite what they initially seemed, and you witness a violent encounter that has you questioning whether everyone is as happy and positive as they’ve been making out.

Shortly after this, the situation spirals further south. You walk in on your colleagues beating a pinata, and they encourage you to join in. As soon as you do, it becomes quite clear that something isn’t right, and your colleagues realise you haven’t been taking your Joy. Deciding you’re a “Downer”, they call security on you and the game takes off from there.

It’s an introduction to the story that is both creepy and exciting, and had me really looking forward to what the game could bring, but everything from there onwards felt like it fell a bit flat.

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What We Happy Few Does Well

Aesthetically, We Happy Few is very pretty and lives up to the feeling of things being ever-so-slightly…wrong. It’s not a horror game, but it manages to give off the same feelings of creepiness I got from A Clockwork Orange (hated that movie, by the way, just for the record) and Bioshock which makes it the perfect setting for a retrofuturistic dystopia. There is a great balance between bright colours and darkness, with the cheerfulness of the graphical style being a perfect complement to the delusionally happy denizens of Wellington Wells.

This alone is enough to make me want to keep playing it, because Compulsion Games has done a wonderful job of setting up an environment that suits the chilling-but-not-scary-as-such feel they’ve been going for.

The survival elements were something I didn’t expect to enjoy, but they’ve been implemented quite effectively. You have to keep yourself fed and watered, as well as sleeping regularly, in order to keep yourself going. You can starve to death or die of thirst, and not getting enough sleep will result in your character being tired and having reduced stamina. While I don’t feel these elements were necessary, they were motivating without being intrusive, which I can appreciate.

There’s a certain amount of open-endedness to the game, and the horrified expression on my face when I smothered one of the locals in her bed because she stirred while I was looting her house was very real. My character’s response was equally appalled, and I thought that was a very nice touch. You can certainly feel your character, Arthur Hastings, starting to wake up to reality and question everything around him while you take actions in the game world.

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What We Happy Few Doesn’t Do As Well

Sadly, almost everything gameplay felt awkward and not enjoyable. There is practically no direction when you exit your safehouse for the first time, meaning most players seem to run around aimlessly and confused for a while, potentially getting into fights with people by accidentally stealing something (I stole a lady’s rock and she got very upset  with me and tried to claw my eyes out) or even dying if you left Permadeath on (which is on by default, or at least was for me.) While some of these situations make for entertainment in a stream or a series of videos (my chat was explaining to newcomers that the reason everyone was angry with me was because I stole a lady’s rock once, they think), it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s not funny because it’s meant to be, it’s funny because it seems random and lacking in purpose. All the humour seems to come from the player’s side, rather than from the game itself. The mechanics were actually quite frustrating; the humour came from how little guidance was given.

Quests feel like they’re lacking depth, and they seem to have no purpose other than to give you random items that might be useful and might not. Some quests are not correctly tracked on the map, and sometimes they seem to bug out. For example, I had to give a poor chap a pill to cure him of food poisoning, but when I returned with the pill he refused to take it, so I had to knock him out and remove him from the place he was standing to get a good angle on him to give him the pill and complete the quest. Some of the quests, including those that seem to be the “main” quests, feel overly convoluted. There are some quests that you need to complete another quest, which requires you to complete a completely different quest, which ties into another quest…maybe I’m just not the right kind of person for this kind of shaggy-dog quest chaining, but it just felt tedious.

The lack of a story is the thing that hit me hardest. I realised that there was no story going in, but it feels like the gameplay is too lacking to show off what potential We Happy Few has. At best, it feels like an empty-ish sandbox with a few quests added in to keep players busy. On top of that, the NPCs all seem to repeat the same gibberish lines over and over. Maybe this is intentional, but it really breaks immersion when you’re walking around and hear several different women complain that their friend is coming over for tea and they mustn’t be late. When you speak to NPCs, you also spout the same recycled lines over and over, which feels forced and awkward.

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Should You Play It?

The big question I got asked repeatedly while streaming it is, “Should I buy We Happy Few?” My honest answer to almost everyone who asks that is: probably not. At least, not yet.

The concept of the game is wonderful, and I honestly think that when the storyline is implemented and the bugs are ironed out it’ll live up to what it promised. I don’t think it’s a bad game, but I think this was far too early for it to be released. I’m actually asking myself why on earth they would release now, as what they’ve shown is not a good representation of the game in my opinion. First impressions are important, and I worry that they’ve given a really bad one to a lot of players.

Atmospherically, as I said, it delivers. Sadly that seems to be all that it’s managed to deliver. The intro is exactly what I hope the rest of the game will become when they release, but sadly Compulsion Games has said We Happy Few will remain in Early Access for 6 – 12 months. That’s not long compared to other Early Access games — see DayZ, the perfect example of a Career Early Access Game, that has been in Early Access for three years (I’m not salty at all…) — but it’s still enough time for players to try it and decide that it’s not worth it, especially not the $30 pricetag.

Did you give We Happy Few a try? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

  • The stepford wives vibe was real, but the AI seemed to be a tad over the top at times.

    • Completely agree. That coupled with the lack of any real story at the moment makes it feel a bit…annoying I guess!