We Happy Few review: A decadent dystopia

Lie back and think of England.

7

If you think you know everything there is to know about dystopian fiction, think again. Then head to the nearest console or PC and boot up Compulsion Games' We Happy Few. In a genre that's felt stagnant for years, with copycats springing up here and there to take on the role of the "next best thing" while simply borrowing from the greats, this trippy, disturbing take offers a wealth of new and exciting mechanics, down to the way characters look, speak, and behave.

If you're looking for an unusual adventure rife with disturbing sequences, an intriguing alternate history, and inventive concept, you'll want to clear some space on your gaming plate to tackle We Happy Few, which is one of the year's most interesting journeys thus far.

Ignorance is Bliss...

In the future, everyone's strung out on Joy. Yes, everyone. And no, we're not talking emotions here. Joy is a drug that everyone pops like candy, and it makes things rosy, beautiful, and oh-so perfect. Who needs to know about anything going on in the real world when everything can be amazing at all times? That's what Joy offers the people of Wellington Wells.

The only problem? No one's actually happy. Everything, as far as you know, is a disgusting mess. The citizens of Wellington Wells don eerie masks that give them the artificial appearance of smiling, but end up looking like spooky caricatures of actual joyous humans. It's unsettling, to be sure. Luckily, the excellent voice acting and peppy music give the game a realistic lilt that make these weirdos even creepier, especially their stereotypical accents. It's chilling stuff, especially with how cool everyone is about basically surrendering your mind over to drugs. 

Wellington Wells is a fictional island somewhere near England in a bizarre, warped version of the '60s we know today. It's what all the folks on Joy call home, and everyone is just fine and dandy all the time there, thank you. Oh, except for those awful folks called "Downers." Downers are "off their Joy," or just about the worst crime you could commit in this weird new world. They've decided, for one reason or another, to stop taking the meds, and as a result have stopped seeing the world as a paradise rife with pink unicorns and rainbows and everything positive. So, obviously, they must be stopped at all costs. It's mandatory to take it, after all, and if you don't? You can kiss your happy little life in Wellington Wells goodbye.

So what of the Downers? What of those who decide they want to live their lives and see things as they are instead of through the lens of pharmaceutical poison? They're simply driven out of town to live in the countryside, which is basically like the We Happy Few version of Fallout's Wasteland. How fitting it is, then, that its inhabitants are known as the Wastrels. They simply can't take Joy anymore since they ran into a "bad batch," but they're no better off than the citizens consumed by it. So what are you to do? You make do, and live the best you can.

...Until They Take Your Bliss Away

That's what the playable characters in the game end up doing, for better or worse, after being forced to confront the grisly nature of the world they've been avoiding with Joy for so long.

There are shifting narratives We Happy Few, with the first thrusts you into the role of a newspaper sensor named Arthur. He holds the intriguing role of a Redactor at the Department of Printing, Recycling, and Archives. It's Orwellian storytelling at its finest, and just as the Ministry of Truth of 1984 did or, to a lesser degree, the authors of some of the bizarre "fake news" we see floating around social media do today, he "edits" the truth. You spend a while at the beginning of the game examining historical documents and deciding which need to be censored and which don't.

Anything that doesn't follow the bright, sunshiny rules of Wellington Wells has to go, and you quickly learn that the city has a dark and somewhat convoluted past. It's a powerful start to the game, and allows you to truly grasp just how fragmented and awful the world has become, especially when you can consciously make the decision to take your Joy or skip out on it entirely – and when your office mates learn the truth, Arthur is ran out of town to begin with after some truly disturbing events occur involving a "piñata," or what turns out to be a rat, beaten to death by manic Joy users who thought it was full of candy.

Each character has a different and intriguing story that unravels before you, whether you're trying to avoid the public finding out about a devastating secret that could mean your end as Sally, or working to disseminate important information with the rest of Wellington Wells as Ollie, you're fully invested in every single thing that happens. Arthur's tale revolve around finding a long-lost brother he meant to always protect, but he's got to figure out how to keep moving forward after being exiled, first.

The narrative at the heart of We Happy Few plays out at a brisk pace, and it's the number one reason you'll remain so engaged while playing. And rather than string bits of the story along with audio files like so many other games before it, We Happy Few prefers to let you come to your own conclusions, leaving the path open for you to poke around and discover important facts about Wellington Wells, Joy, and the history surrounding the town on your own.

Your Dangerous Side Effect

But how does the game play, if it manages to incorporate all of these story elements into one tidy little package? It's a fascinating mixture of survival games and first-person adventures, with tinges of roguelike thrown in for good measure. No matter which character you're playing as, you have a selection of heavy combat, crafting, and stealth segments to contend with throughout levels that are partially procedurally generated.

There's a selection of various quests to take on, and you'll have to complete those if you want to see the rest of the story play out in front of you. There's a good variety of exploration, linearity, and survival here that you can swap between, coupled with elements that require you to be on your toes. Most of the time, you'll work to avoid those looking to take Downers in, Wastrels, or others who simply aren't playing with a full deck as you continue to unravel the secrets behind Wellington Wells.

It helps that each character has their own specialty, too, with Ollie acting as a stronger character with more muscle behind him. Sally can mix things up to help you get past certain situations (she's a chemist), and Arthur, well, he's inconspicuous. An early mission has you tearing up your suit so you have the appearance of a Wastrel, and once you've done that to fit in, you can walk around, no questions asked.

Crafting is an important part of the game that'll require you to piece together items that you'll need to proceed, but you also need to worry about finding food to eat and keeping yourself hydrated. These are important factors that can cripple you quickly, though they won't spell out certain doom, either. Luckily, if you die, you won't stay dead (obviously), and you can be a little lax when it comes to the same survival elements that might kill you a lot quicker in other games.

Unfortunately, there is a bit more stealth than all other elements, at least in my experience. Many segments require you to pretend you've been popping Joy all along and dress up in the right outfit to fool others, and this is as predictable as the game gets but it's disappointing since the premise is such a strong and promising one. There are almost assuredly other mechanics that could have been used in lieu of this, but it's understandable that stealth is such an important part of the game at the same time.

Overall, though, the game deftly balances exploration, crafting, combat, and puzzle-solving as you move through the game in the direction of the next story-based waypoint. It moves at an appropriate pace, and there's always something new around the corner, with plenty to discover as the world feels as though it's slowly unraveling around you. That's what happens when you quit Joy, after all.

Mind Eraser, No Chaser

We Happy Few is like a mix of some of the best games over the years to successfully marry combat, crafting, puzzle-solving, and narrative into one beautiful amalgam of curiosity. It has its more frustrating moments and predictable elements, but overall it's a polished and exciting prospect that isn't afraid to try new things. It isn't afraid to offer colorful accents out in the field instead of relegating players to the same browns and rusts.

Most of all, it's trying something new that we really haven't had much experience with, and to fantastic effect. If you're as terrified of a dystopian society as I am but also endlessly fascinated by it, then We Happy Few is for you. Just be sure not to forget your Joy! We wouldn't want you labeled as a Downer, now would we?


This review is based on a digital code provided by the publisher. We Happy Few will be available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on August 10. The game is rated M. 

Senior Editor

Fueled by horror, rainbow-sugar-pixel-rushes, and video games, Brittany is a Senior Editor at Shacknews who thrives on surrealism and ultraviolence. Follow her on Twitter @MolotovCupcake and check out her portfolio for more. Like a fabulous shooter once said, get psyched!

Review for
We Happy Few
8
Pros
  • Engaging narrative with tons for players to discover.
  • Trippy setting with colorful dialogue and characters.
  • Deep crafting and entertaining combat.
  • Chilling dystopian premise.
Cons
  • More emphasis on stealth sections than others.
  • Some predictable elements.
From The Chatty
  • reply
    August 9, 2018 5:00 AM

    Brittany Vincent posted a new article, We Happy Few review: A decadent dystopia

    • reply
      August 9, 2018 5:27 AM

      hmmmm, I was sold on this until the mention of how much stealth there is in the game (which typically I cannot stand)

      boooo :(

      Thanks for reviewing this!

      • reply
        August 9, 2018 7:48 AM

        Yeah this game is a pass for me

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        August 9, 2018 12:00 PM

        boooo, same here. I typically don't even like stealth games when stealth game fans say "this game has great stealth mechanics" ... so I think this one's definitely off the table

      • reply
        August 9, 2018 2:11 PM

        I'm the opposite. I love stealth games now. Hitman is fucking rad.

    • reply
      August 9, 2018 5:41 AM

      Going to have to pick this game sometime.

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      August 9, 2018 5:50 AM

      looks interesting. thanks.

    • reply
      August 9, 2018 7:13 AM

      Reviews are not looking good elsewhere for this game :(

      http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/we-happy-few

    • reply
      August 9, 2018 7:43 AM

      Is this like the 45th time this game has been released?

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        August 9, 2018 7:44 AM

        So it's not just me that feels like this game was released a while ago.

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          August 9, 2018 7:49 AM

          Looks like it went "early access" in 2016, got negative feedback, stopped selling it, and now are re-releasing it with changes.

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            August 9, 2018 7:52 AM

            Not quite. It was in early access from 2016 through early 2018. During this, they had to do a lot of shifting because players thought there was too much focus on survival elements, so they basically were retooling the game to be a more narrative experience. As there's only so much you can do to playtest narrative without giving away the whole story, they stopped selling access in early 2018 to build out the remaining narrative elements for the release now.

            It has been shown off for several years as early as 2015/2016, but they haven't had any restarts otherwise.

    • reply
      August 9, 2018 12:51 PM

      "Newspaper censor," not "sensor."

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        August 9, 2018 11:17 PM

        I don't see where that is in the text, unless someone already fixed it. Don't remember typing that either, but yeah. It's not here. Probably my autocorrecting notepad.